Saturday, November 10, 2012

To sell or not exist...

Sent from Steve Brown to Max Blanchet in July 2012:

But it is my sad experience (as I suspect it is also yours) that Pacifica can’t take effective steps to promote its welfare and survival. The reason is that no one at Pacifica has the slightest idea of how to take those steps -- aside from the obvious (but debilitating and ultimately self-defeating) recourse of cutting more and more staff positions. Which may certainly be necessary in the short term, but is no recipe for long-term survival, let alone prosperity.
Pacifica’s leaders often promise to consult experts about the best way to run the network. But they seldom do. And when they do, theyusually ignore the advice, because they cannot agree. And they cannot agreebecause it is part of Pacifica’s ingrained cultural predisposition – deeply embedded in its DNA -- to value equally the opinions of the expert and the idiot, in the mistaken assumption that this is somehow “democratic.”
There are other problems at Pacifica, of course, such as egomania (always a much bigger problem on the Left than on the Right), ideological Manichaeanism (if you don’t agree with me, you are not merely wrong but Evil), and identity politics (my voice or my group or my ethnic minority is more deserving of air-time, paid staff positions, and use of station resources than your voice or your group or your ethnic minority). These problems, in turn, give rise to a destructive factionalism at both the local and national levels, resulting in the formation of angry political alliances that quickly identify and then vilify their “enemies.” 
The result is that those who share the same values -- and in a sane world would be uniting to achieve common goals – are often foolishly drawn (or cynically manipulated) into antagonistic personal conflicts that distort priorities, and make the adoption or rejection of policies and programming proposals dependent, not on their merits, but on which person or faction has made the proposals. We are now and have long been in destructive gridlock, where self-serving factional agendas are cloaked in the garb of high moral principle, and good ideas cannot be considered, much less implemented, if they come from a Bad Source – i.e., the “other” group, side, faction, or ideological cohort.
Most station managers – as well as most executive directors of Pacifica – have always been fearful of losing their jobs. They, no less than anyone else, must pay rent, put their children through school, and make sure there is food on the table. So they are constantly looking over their shoulders or putting up a finger to see which way the factional wind is blowing. Too often I have heard executive directors say that they would not do something they knew was in Pacifica’s best interests, because “the board would not support me” – meaning he (or she) feared that a powerful faction on the board would try to fire him if he flouted its wishes or thwarted its agenda.
Pacifica broadcasts to the five largest metropolitan media centers in the country; its stations can reach nearly 200 million radio listeners with, in many cases, the most powerful transmitters in their respective areas. Thus the fact that, after 50 years of continuous operation, Pacifica has only a paltry 73,000 members nationwide, is not only a disgrace but a testimony to how inept Pacifica has been at everything -- except at rejecting the ideas of those who might turn the network into the progressive powerhouse that America needs, and for which Pacifica has every necessary qualification, except political will and unity of purpose.
There is still time (though it is fast running out) toturn Pacifica around. By which I do not mean merely surviving, whereby the network would limp pathetically into thefuture, year after year, with quivering legs and a quavering voice, affecting almost no one and achieving almost nothing.
No, I mean a Pacifica that can prosper and grow and become a force in the world -- instead of a farce. It can do this by testing some of the many  provenproposals it has received in the last 10 years (they are all on file or in the computers of those who proposed them). Some of these proposals would have been able to increase Pacifica membership and revenue by as much as threefold in 16 months. The irony of these proposals (though this is not widely known) is that most of them were actually approved and accepted for implementation by individual stations as well as by the national board. Some of the ideas were even tested, and succeeded, but were suddenly abandoned, either because of factional pressures, lack of managerial will, poor administrative practices, misunderstanding of priorities, or a combination thereof.
And with that abandonment was also abandoned the hope for a stronger Pacifica.
Pacifica is basically a small and uncomplicated organization with a budget of less than $15 million a year. It is so small and so uncomplicated that it could successfully be managed by a few skilled professionals, virtually in their sleep, without compromising the Pacifica mission one bit, as long as they were allowed to put the needs of the foundation and its listeners above the private agendas of the various factions whose destructive competition has been sucking the air from Pacifica’s lungs, and the life from its body.
