I'm writing to submit my resignation as a KPFA Delegate, effective at 11:00 am Pacific on September 10, 2016 (the date and time of the next KPFA LSB meeting). At that time, my resignation as a KPFA delegate will automatically remove me from the PNB, and the National Finance Committee.
I'm leaving KPFA to begin a year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford, and don't feel I can be an effective representative of KPFA's staff while I'm not spending any time at the worksite--so I'm stepping down.
Since I'm going off the air, off the payroll, and off the board, I wanted to leave you with some suggestions about addressing our crisis that are franker than I might have before.
To start, five limiting principles:
1. Assigning blame for our crisis is usually a distraction from fixing it. I've spent almost 10 years in Pacifica governance, and I've never heard a blame-fest produce any solutions. The only conversation the board should be having is "given our circumstances, what do we do now?"
2. Fundraising tactic wish-lists are not going to solve our problems. Good ideas need personnel to implement them. The personnel we have left are already stretched thin, working like mad with the skills they have to raise whatever money they can -- it's not sufficient.
3. Incremental cost cuts are not going to solve our problems. While it's possible to make trims here and there--and they will help--we can't make cuts deep enough to close our deficits without compromising our ability to keep fundraising at current levels.
4. Extending fund drives further is a swift path to an early grave. Many of our stations have already hit a wall of diminishing returns on extended fund drives -- the incessant pitching drives their audience away, so there are fewer and fewer people left to request money from with every passing fund drive.
5. Whatever you think the limitations of our current staff and management are, finding someone brilliant to replace them is unlikely. We pay well below market rate for just about every position in the network; we carry the stigma of being a conflict-ridden, financially-distressed organization; and we subject our managers to acrimonious, often borderline-abusive interactions with members of our local and national boards. Great job applicants are not beating a path to our door--which means leadership purges are unlikely to produce a messiah to deliver us from our problems.
What we need are structure-level changes. That's what our auditors and our insurers are talking about when they ask for a recovery plan. A lot of the things I'll outline below are controversial, not all of them are things I endorse, but I think you need to pick among them, discuss under what conditions some might work, what compromises you're willing to make, and chart some kind of course change--because our present trajectory has us pointed at a cliff, and moving toward it at high speed.
1. Stop the bleeding: Put WBAI into an LMA. This would entail handing control of WBAI (and responsibility for paying its bills) to another nonprofit, while Pacifica maintains ultimate control of the broadcast license. In the past, we've had offers from multiple nonprofits that are compatible with Pacifica's mission.
Something has to give: WBAI has almost nothing left in the way of money, audience, personnel, nor facilities to re-build itself from. The cost of renting WBAI's tower ($660,000/yr and rising 10% every year) and mataining a legally-compliant station in New York is simply more than Pacifica can afford. The LMA option could eliminate roughly $500,000/year in deficit, and hopefully leave WBAI with a much larger audience than it has today.
If we can't negotiate an LMA arrangement that would cover the bills, then the final option would be to approximate the same result internally: strip WBAI down to the FCC-mandated minimum number of staff on-site, simulcast one of the West Coast stations during most of the day, carry their pitches during fund drive, and have all the phone room, data entry, billing and premium fulfillment operations associated with fundraising happen out of that West Coast station. That arrangement would cost less. There's a decent chance it would raise more. If it doesn't raise enough to fix the problem, at least you'll have exhausted every option short of a license sale.
2. Save our History: re-locate the Pacifica Radio Archive to a University. Our collection of reel-to-reel tapes currently takes up an entire floor of KPFK's building, plus two rented storage units, plus the work of five paid employees to maintain and slowly digitize. We've had two universities offer to house those tapes at their expense, while Pacifica retains ownership. This could provide a lot of upsides: Pacifica's stations would be relieved of the dues they pay to the Archive; the National Office wouldn't have to keep floating PRA's payroll when those dues come up short, KPFK would get an entire floor of its building back, which it could rent out to shore up revenues. And, in all honesty, a well-resourced University might take better care of the collection than we've been able to, be better-positioned to pursue preservation grants, and digitize that collection faster than the crawl we've been moving at.
This option could eliminate up to $300,000/year in net costs, and potentially produce tens of thousands of dollars in rental income for KPFK.
3. Fix what we can: focus turn-around efforts on WPFW. Like WBAI, WPFW's deficits approach $500,000/year. Unlike WBAI, WPFW doesn't have insurmountably high overhead.
