Pacifica Radio: Let’s talk about the debt

Welcome to KPFA. Station headquarters are located at 1929 Martin Luther King Jr Way in Berkeley. KPFA invented listener-sponsored radio – and listener-governed radio.

by Ann Garrison

In early June, listener subscribers and staff of the Pacifica Radio Network’s five nonprofit metropolitan stations, KPFA-Berkeley, KPFK-Los Angeles, KPFT-Houston, WBAI-New York City, and WPFW-Washington D.C., will receive ballots to vote on yet another new set of bylaws that would largely do away with its democratic governance structure. The first attempt to do this was resoundingly defeated at the end of March one year ago. This time ballots will go out during the first week of June, and most subscribers and staff will choose to vote online. The network also includes 200 smaller affiliate stations, whose staff and listener subscribers will not be included in this election, but who have two representatives on the Pacifica National Board. 

The first attempt to do this was resoundingly defeated at the end of March one year ago. This time ballots will go out during the first week of June, and most subscribers and staff will choose to vote online.

As a longtime Pacifica programmer and listener, I am as adamantly opposed to this new bylaws proposal as I was to the last – first and foremost because it would disenfranchise the two East Coast stations, WPFW-Washington, D.C., and WBAI-New York City, which have the largest Black audiences, and give disproportionate power to my own station, KPFA-Berkeley. Black Agenda Radio, hosted by Glen Ford and Margaret Kimberley, airs on both WBAI and WPFW but not on KPFT-Houston, KPFK-Los Angeles or KPFA-Berkeley, which is not to say I haven’t suggested airing it on KPFA.

My other reasons for opposing these bylaws is that they are fundamentally undemocratic and that they will lop off Pacifica programmers’ anti-imperialist wing. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Pacifica was a radical, antiwar, anti-imperialist network, perhaps most admired when WBAI sent the first American reporter to broadcast from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Today, however, much of Pacifica has – like the rest of what now passes for the left – given way to identity politics, Democratic Party politics, Trump Derangement Syndrome and even national security state narratives. I wrote about the latter in “‘We love the CIA!’ – or how the left lost its mind.”

Note the strong presence of Blacks among the WBAI staff, producers and listeners as they rally on Oct. 17, 2019, to reverse the National Board’s staff firings and return to airwaves under local control. They succeeded. – Photo: Bill Moore, Amsterdam News

The network still has an anti-imperialist wing and I’m on it, but the list of Pacifica staff endorsers makes me think that our days will be numbered if the New Day Pacifica bylaws proposal passes. There are certainly a few outspoken anti-imperialists among the staff endorsers, but the most prominent and far greater number represent the direction the network has taken since its heyday in the 1960s and early ‘70s, before the national security state created NPR to counter its radical narratives. Many Pacifica programmers wouldn’t sound out of place on NPR, and some have moved on to NPR employment.

New Day Pacifica says that the democratic governance structure is too large, cumbersome and factional, but what have they ever done to encourage it? It’s been a long time since there were any on-air debates between candidates for the Local Station Board on KPFA, and just over a year ago, when bylaws similar to New Day Pacifica’s were defeated in a staff and listener subscriber election, KPFA didn’t even report that defeat on the air.

A $3.2 million debt was incurred because a past Pacifica National Board entered into a predatory contract with the Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT) after 9/11.

Many believe that we should amend the current bylaws to make the boards smaller without giving up on the oversight exercised by the Local Station Boards, as the New Day Pacifica bylaws would.

Let’s talk about the debt

I’ll have more to say about all that another day, but first Pacifica staff and subscribers need to have an honest conversation about the $3.2 million debt incurred because a past Pacifica National Board entered into a predatory contract with the Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT) after 9/11, when Empire State was the only building with antenna space that would give WBAI or any other station reach throughout New York City and into New Jersey. That debt has overshadowed all discussions of Pacifica’s future – and these proposed bylaws changes – for the past three years and more. Pacifica finally settled with ESRT by selling some of its Berkeley real estate and then refinancing the balance with a loan from a nonprofit friendly lender, FJC.

Several weeks ago, FJC extended the loan, which was due on April 2, for another 18 months on the condition that a percentage of bequests left to the network be used to pay down the principal somewhat. Nevertheless, the New Day Pacifica website still says, “Pacifica has no money to pay a $3.2 million loan payment due April 2021; we could lose Pacifica’s last three buildings as a result.” This is a scare tactic that should have been edited off their website as soon as the loan was extended in mid-March. It actually should have been edited earlier when the lender indicated that it was willing to extend the loan.

Here, on a late night show he used to host, along with a Wednesday morning hour, JR Valrey interviews Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X, on Dec. 3, 2011.

Pacifica typically receives from $200,000 to $1,000,000 in estate bequests each year, so it could be expected to significantly pay down some of the principal going forward. In 2018 and 2019 it received $2.4 million total, but in 2020 not so much.

Why did the lender extend the loan? Because the current Pacifica National Board, which the New Day bylaws proponents decry and defame, made sure that the network was current on its interest payments since the loan contract was signed in 2018.

Another New Day Pacifica complaint is that Pacifica, with its current bylaws and governance structure, has failed to complete audits and therefore forfeited $7 million in Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds since 2014.

