Pacifica Radio – the nation’s “oldest leftwing radio network” – has entered a death spiral:
Founded in 1946 by conscientious objectors from the second world war, the network was an influential outlet for Beat poets, Bob Dylan and Vietnam war protesters but has in recent times suffered from dwindling ratings, in-fighting and financial hemorrhage.
The network’s biggest star – Amy Goodman, host of the independently produced Democracy Now! – is also its biggest creditor. She is owed an estimated $2.1m in unpaid broadcast fees.
Observers trace the travails to 2001 when a group of rebellious listeners and broadcasters took control and instituted an elaborate governance structure of multiple boards, sub-committees and painstaking elections.
The result, according to Matthew Lasar, author of the 2005 book Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, was continuous feuding between rival factions. In a Nation article earlier this year, he compared the network to the “late Ottoman Empire of public broadcasting” and urged progressive outsiders to step in and save it before it was too late.
Of course, it’s not just Pacifica; all of the institutional broadcasting industry as we’ve known it since the 1930’s is undergoing a radical realignment in how it does business. The broadcast industry one step behind newspapers; its audience gutted by the internet’s explosion of free material and advertisters’ splitting their money in many different directions (what’s left of it, anyway, in the Obama economy), even the better commercial broadcast operations are having to become very lean, and very creative when it comes to sales.
And Pacifica? Not only is it entirely dependent on handouts from non-profits and governments, but it is “creative” in all the wrong ways:
Ian Masters and Sonali Kolhatkar, hosts of the Los Angeles-based KPFK, said its parent network Pacifica Radio, the country’s oldest public radio network, was putting pressure on staff to reduce their hours and pay, leave or work for free, alienating listeners and approaching a point of no return.
“This is the end. They’re running out of road,” Masters told the Guardian. He accused managers and board members of promoting conspiracy theories – including those related to the “truth” about 9/11 and claims about cancer and HIV. “They’ve run this place into the ground.”
Today it’s Pacifica.
Of course, it’s been happening in commercial radio for a long time; commercial radio stations have been slashing costs for a solid decade now (most music radio is “voice-tracked”; the “disc jockey” actually bangs out all the spoken elements for a show in one sitting, and the computers that run the shows slip the spoken bits in to the right spots, usually), finding creative ways to make money (or not so creative ways; 40% of the revenue at many talk stations comes from weekend infomercials) or avoid it (the NARN was a decade ahead of the trend of people doing talk radio as a hobby, barring the occasional talent fee).
So how long can public radio – especially Minnesota Public Radio, with its union-level pay scales and lavish facilities and gargantuan, padded staffs – survive?