If we could put out the fires in a couple other parts of the network, then focus our personnel and resources on WPFW, we could probably turn it around. That would entail getting assistance and advice from the National Office and sister stations on best practices on every front, from how the books are being kept, to how fund drives are being run, to how bills and solicitations are being manged.
Again: I don't think this type of detailed troubleshooting is possible unless and until we fix some of the other problems in the network first, and give the stations enough breathing room to put time into helping each other out.
If we can't turn around WPFW under our own power, you should consider requesting LMA/PSOA proposals like we have for WBAI.
4. New revenue channels: the Affiliates Program. The Affiliates Director made a proposal last year to set up an underwriting cooperative for affiliates, which she said would both encourage more stations to join our affiliates program, and result in small direct revenues to Pacifica. The board basically shot it down over the income-splitting formula she proposed (which was problematic, but fixable), and opposition to having anything to do with underwriting (which is a question of political principles that we never fully debated nor resolved). Last year's board left the door open to considering a revised version of the proposal, but management never followed up -- if this is something the PNB doesn't have principled opposition to, it's something you could direct staff to start working on again. This is an actionable proposal for bringing more money in the door -- all it's waiting for is the PNB to decide where it stands.
5. Fast money. We need an infusion of one-time cash to to keep from going under while the long-term solutions listed above go into effect--without it, we will be in court with our creditors (and possibly our unions) within a matter of months, if not weeks.
There is only one real option I can think of: the real estate we own next to KPFA's studios. It comprises one parcel and two buildings in Downtown Berkeley that are rotting away for lack of maintenance. One of them currently houses the National Office's accounting staff (about four people).
This is the only real estate we own that isn't crucial to broadcast operations. If we can't get a mortgage against that property, we should sell it before our inability to make payments on other obligations gets a lien slapped on the buildings.
The National Office Staff could squeeze into KPFA's studios for the time being; KPFA could re-locate the stored items it can't throw out.
It pains me to propose this, because that real estate is something that the people at my station -- KPFA -- worked hard, and gave hard, to purchase and pay off. But it's a valuable, mostly-idle asset that we're neglecting -- and we desperately need a cash infusion to have a chance of getting out of our downward spiral.
I would strongly oppose a sale of the parcel if that sale were the only measure on the table--the infusion of cash would only help us delay facing our structural problems. But if the proposal to sell is attached to a plan for addressing our structural problems--something like what I've outlined above--it makes sense.
Most of the moves above will require considerable time from staff and management to develop into actionable proposals that the board can vote on -- so it's important for the board to signal, now, which directions it wants to move in, so that staff know the time they do put into developing plans won't be wasted.
The ideas above also leave unresolved the bigger questions facing us as a media organization: How do we bring younger generations to our work? How do we move beyond terrestrial FM broadcasting, and spread Pacifica's work on digital platforms, social media, podcasts, etc.? And how do we pay for that?
I don't have easy answers -- it's part of what I'll be exploring during my year at Stanford -- but I do know we can't make progress on those fronts until we've put out the fires. Until we've stopped the bleeding and put some money in the bank, we have nothing we can spend pursuing promising but risky new ideas. And until we've moved our staff and boards beyond perpetual crisis-response mode, we won't be coming up with a lot of brilliant ideas to pursue.
Above all, we have to do something: every day that we don't make major changes, is a day that we go deeper into debt, a day that we lose more room to maneuver, and a day that our audience grows a little bit smaller. Deciding not to do anything is the worst decision we can make.
Of course, deciding not to do anything is mostly what we've been doing. We are an organization that is ruled by inertia. Our boards fight over everything, and decide almost nothing of importance. Our managers have dozens of bosses and no direction. They've learned that initiating change themselves is a great way to get attacked -- so they keep their heads down and try not to get noticed.
Our governance structure contributes heavily to this organizational paralysis, and you have the power to change it. Pursue bylaws amendments that shrink the size of our boards, so they are less prone to factionalization, and so the meetings are less chaotic. Consider longer terms for PNB members, so there's not constant churn, and board members have time to build mutual trust. If those still leave the boards divided and dysfunctional, then revisit whether STV is working. It almost always produces narrowly-divided boards--maybe a winner-take-all election system that gave the organization a clear direction would be preferable to our power-sharing system that produces little more than acrimony and stasis.
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