KPFA listeners remember 1999 as the year of the Lockout and the massive response. 10,000 people marched through the streets of Berkeley chanting “Save KPFA!” “Save Pacifica!” That dramatic moment was followed by a decade of board meetings, mostly held inside the dark chambers of the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. And yet, basic issues are still not settled, their resolution still up for grabs.
I missed the French revolution, but I wonder if the lengthy parliamentary struggles which ensued were anything like this? The Bastille was stormed in a day, but what followed were meetings, meetings and more meetings. A huge amount of parliamentary stuff. That’s probably what all revolutions are like, including the one at KPFA/Pacifica.
The upheaval of ‘99 began, as many revolutions have, with a split within the power elite. A headstrong monarch quarrels with her courtiers, throws them out of the palace, locks the gate, and calls in mercenary troops--rent-a-cops. The disenfranchised nobility, acting out of sheer desperation, ally themselves with dissidents, appeal to the rabble, and call for mass insurrection, which, to the astonishment of everyone, succeeds. The intolerable monarch goes into exile, leaving the kingdom to the rebels--a motley assemblage of commoners, nobility and bureaucrats from the old regime--all of whom profess enduring loyalty to the revolution.
At first there is wild jubilation, dancing in the streets, and a huge amount of good feeling. All the worthy people are sisters and brothers, in a splendid state of living happily ever after, and the lords and ladies graciously tolerate the situation, putting a good face on it. The trouble is that this very ungracious mob expects to have a say in the running of the new regime. So the lords and ladies are now faced with the problem of getting this horde of loud, smelly, cantankerous, meddlesome peasants to leave the castle, go back to tilling the lands, and give up any idea of involving themselves in governance.
The revolution at KPFA/Pacifica has been no exception to this pattern. There were negotiations and compromises; nevertheless, the outcome was a radically new system, instituted in a set of bylaws establishing a listener democracy. Listener members became voters, choosing their representatives to oversee the network. In radio governance, this is a revolutionary concept, though in the eyes of the bluebloods it is absolutely revolting.
One can sympathize with the plight and outrage of the once proud aristocrats who wound up sitting on boards shoulder to shoulder with unwashed peasants who even had the audacity to bring their supporters to meetings. In an open letter of 2004, a rising KPFA princess derisively referred to this audience of listeners as “the grey-haired 40 people who come to every LSB meeting with such regularity that you could save seats in advance for them all.” Ranting on about the supposed unworkablity of listener democracy, she declared, “I do think the bylaws are a disaster.”
This particular princess, Sasha Lilley, who happened also to be a progressive, hosted a popular KPFA radio show, often interviewing interesting guests, analyzing how the exploiters exploit the exploited and keep them down. She loves the people and hates their oppressors, but she clearly doesn’t want the people in her castle.
Another advocate for the downtrodden is Attorney Sherry Gendelman, who’d spoken eloquently for the insurrectionists. But she hadn’t really meant to empower them. It appears that she hadn’t wanted an elected board, though she didn’t say so openly. “I was in favor of the election, but not for every seat on the board,” Lady Gendelman told the Daily Californian. “I was afraid that the election would not produce people who were what was needed. If that was so, we needed some members to be selected in the same fashion that old board members were. My suggestion was turned down, though.”
Such statements, though rarely voiced openly, expressed the resistance to listener democracy from the beginning. KPFA and other Pacifica stations remained in the hands of cliques of insiders who joined together in an unholy alliance, dominating the national office. The decade after ‘99 saw a slow return to a regime with too much power in the hands of too few people--a self serving power elite, rigorously defending the status quo to the detriment of the network.
Nor has this elite ruled wisely. Key management jobs go to cronies. Financial problems, like the non-payment of rent at WBAI in New York, are overlooked or even hidden until they become economic crises. Magical thinking, just as in the days of Merlin, seems to dominate.
But disenchantment among the commoners with the gross mismanagement of the network has finally resulted in changes. There is now, as of this year, a new Pacifica National Board (PNB), unique in that it managed to select two competent and courageous people who took decisive action during the crisis at WBAI. That was just this spring.
The new PNB and national office are attempting, with notable success at WBAI, to steer the network towards financial stability--hardly a radical concept. They also replaced several officials, reassigning one to a position allowing maximum use of his considerable skills, but even this is perceived as a threat to the status quo. What really outrages the lords and ladies is a strengthening of the electoral process, requiring the stations to actively and comprehensively promote the election on the air. with sanctions for some of the loopholes and outright disinformation allowed in previous years.
This summer’s Pacifica elections will decide the future of the network. The bluebloods have recruited a slate, the “Concerned Listeners,” to do their bidding. Opposing them are three slates of uncommon commoners and an independent. Listener democracy is what’s at stake in this election, and through it, the survival of Pacifica. It’s up to us peasants to vote in our own interest.
Daniel Borgstrom is a gray-haired KPFA listener.