While sports radio fans may be glued to the antennas this week, political radio activists are taking to the streets. The protesters are not right-wing devotees of Rush Limbaugh-Howard Stern-G. Gordon Liddy shock jock triumvirate, mind you--what's to protest there, equal rights for misogynist stripper burglars? Rather, listeners committed to leftist political debate on the award-winning radio show, Democracy Now!, are concerned about the future of activist radio. With Democracy Now!'s future uncertain due to conflicts between the host, Amy Goodman, and the parent broadcaster, Pacifica News Network (PNN), listeners have orchestrated rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and alternative media coverage to attempt to make sense of what seems a major blow to an important media outlet for the left.
Last week, Pacifica Program Director Steven Yasko drew up a list of demands for Goodman to revise her coverage policies for the show. In a letter to the Board leaked to the Institute for Public Accuracy (full text on www.savepacifica.net), Goodman outlined the main conflicts, including labor negotiation issues and accusations of harassment and intimidation, that led up to the blow-up.
For the national political conventions this summer, Democracy Now! produced a special segment in concert with public access cable television, "Breaking with Convention: Power, Protest, and the Presidency," which gained for Pacifica an expanded audience and fundraising opportunities. The coverage struck a nerve with many Democrats on the Board of Directors, however, for its critical view of corporate influence over both parties.
In her memo, Goodman says executive director Bessie Walsh "had our press credential pulled after we brought Ralph Nader into the Republican Convention to be interviewed and do color commentary. Management's action made it much more difficult to cover the Democrats in the same hard-hitting, confrontational way we had reported on the Republicans, especially when it came to our focus on corporate control of the conventions."
Splits at the network have divided reporters and the board of directors into factions of hard-line left and mainstream Democrats. In a way, the struggle is a microcosm of debates on the left about the Democrats' increasing trend toward the center. The Pacifica Board of Directors' decisions to limit political debate critical of the mainstream--coverage that is also laudatory of Nader, whom many Democrats are calling a spoiler-defines news reporters against a central Board that did not exist 20 years ago when stations relied on local leadership.
Democracy Now!'s increasingly strained relationship with the Pacifica network exemplifies the schism that has deteriorated a once-strong, if not always harmonious, voice in left-wing media criticism. Since the 1940s, when pacifists organized the radio station in Berkeley, Pacifica has sponsored and produced exemplars of radical news dialogue, from anti-war protests in the Vietnam era to a full broadcast of the Iran-contra hearings. Democracy Now! would seem to be Pacifica's crown jewel, as it breaks stories each week about political, social, and economic injustice in domestic and international arenas--stories which go largely under-reported in the mainstream press.
Nevertheless, the very practice of promoting a wide spectrum of viewpoints has guaranteed internal conflict among individual stations and the Pacifica network. Increasing centralization of power has heightened that conflict, as the board of directors---now headquartered in Washington, D.C.--has tried to cover up the conflicts that made the stations dynamic with top-down decisions to err on the side of safety instead of controversy. The board's reactionary policies, however, create controversies themselves.
In March 1998, the Berkeley KPFA station fired its general manager, who was very popular in the community, calling her "not a good fit." They then fired 30-year veteran Larry Bernsky, who won the 1986 Polk award for his coverage of the Iran-contra hearings, after he criticized the move on the air. Similarly, the WBAI national news director was fired in January 2000 after he aired a story on PNN strikers. Another award-winning WBAI New York reporter, Verna Avery-Brown, left soon afterward in protest of the board's decisions. In both cases, board members at Pacifica maintained that coverage of an internal issue violated the radio station's policies, effectively squelching discussion that previously defined the stations as a key arena for progressive debate.
In 1998, 1999, and this week, protests galvanized listeners to try to save their community radio stations, but the differences between reporters and the Board are more significant than personality conflicts and speak to larger leftist concerns.
The trick is not caring, G. Gordon Liddy said, famously, as he held his hand in a flame without flinching. At Democracy Now!, and for progressives in general, the trick is--or ought to be--caring tremendously, especially when the flames lick closer than comfort.