Public Comment

New: Chasing the Red Herrings

By Tracey Rosenberg
Tuesday July 10, 2012 - 10:56:00 AM

This misguided recall attempt has taught me a lot. In my professional life as a public interest advocate, I often sit in rooms with various elected officials. I visit them after they have been besieged by lobbyists from AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast. It's hard to tell them I can't bribe them, threaten them, bully them, I can only ask them to do what is right, even if it means they may lose their elected seat. I am, way too often, met with a bit of a blank stare. 

Only yesterday, a member of KPFA's staff who shall remain nameless, said to me if I "came out with a public statement opposing any layoffs at KPFA, they would tell their friends and listeners to vote no on the recall". That is at least the 10th time that's happened. Folks, I can't do that. 

I don't want to bore you with the collision between dirty politics and idealism. We've all been there. But I want to remind you what happens when service to keep sustainable a struggling institution becomes a public circus. 

Pressure tactics and bullying campaigns aren't pretty. Suggestions that principles can be overcome to "hold onto board seats" are worse. Making examples out of people who stand up to pressure is behavior I attribute to AT&T, not KPFA. So thanks for all the suggestions that I can make this go away if I just stop pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, but no thanks. 

KPFA just had its worse fund drive in more than five years, $631,000 in 25 long days of fundraising with $40,000 of that pledged to Fresno. All 3 major fund drives put together in this past year, after fulfillment, won't pay for the current salary and benefits overhead of $1.85 million dollars a year. What can the station do? Get a bigger credit card? 

Democracy Now pledges dropped 66% year-to-year from May of 2011. Evening News pledges dropped 31% .Letters and Politics pledges dropped 25%. After all the progress the station made last year recovering from disastrous $550,000+ operating deficits in 2009 and 2010, it's looking pretty bad again. And just like two years ago, heads are going under the sand and attack knives are coming out. 

Stabbing people in the back is a juicy distraction from building a road back to sustainability. It didn't help California much to recall Gray Davis, did it? KPFA needs a sustainable base to operate as a community radio station on a budget that is not going to be 4 million dollars a year again for a long time. It can do some amazing things on 3 million dollars a year. Stations all over the country produce remarkable radio and serve as vital community resources on far less than that. Independent media is remarkably resilient as a force for social change and justice. But KPFA cannot do so if it is constantly ripped to pieces in a battle to maintain a cost structure that is too high and has been for years and years. 

It's understandable how we got here. In the excitement after the '99 campaign to move to an internally democratic structure, donations were high, and horror over the occupation of Iraq helped to underline KPFA's importance. When you got more money, you spend more money, Lots of new staff came on-board. From $1.4 million a year in 2002 to a high of $2.2 million dollars a year, an increase of more than 40%. But in the background, membership was starkly declining and by 2009, it had dropped from a high of more than 26,000 people to barely 22,000, no doubt sped along by the economic collapse of the fall of 2008. Collision course. 

When facing a turning point, you can react two ways; blame and avoidance, or finding the opportunities in new challenges. Unfortunately KPFA, and Pacifica has been largely bogged down in the first. Instead of asking the question of “how can we change the world with less resources”, we've been asking the question "whose fault is it that we have less resources?". Wrong question. 

I understand that Brian Edwards-Tiekert and his supporters may feel a bit on the spot. As KPFA's local board treasurer, he was heavily involved in the preparation of budgets for fiscal years 2009 and 2010 that resulted in massive operating deficits of half a million dollars. They blithely projected listener contributions at hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the actual numbers. I remember the discussion of the budget at the local board in the summer of 2009, when he admitted if these optimistic numbers didn't come through, $400,000 in personnel expense reductions would have to happen. The reductions were made 15 months later and he temporarily became a victim of them. I also understand the unhappiness of his former Morning Show then-producer who accepted a severance buy-out, cashed the severance check, demanded her job back, and then filed a massive lawsuit against KPFA when told that was not going to be possible. 

But you can both understand all that and also understand KPFA and Pacifica can't stay in this place forever or we will default on our responsibility to deliver the voices that are unheard and otherwise unavailable to those that need hope and inspiration and renewal. Our role is to facilitate the communication by, for, between and on behalf of the communities most in struggle and resistance and oppression - which essentially is all of us - as the Occupy movement has so eloquently pointed out. 

I don't want to fight. But I also don't want to let a crucial media institution get so bogged down in blame and accusations and charges and counter-charges that it fails to reinvent itself amidst profound economic crisis -- just to avoid that fight. 

So let's see the recall attempt as what it is. A big old red herring.