The Daily Planet recently spoke with new Pacifica director Greg Guma. See Page 14 for the interview.
Pacific radio is facing familiar challenges—how to bring in new voices without silencing the old, how to diversify the audience without dumbing down programming and how to keep peace in the often confrontational staff. At the same time Pacifica is facing 21st-century challenges: podcasting, Internet broadcasts, satellite transmission and a steady loss of listeners.
The Pacifica Foundation is the parent company and license holder for KPFA-FM in Berkeley and four other radio stations around the country. It was founded almost 57 years ago in Berkeley by peace activists and has maintained a progressive political posture since that time. It’s also had a rocky history of internal fighting, and in 1999, the national Pacifica board physically threw out local programmers and briefly succeeded in an attempt to take over KPFA. That action was met by an outpouring of community support. Eventually new bylaws aimed at democratizing the station were put in place and a new executive director, Dan Caughlin, former Pacifica network news director, was named.
Caughlin left his post last year and Greg Guma, 56, has been hired to take his place. On the job since Jan. 24, Guma says he’s ready for the challenge. And skeptical yet hopeful local board members and staff say they are set to give the new guy a chance.
“I wish him good luck and a stomach of iron,” quipped KPFA News Co-Director Aileen Alfandary.
Guma co-founded the Vermont Guardian, worked as a daily news reporter, managed bookstores, edited the Vermont Vanguard Press and the progressive international affairs magazine, Towards Freedom.
He is the author of books, documentaries and civil liberties dramas. He is visiting each of the Pacifica stations before coming to the national office in Berkeley around Feb. 24.
After the crisis of 1999-2001 during which the Pacifica national board attempted to take over KPFA, new bylaws were instituted, creating a democratic structure where local boards are elected. They, in turn, elect the national board.
“No matter who takes the job, it’s difficult,” said Sarv Randhawa who sits on both the local and national boards. It is difficult to deal with people with a wide variety of interests and goals in a structure that is “not corporate, not hierarchical.”
Mary Berg, who also sits on both local and national boards and has been in several conference calls with Guma, said she is hopeful.
“I see that he’s a decisive sort of person, organized and into the democratic process. I don’t want someone who is top down,” she said. “It feels like he will be getting input from people.”
The boards, however, are too large to be manageable, said Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a member of the news staff and local board member. The Pacifica Board has 22 members, four representing each local station and two representing the 87 affiliate stations; the local KPFA board has 26 members.
Bylaws would have to be changed to refine the structure. Edwards-Tiekert said he hopes the new executive director will review the bylaws.
On the national level, the board is too expensive. The cost of flying so many people to meetings, feeding them and paying for the conference calls among them is excessive, Edwards-Tiekert said.
Larry Bensky, KPFA general manager during the mid 1970s, produces a Sunday morning public affairs program and anchors much of the network’s special national programming such as the recent hearings on the National Security Agency surveillance of people in the US. Bensky says the “dysfunctionality” of the national board is evidenced by the fact that the new executive director is not even announced on the Pacifica web page.
A glance at the website also reveals that the last minutes posted were from an August 2005 meeting.
Calling the local station board “useless,” Bensky said its members raise no money, do no outreach and spend their meetings engaged in “parliamentary battles, power trips, and wasting time.”
Furthermore, he said, only about 10 percent of the eligible KPFA listeners bothered to vote for the board at all. “I don’t consider the board to be properly elected,” he said.
The question of programming is another key issue Guma will face.
“Pacifica is more like a confederation (of five stations) than a network,” said Max Blanchet, a Local Station Board member. “There is not much national programming. We function as five quasi-autonomous entities.”
The network comes together for an occasional national meeting and all run Democracy Now! which is independently produced. “We are not realizing our full potential,” Blanchet said.
Alfandary also underscored the need for the executive director’s support for “helping the network perform in a collaborative way.”
Larry Bensky expressed concern that Guma has limited experience in radio, underscoring that one of the chief responsibilities of the executive director is to support the programmers.
Guma, who has a degree in radio and television broadcasting, told the Planet, “I am not an expert in radio, but I have considerable experience on the air as a producer,” he said, calling himself a “multi-media communicator.”
Bensky blamed a decline in listeners in part on the lack of program support. Bensky said that according to Arbitron ratings, early in 1995, there were on average 200,000 listeners; last summer there were 165,000 and this fall there were 147,000.
“We will attract the audience if we do programming correctly,” Bensky said. “What the new executive director has to work on is enabling and empowering the people who do the programming.”
Blanchet, Bensky, Alfandary and others underscored the need to take advantage of new technology. Guma has said that is something he wants to do.
“We need someone to expand Pacifica, to take local programming onto the satellite network,” Edwards-Tiekert said, adding that podcasting was also needed.
The new executive director will have a role to play in mitigating tensions on the staff not only at KPFA but at other Pacifica stations, particularly at the New York station, WBAI.
At KPFA, calming the troubled waters will be on the agenda when a new general manager is hired. Roy Campanella II resigned under pressure last month. A search committee for a new general manager will probably be formed at the local board meeting Saturday.
The local board approves top candidates and the executive director plays a critical role in making the final selection, according to Edwards-Tiekert.
“We need an good, smart, politically-committeed and experienced general manager—someone who knows radio,” Alfandary said.
Without a general manager or an interim manager, “it’s not clear who resolves issues,” Edwards-Tiekert said. “It’s not clear where the buck stops.”
Still, even without a general manager, staffers and board members pointed to the recent fund drive where the station made just under its $1 million goal.
“It makes me proud,” Randhawa said. “Our station must be doing something right. I’m amazed at the dedication people have.”
Long time programmer Kriss Welch weighed in with her support for Guma. “The general verdict in my office … that he seems ‘sane,’” Welsh wrote in an e-mail. “Sane is good. I'll take sane. We sure could use sane … By me, I'll wait and see. Give the poor guy a chance. After all, he actually had the nerve (or the ignorance) to apply for what is surely the most thankless job in the network.”