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Tiny Pacifica's Big Troubles

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2000; Page C02

The civil war engulfing Pacifica Radio grows grislier with each passing month, as the last non-mainstream radio network slowly kills itself. In an era of increasing radio consolidation--where several news outlets fall under one owner--the Pacifica clash may presage the looming death of an independent, provocative news voice.

What began as a labor dispute at Pacifica's Berkeley, Calif., station nearly a year ago has degenerated into a tedious, slow self-immolation that has involved firings, resignations, court intrigue, lost listenership and a protest march of more than 10,000 people in Berkeley. As Pacifica journalists tried to cover the growing unrest, their reports were yanked off the air by network execs who said that employees are forbidden to air internal dirty laundry. The reporters cried censorship.

The latest volley was fired on Jan. 31, when more than 40 freelance reporters--who feed Pacifica news from around the world--said they would cease filing. In truth, the boycott will have little impact on Pacifica news broadcasts.

So why should anyone care?

To be sure, Pacifica is a tiny radio network on the fringe of mainstream America. It has five stations--in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and here in Washington (WPFW, at 89.3). There are another 60 or so affiliate stations. The estimated audience is 750,000. By contrast, National Public Radio news and programs are heard by more than 17 million people on 600 stations around the country. An even larger audience gets its news from CBS, CNN and ABC on commercial radio.

Moreover, Pacifica's approach is self-described as "progressive"--that's a code word for "radical." Founded in 1949 by Lewis Hill, a pacifist--hence the name--the network has broadcast everything from Allen Ginsberg's beat poem "Howl," to commentaries from former journalist and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. And much of the time, Pacifica reporters are howling into the wind. Many of them are still waiting for the revolution.

But Pacifica has three obvious benefits. First, the value of its reports is great, simply because they represent another journalistic point of view. Second, NPR is filled with Pacifica alums. And finally, the mainstream media listen. That may be Pacifica's greatest value, much as it probably frustrates some Pacifica reporters to hear that. An example:

For years, Pacifica journalist Amy Goodman has done groundbreaking reporting on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Now that it's a cause celebre in the big newspapers and on the evening network news, Goodman can claim some credit for raising awareness of the human rights violations occurring in that Southeast Asian province. Goodman's reports--and the reports of many of her Pacifica colleagues on various topics--have won numerous journalism awards over the years.

But when Goodman tried to cover the Pacifica internecine war on her show, "Democracy Now!," several stations pulled it off the air. WPFW has a particularly itchy trigger finger. After the station pulled one Pacifica report, WPFW listeners called to complain. They, too, were summarily dumped from the air.

Ironists like to point out that the Pacifica Foundation board--the network's governing body--is chaired by Mary Frances Berry, who also helms the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Protesters insist that their First Amendment right to free speech has been blunted. Not true. Pacifica is not the U.S. government and has no legal obligation to let its employees publicly bite that hand that feeds them.

But although execs might believe it's good business to muzzle the malcontents, it is cowardly radio and Soviet-style journalism. On Jan. 1, Verna Avery Brown--the anchor of Pacifica Network News--resigned, saying she could no longer work for Pacifica, in light of its clampdown.

Some Pacifica protesters believe the network is trying to break from its liberal past to cover more mainstream, centrist topics. That would be anathema to the old guard. And, in fact, a disservice to what Pacifica does well--after all, what would be the point of Pacifica repeating NPR or CNN?

That only hints at the problem. The bottom line is money: Pacifica needs it. Like other public radio stations, Pacifica gets about 15 percent of its small $10 million budget from the federal government's Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The rest comes from listener donations. Worse yet, many of those donors are aging. Unlike NPR, Pacifica's charter forbids it to accept corporate underwriting.

That must change.

The Pacifica board reasons: If our stations produce more mainstream reports, they will sell to more stations and we'll make more money. True, but a bad idea. Also, there has been talk about selling the Berkeley Pacifica station, which could fetch as much as $60 million. Another bad idea. Once you start selling off the farm, acre by acre, soon there's nothing left.

Instead, Pacifica reporters can retain the purity of their agenda and continue to report the same unique stories if the network abandons its out-of-date, no-corporate-money dogma.

In 1949, when Pacifica was founded, socialism was an active political ideology in the United States. The Stalinist horrors were not widely known; Mao's ascent in China was seen by socialists as a promising people's revolution. But everything has changed since then. Socialism and communism are widely discredited. The revolution is over.

Pacifica ought to assemble an equally weighted committee composed of board members, station executives, journalists and community representatives and rewrite its charter to accept corporate underwriting. The opposition to taking corporate money is that the sponsors will affect news coverage. Poppycock. Effective fire walls can be raised between Pacifica's journalists and its funders. Further, Pacifica could insist on strict language in the underwriters' ads that would appear on-air, stricter even than the ones imposed by other public radio outlets. They could forbid underwriters to mention anything more than their names.

Pacifica continues to do valuable journalism--mixed in with some wild-eyed zealotry. But the latter is a small price to pay for the former. It's time for Pacifica to evolve so that it may survive.

Listen to This

Readers of this column often ask about the "adult alternative" format--it's sort of a grown-up WHFS. Locally, if you live east of the District, you can hear it on WRNR (103.1 or www.wrnr.com). But you should also check out KFOG, a legendary San Francisco station. Dropping in last Sunday night, I heard Joe Jackson, U2 and John Cougar Mellencamp. Here's the Web site: www.kfog.com.

Log on to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline/ today at 1 p.m. to talk radio. The Listener feels your pain.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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