Many of those proposing or endorsing the New Day bylaws sat on the Pacifica National Board while the audits were not completed. In 2014, then Executive Director Summer Reese claimed that the audit would be done if KPFA would surrender its books, which its business manager, Maria Negret, and others with clout at KPFA refused to do. I was present at the Pacifica National Office when the outgoing Executive Director Summer Reese explained this to her replacement, the late Margy Wilkinson, a KPFA listener subscriber.

Whether Summer Reese’s statement was true or not, Pacifica National Boards from 2014 to 2016 failed to get the audits done. For several of those years, Margy Wilkinson was Pacifica’s interim executive director and KPFA prime-time host Brian Edwards-Tiekert was its treasurer. I listened to quite a few national board meetings during that time, and I repeatedly heard Edwards-Tiekert praise Wilkinson to the skies and say that everything was going just swimmingly, even as the audits were not getting done.

On July 31, 1999, 10,000 KPFA listeners filled the streets of Berkeley to prevent another corporate takeover that had locked the staff out of the station. Once they were back inside and after long debate, new bylaws highlighting listener and staff control were passed. Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff was elected to the local station board, where he served for six years. – Photo: Susan Druding

Unlikely as it sounds, I couldn’t help wondering whether they and others at KPFA and at some of the other stations weren’t intentionally pushing the network towards bankruptcy, which most likely would have enabled KPFA to come out on top after assets, perhaps including the Los Angeles and Houston buildings, and/or WBAI’s valuable broadcasting license, were sold off in bankruptcy court. Eventually this group was urgently calling for voluntary bankruptcy and saying that KPFA would soon have to close its doors. 

That was ridiculous because 80 percent of KPFA staff are volunteers and some of them and/or others from the community would have stepped up to fill public affairs hours vacated by paid staff if paid staff had to be laid off. Whether or not that would have been good programming is another discussion, but there was never any real danger that the station would have to close its doors. That was another scare tactic.

A nonprofit, public interest station can hold onto its FCC broadcast license by playing music and/or public affairs archives for months, and I’m sure that KPFA and the other stations could have done more than that, even if they had to lay off some paid staff, and the layoffs at KPFA have not happened despite the dire warnings.

Selling WBAI’s broadcasting license?

I once sat in a KPFA Local Station Board meeting where a member of the board said, “It’s time for WBAI to admit that they’ve failed.” (Because they could not pay the ESRT antenna rent that none of the five stations could have paid.) WBAI’s license is worth tens of millions of dollars.

Most people support Pacifica because it’s community radio, and it no longer will be if the New Day bylaws do away with its democratic governance structure.

Carol Spooner, a proponent of the New Day bylaws, proposed years ago that the network break up, that WBAI’s valuable signal be swapped for one lower on the dial and that the proceeds go into the Pacifica Foundation. A more drastic proposal to sell off WBAI’s broadcasting license has been floated over the years, and I was not the only one thinking that a plan to force bankruptcy and sell it off was the only plausible explanation of the earlier national board’s inaction and the shrill campaign for voluntary bankruptcy that followed. Was it true or not? I can’t be sure because I was never included in their strategy sessions, but no one can behave inexplicably without causing people to wonder why.

However, whether that was the case or not, it’s disingenuous for the same people who held a majority on that board – which they’ve since lost – to now decry the board’s factional paralysis and inability to get anything done or to claim that this national board is responsible for the debt. The ESRT contract was signed by an interim executive director from WPFW, now deceased, with the approval of the 2011 national board. The current national board has in fact made all its loan payments on time and successfully negotiated an 18-month extension of the loan.

After the loan was extended, one might think that the breathing room – and the several possibilities for paying off the debt – would bring the network together. However, that has not been the case. Instead, New Day Pacifica organizers and endorsers continue to cry on their website and in their mailings that the ship is sinking, the loan is due in April 2021 – which is no longer true – and that only they and their new bylaws can save the day. Several prominent on-air personalities at KPFK do the same.

Langston Hughes interviewed on KPFA

Although New Day Pacifica implies that it will somehow save the network from looming debt, it has never put forward a plan to do so. Since this group also supported the brief, failed takeover of WBAI in October 2019, it’s difficult not to imagine that their secret plan is to sell WBAI’s license, or perhaps to turn WBAI and maybe other stations, into repeater stations playing a bland potpourri they call “Pacifica Across America,” as they did after briefly taking over WBAI in 2019. I wrote about that failed takeover in “Solidarity Never? The Battle for WBAI.”

Or do they hope to take the kind of corporate underwriting that is rewarded with thank yous, aka advertising, at the top of the hour on NPR? If neither of those is their plan, or part of it, then what is? It’s magical thinking to imagine that creating a top down, anti-democratic structure with their new bylaws would increase subscriber income and reverse the declining number of paying subscribers.

I have long thought that Pacifica’s best hope is further integration with the Internet, including targeted public affairs content and search engine optimization (SEO) that would create headlines that appear in web subject searches, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that most people support Pacifica because it’s community radio, and it no longer will be if the New Day bylaws do away with its democratic governance structure.

I urge both Pacifica staff and listener subscribers to vote no on the New Day bylaws proposal in June.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann@anngarrison.com