But I do not think this will happen. I think that Pacifica will continue to hire the wrong people -- who will continue to do the wrongthings -- for what they claim are the right reasons. That is too bad, for as we all know, America needs what Pacifica stands for – or claims it stands for.
For although Pacifica’s financials show that the patient is still breathing, its pulse is fading and its will to live declining. Pacifica’s five station licenses used to be valued at anywhere from $300-$600 million, but that was before the internet, when radio was, if not still king, at least part of the royal media household. Yet although Pacifica’s licenses may have declined in value, they may be still worth as much as $150-$250 million. So if Pacifica is unable to rouse itself from the gridlock of its own creation, perhaps the best contribution that it can make towards fulfilling its founding “mission” would be [now I am going to commit heresy] to sell all five of its licenses while they still have value. After which, Pacifica can then do one (or both) of the following with the $150-$250 million sale proceeds:
1. Pacifica could recreate itself as an internet radio network, using the $150-$250 million sale proceeds from its five radio licenses. It would not only create the most powerful and compelling progressive website in the world, but would also publicize itself and its programs in a way that Pacifica should have – but never did -- publicize itself and its programs for the last 50 years.
After all, the internet is where the progressive world has gone -- not to mention the rest of the world as well. And on the internet, broadcasting entities don’t need FCC licenses – so it makes sense for Pacifica to convert its now-unnecessary, but still valuable, FCC licenses into a $150-$250 million bank account, and use it to spread its wings and really fly.
Just look at the Progressive Radio Network (PRN), created by Gary Null only a few years ago. It has a full program grid filled with many of the most distinctive and influential voices in their fields (all of whomshould have been on Pacifica stations, and would have, if Pacifica had beendoing its job.) PRN went from zero to over a million listeners in just a year and a half. And each month it adds 70-80,000 new and unique names to its listening audience. (That’s right, it grows by as many new listeners in just one month – every month -- as the entire size of the complete Pacifica membership.) And its rate of growth is actually increasing, whereas Pacifica’s audience hasn’t increased at all, and is actually in decline. Moreover, PRN’s internet audience is so enthusiastic, and so loyal, that only a few hours of fundraising a month are all it takes to be self-supporting, whereas some Pacifica stations (WBAI, for example) need to spend over 100 days a year in fundraising mode, yet are still not self-supporting. 
But you might object. You might say: “Pacifica is a radio network.” But you would be wrong. Pacifica was never a “radio” network; it was simply a way to distribute important information to the largest possible audience -- and for nearly 50 years, radio was the best way of doing that. But radio is no longer the best way. The internet is the best way, and it is the way of the future. Pacifica Radio can use its $150-$250 million sale proceeds to transform itself into …Pacifica Radio Online,potentially a bigger, more powerful, and more influential voice for peace and justice than it ever was in all of its 50-year existence. And it can have as many internet channels or stations as it needs, so all of our producers canbring all of their unique programs and listening audiences with them to the new internet entity, with the prospect of gaining many thousands of new listeners as the reach and reputation of WBAI Radio Online spread.
Pacifica cannot lose, but only gain from such a transformation. It would still have offices, studios, and performance spaces – just as it has now. Except that, with its huge new bank account, it can afford to buy its next home or homes, and equip them with the best broadcasting equipment that money can buy. Ultimately, what Pacifica could gain from an internet re-creation, and what its listeners could gain, would far surpass even the wildest dreams and most visionary hopes of Lou Hill.
But, on the other hand, if Pacifica management lacked the will or desire to continue as a broadcast entity …
2. Pacifica could donate its $150-$250 million sales proceeds to organizations that are better equipped to carry the progressive banner forward into the future, both proudly and more successfully than Pacific has currently shown itself able to do. Which means that, if Pacifica finally does pass away, as seems ever more possible, then let it do so with a whoop instead of a whimper. If Pacifica’s voluntary dismantlement and license sale could result in a $150-$250 million shot-in-the-arm donation to the progressive movement, then History would truly be able to say of Pacifica, as Malcolm said of the Thane of Cawdor, that “Nothing became his life like the leaving it.”
Steve Brown
Member of the WBAI Local Station Board
(speaking only for himself)

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