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The Pacifica Foundation is in trouble and the problem starts at the top. The listener-sponsored, progressive, anti-war radio network – which operates five stations in as many major markets and has more than 100 affiliates – is experiencing widespread upheaval. Up to this point I’ve kept my concerns about Pacifica interim executive director Summer Reese to myself, but after what I witnessed in D.C. Superior Court last week, I must speak out.
The case in question involved a frivolous lawsuit to stop Pacifica’s D.C. station, WPFW, from moving to a new home. The defendants included WPFW’s general manager and three station board members, including myself. There was one other defendant, Ms. Reese, who used her testimony to jeopardize the very foundation she heads up. Among Ms. Reese’s inaccurate statements was that she’d been forced to sign WPFW’s lease for a new home.
Judge Geoffrey Alprin didn’t buy it. He asked Ms. Reese if anybody put a gun to her head. Turns out they hadn’t. The judge’s further questioning revealed that it wasn’t a gun but a vote of the national board, which governs the foundation, that led her to sign the lease (which she was in favor of).
Supposedly Ms. Reese was in court to protect the interests of Pacifica. But she didn’t. Not only did she testify against the foundation’s interests, she also failed to secure legal representation for herself or her fellow defendants despite repeated requests.
Here’s what’s going on: Ms. Reese wants to fire WPFW general manager John Hughes, but she hasn’t. That’s because she needs to maintain board support if she’s to keep her own job as interim executive director, and the board isn’t comfortable with firing Mr. Hughes since he’s got a contract and hasn’t been written up by his direct supervisor (Ms. Reese). So in an effort to make Mr. Hughes appear weak (and fireable), Ms. Reese has undermined him time and again. Nowhere is that more apparent than in regards to the move.
WPFW’s current home is being demolished and the station must vacate its building by April 30. The clock is ticking. Since it’s Pacifica that signs the lease, not WPFW, Mr. Hughes is dependent upon Ms. Reese for her signature, as well as to provide prospective landlords with requested financial documents, something she’s repeatedly failed to do in a timely manner. What’s more, despite the difficult situation WPFW finds itself in, Ms. Reese has gone weeks without responding to Mr. Hughes’ calls and emails, letting her personality conflict with him interfere with her duties as interim executive director.
Sitting before Judge Alprin, Ms. Reese likely saw a perfect storm gathering. A ruling against WPFW and Pacifica could be blamed on Mr. Hughes, thereby giving Ms. Reese the needed cover to fire him. And she appeared to adjust her testimony accordingly. Fortunately it didn’t work.
Those of us who are apart of Pacifica are often too quick to call for a change in leadership. The network’s near constant churn at the top creates a dizzying merry-go-round of instability. But after what I saw in court, it’s clear change is needed.
Now, I realize that Ms. Reese isn’t likely to resign. Nor is the national board likely to call for her to step down, in no small measure because she’s the chair. Apart from being a clear conflict of interest – she heads up the body that’s supposed to oversee her – this arrangement just isn’t working, as the instability across the network makes clear.
It’s not just WPFW that’s suffered under Ms. Reese’s watch. WBAI in New York is teetering on the edge, having all-but lost its ability to broadcast from atop the Empire State Building and the station is now housed in several temporary and scattered sites throughout the city. At Pacifica’s flagship station, KPFA in Berkeley, Ms. Reese just issued an abrupt notice of her intent to terminate the interim general manager despite the fact that the station’s local board opposes the firing and the national board wasn’t consulted. Also under Ms. Reese’s watch, Pacifica’s corporate status lapsed, putting the foundation in jeopardy and leading to the loss of its name (now officially Pacifica Foundation Radio).
What’s become clear over the past year is that Pacifica is not well served with one individual holding both of the foundation’s top spots. It’s time for a change.
Pete Tucker is a member of WPFW’s Local Station Board