How Pacifica Can Become the Media That We Need
By Alan MinskyEditor’s note: Pacifica is America’s first public radio network. It was founded in 1949, about 22 years before National Public Radio. For years we have heard that the network is in crisis, and indeed a recent LA Weekly cover story went to town on some of its problems. The New York Times, The Village Voice and radio trade publication Current have also weighed in.
Alan Minsky has worked at KPFK, Southern California’s Pacifica radio station and the home of Truthdig Radio, for over a decade. Since July 2009, he has been KPFK’s interim program director. He is the author of a positive vision for Pacifica’s stabilization and growth, and he has agreed to share that document, along with an introduction, with our readers.
We live in a time when there is a near consensus that American Democracy is in crisis, that the political system fails to address the primary concerns of 99 percent of the citizenry and that the mainstream media are central to this problem.
There remains one national broadcast media network that stands apart in this regard, Pacifica Radio, which consistently challenges the American establishment in a manner that befits these crises. Tragically, over the past decade Pacifica has been unable to get its act together, expand what it does best and fulfill its role as a socially transformative institution.
“Building a Powerful Pacifica,” which is linked to below, outlines a clear and concrete strategy for Pacifica to grow rapidly into the most powerful left/progressive media outlet in the country. This is exactly what the overwhelming majority of Pacifica listeners want to see, and what tens of millions of Americans have been waiting for: an honest left/progressive media outlet that affects the national dialogue.
Currently, Pacifica is shrinking. It is hemorrhaging audience and laying off employees. The plans outlined in this document will reverse that trend. As a national media organization, Pacifica’s budget is miniscule. Some of the proposals outlined below cost money, but they are easily covered (and then some) by growing to a $17 million-$20 million annual budget from $13 million. Adopt these ideas, and Pacifica will raise that amount easily while carving off half, or more than half, of its fund drive days. And once Pacifica begins to grow, with production costs dropping in the era of digital media, the sky’s the limit.
“Building a Powerful Pacifica” is a detailed document with many facets, but there are a few proposals that are central. Pacifica must build a world-class website that features the best of its daily national and international coverage. This website would be the network’s primary national platform and would include a 24/7 stream of its best political and cultural programming. This website should be complemented by a renewed commitment to local community radio at the individual stations. Pacifica also needs to establish a network-wide commitment to the highest journalistic standards. Finally, the Pacifica Foundation must refocus the responsibilities of the elected governance boards so that they clearly support, instead of damage, the network.
Americans want a powerful, truly independent national journalism outlet, and Pacifica is perfectly positioned to be just that. It simply needs to do two things: Make its content easily available at the national level, and commit to practicing the highest journalistic standards. The latter is essential for any serious media outlet that asks for the trust of millions of people, and Pacifica currently airs far too much junk science and blindly speculative conspiracy theories.
Yes, Pacifica must be open to ideas and explanations excluded from the mainstream media, but these have to be supported by journalistically and scientifically sound evidence. Programmers putting forth novel positions have to accept debate, and when such challenges occur, a clear mechanism has to be in place to excise the nonsense from sound information. If Pacifica does not take this step, you can forget about it being a significant force for social justice. Rather it will be just another contributor to the grotesque mal-education of the American public.
If Pacifica does commit to serious journalistic standards, the next essential step is designing a top-flight national website (Pacifica.org) that features its best nationally and internationally relevant content. If Pacifica does this well and it gets the word out about such an excellent site, Pacifica.org will quickly become a phenomenon. The premise is simple: Pacifica already produces an excess of tremendous analysis about national, international and cultural issues. However, it is not collected and organized effectively in one place. Think about it. At each of its five stations, Pacifica produces 168 hours of material per week. Every day the network produces the most radical, penetrating analysis of the day’s biggest events and issues. Pacifica’s already No. 1 in that regard. All the network needs to do is build a great website overseen by a super-sharp political editor who is able to organize the material in a complementary way. Very quickly, Pacifica will be on its way to becoming the leading left/progressive media outlet in the country — and begin making a real impact on this society.Just by taking these two steps, Pacifica will be able to receive much more money from grants than it currently does — and then there’s major donor money. If the network establishes rigorous journalistic standards and has the national website in place by mid-November 2014 (i.e., after the election), the Pacifica national office could honestly say to all major progressive donors that Pacifica is the single most significant project in the entire country and merits their support.
Pacifica is also perfectly positioned to produce unrivaled local and community radio. It’s slightly paradoxical, but the development of a premier “go-to” national website will force the stations to distinguish themselves from the national projects by doing the “other thing” that everyone wants from media but no longer finds anywhere: programming with honest roots in local communities that reflects the experiences, struggles and triumphs of real people. By reporting the news and having a presence on the streets, the five stations can reintroduce these great metropolises to journalism that’s on the people’s side, exposing the institutions, people and forces that dominate their lives, giving voice to the people who work for positive change and sharing in the dialogue about culture that illuminates lives. Recommitting, and, yes, reinvesting, in real community radio will perhaps be the biggest winner for Pacifica, as it will certainly fill a void.
Of course, Pacifica must demand that all productions — from local news reports to websites to national shows — have the highest production values. Some Pacifica shows already achieve this, but far too many sound amateurish. This has to end. With an expanded budget, Pacifica must invest new money to achieve world-class quality. Given the wealth of talent in our signal areas, and the expanded production possibilities in the digital era, the measures proposed in this document will make sure this happens.
It all sounds so simple. But doesn’t the network’s ultra-burdensome governance stand in the way? Doesn’t all the recent press coverage point to the governance boards as the root of Pacifica’s problems? Perhaps, but I believe the era of the boards’ dominance is waning. The current arrangement has obviously failed. This document outlines how the managers, staff, supportive programmers and sane board members can overwhelm the dysfunctional board factions by sticking to a positive vision that produces growth, ends the fiscal crisis, and thus defangs local and national boards that seek to impose austerity (effectively drowning Pacifica in the bath ala Grover Norquist).
Of course, it is essential that the boards then be reorganized so that they function in the service of the institution. This is also detailed in the document below.
Right now, there is a tremendous opportunity for Pacifica to take this country by storm, and transform the political, economic and cultural discourse of our society. People are starving for it. We all must be responsible stewards of this amazing asset. Michael Moore is right: The most essential component for reversing course and achieving social justice in our time is for the people to have their own media. We do, and it’s called Pacifica.
You can read Alan Minsky’s entire “Building a Powerful Pacifica” document below.