On the one hand, I’ve always said that if we have to have public broadcasting (and make no mistake about it, we do not have to have it, but work with me here), I’d vastly prefer to have more little community-supported stations like KFAI and KBEM in Minneapolis, or KAXE in Grand Rapids – small stations that report local news and talk about local stuff – than monolithic, huge-money institutions like MPR (whose behavior is exactly like that of the monopolistic robber barons that would give their prime audience the victorian vapours). Give me twenty little stations that work within and respond to their communities over a monolithic Borg that becomes a culture unto itself (at our expense).
Part of it is because I do, as a matter of principle, believe that government money should be spent as close to its source as possible.
And partly because public broadcasting, especially at the micro level, is a little like an episode of Portlandia come to life.
Case in point: New York’s community station WBAI – which was in many ways the model for stations like Minneapolis’ KFAI – is circling the drain. And it’s happening precicsely because it is governed by a form of “democracy” so sclerotic that even Portlandia hasn’t spoofed it yet.
WBAI is an affiliate of the Pacifica Radio Network, of which more later. The station’s been in business for over five decades, and would seem to be an institution…:
But huge debt and a dwindling membership have left both WBAI and Pacifica starved for cash. The station, one of five owned by the foundation, has operated in the red each year since 2004, accumulating more than $3 million in net losses, according to Pacifica financial statements. In addition to WBAI, Pacifica has stations in Los Angeles, Washington, Houston and Berkeley, Calif., and feeds content to more than 150 affiliates.
Site note: At the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, King Banaian, Ed Morrissey and I were on the air during Sarah Palin’s electrifying first speech to the crowd. On the other side of the curtain from us was the Pacifica booth – which is some pretty drastically bad event planning, putting the most conservative station in town across a curtain from the most liberal network in the country, but whatever.
During the run-up to the speech, the Pacifica anchors – who looked like barristas at that coffee shop that broke away from that other coffee shop for not pushing the vegan scones hard enough – were doing the sort of level of commentary you’d expect from, well, Minneapolis leftybloggers; “she looks like the third runner-up for head cheerleader”, or “maybe the caribou can shoot back”, that sort of thing.
Anyway – Palin started her speech. And for those who weren’t there, and don’t remember the doom-y feeling that the whole inevitability of John McCain gave us all, it was electrifying. The three of us jumped up at our seats, cheering; I think King may have yelled “We Are Not Worthy!”, although maybe that was me. I dunno.
Anyway - one of the Pacifica crones leaned through the curtain. “Shhhh! We’re doing radio!”
Among Pacifica’s debts are more than $2 million in broadcast fees owed to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!,” the network’s most popular show.
Radio “for the 99%” being put out of business by a show that charges like a bunch of 1%ers. Ironic.
The funny part is, Pacifica – and its company-owned subsidiary, WBAI – have the power in their hands to fix things. It’s a board-run station. That should fix things – right?
But critics have long said that its top-heavy governance, with large local boards and frequent, expensive elections, have put the organization in a constant state of gridlock, and that unless Pacifica reforms it will simply govern itself to death.
“This is what the board does,” Ms. Reese said in an interview: “It fiddles while Rome burns.”
Those same problems were on display at a public WBAI board meeting last week in an arts space in Lower Manhattan. Despite the layoffs just days before, the first 25 minutes were devoted to a procedural debate about the night’s agenda, with frequent mentions of Robert’s Rules of Order. Occasional shouts of “fascist!” and “go back to the N.S.A.!” rang out from listeners in attendance.
It’s like a Saint Paul City Committee meeting, only with a budget.
And I loved this part:
Berthold Reimers, WBAI’s general manager, reported that the station had $23,000 on hand and was scouring Craigslist and other sites to furnish new, cheaper studios in Brooklyn. An Ikea chair was bought for $40, he said. “That’s the cheapest we could possibly get.”
The story was silent as to whether anyone objected because Ikea is non-union.
But that’s another part of the problem with public broadcasting; their concept of money is so very different than the real world’s. If you get a chance to take a tour of MPR’s facilities in downtown Saint Paul, do. If you’re a radio geek, you’ll think you’ve died on gone to radio heaven. The broadcast studios are not one degree behind the technological fashion curve. They look almost like TV studios, without the cameras. And then you pan back, and realize that there are two of them – so Cathy Wurzer needn’t hurry to get out of Keri Miller’s way. If you’ve ever worked in commercial radio, and spent part of your Saturday afternoon figuring out why your 30-year-old control panel is fritzing out, you can relate in not being able to relate.
Anyway – read the whole article.
And apply it to your favorite lefty non-profit.