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Time for an Amicable Divorce at Pacifica?

 August 5, 2012


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An Open Letter to the Pacifica National Board


If the past two decades have demonstrated anything about Pacifica it is that -- No, we cannot all get along. 


[Warning:  The following proposal would take a year or two to complete. Even if approved in principle right away, it would still be necessary to cut expenses across the network now so that payrolls can be met and creditors can be paid for the next 12-24 months.  Without that, the whole thing could end up in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee and this opportunity to solve our own problems responsibly would be lost]. 


These have been my private thoughts for a few years.  I've held back publishing them, hoping against hope that there was some path to saving the Pacifica network as a network bringing progressive programming not just to the 5 Pacifica stations, but to over 100 affiliated community stations across the country.  I have given my wholehearted support to those who have tried.  But I no longer believe it is possible. 


The strife and conflict at Pacifica have been going on longer than twenty years -- probably since the beginning -- but the stark reality came sharply into focus with the Pat Scott years, the Mary Frances Berry years, and the past 11 years since the democratization experiment began.

Each of the five Pacifica radio stations has a different history, a different audience, and a different philosophy and interpretation of the Pacifica mission.  Attempting to hold it all together without basic agreements on core principles is doomed to failure, and has brought Pacifica and the five stations to the brink of bankruptcy. 


These five radio stations do not want to be a network. 


There is a solution:  Break it up.   

My proposal is that each of the five Pacifica radio stations -- with the approval of the members from each station -- should form a local non-profit corporation and that the Pacifica Foundation should transfer the broadcast licenses to those five separate local non-profits.  Each station would be free to structure its governance and bylaws as it saw fit -- so long as the local members approved, and so long as they were in conformity with applicable state laws and FCC requirements for holders of non-commercial broadcast licenses.  Each of the five stations would be completely independent from the other four stations and from the Pacifica Foundation.

Each of the five Pacifica stations has its own internal divisions and problems to resolve.  Breaking the network up would not solve those problems but would limit the impact of those problems to the local station, its listeners, members, staff and management.  It would allow each station to work its problems out locally (or not) without injecting them into a toxic brew that impacts the ability of the other stations and the network to function and survive. 


The Pacifica Foundation would go forward as a granting institution -- providing grants to aid in the production of programming that fulfills its core mission:

  • In radio broadcasting, to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups; and through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this Foundation to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.
  • In radio broadcasting, to promote the full distribution of public information; to obtain access to sources of news not commonly brought together in the same medium; and to employ such varied sources in the public presentation of accurate, objective, comprehensive news on all matters vitally affecting the community.
    Pacifica would continue as a distribution hub for such programming on the web, through podcasting, and to radio stations across the country -- as well as maintaining and preserving the priceless Pacifica Radio Archives.  

Pacifica would revise its bylaws so that it is completely independent from the five stations.  Its board of directors would no longer be made up of representatives from the five stations.  The divorce should be amicable, but complete.  There should be no employees of the five stations or any members of their boards of directors serving on the Pacifica Foundation board of directors going forward.  Pacifica should have a small board of 5-9 directors made up of progressive media leaders, philanthropists and fundraising experts, and other professionals to insure that it is properly run for long term financial stability and fulfillment of its mission.

How?  Find a signal swap for WBAI. 

Sometime around 2006-2007 there was an offer for a signal swap for WBAI that included $150 million in cash, and a radio frequency with similar reach but down the dial in the non-commercial band.  (See Danny Schechter "Offer Was Received for New York's WBAI".) 


The Pacifica board voted it down back then -- in part because they feared a "feeding frenzy" over the money.  The value of radio frequencies has probably dropped somewhat since then.  But WBAI is in the middle of the commercial band in the middle of Manhattan with a valuable antenna lease on the Empire State Building. 


WBAI was given to the Pacifica Foundation by philanthropist Louis Schweitzer in 1960 to further the mission of Pacifica.  Thus, sufficient proceeds from a signal swap should be used to permit the Pacifica Foundation to continue to carry out its core mission, but to do so without holding the broadcast licenses to any radio stations.   


In addition, the distribution of proceeds from a signal swap should recognize the 52 years that WBAI's listeners and staff have donated and worked and volunteered to support that station and its mission in the New York area.  WBAI has recently fallen on hard times for many reasons not pertinent to this proposal.  But its listener base cannot support the expensive tower lease at the Empire State Building any longer -- and the lease has an escalator clause in it so the price will continue to go up.  The solution is a signal swap to some more affordable broadcast tower. 


I don't know what a WBAI signal swap would bring these days, but for the sake of round numbers I'm using $100 million to illustrate an equitable distribution of the proceeds.    


My proposal is to distribute half the proceeds to the Pacifica Foundation and 10% to WBAI off the top, with the remaining 40% distributed to the five stations based on the size of their relative average gross annual income as reported by the auditors over the past 4 years, with adjustments for the interdivision accounts receivable and payable per the 2011 auditor's report.  (This process would probably take a year to complete, so the numbers would change slightly as the 2012-2013 figures come in.  But see the attached spreadsheet for the calculations.) 


This would result in the following distributions:

$52,583,080 - Pacifica Foundation

$12,332,557 - KPFA

$10,690,694 - KPFK

$  3,302,266 - KPFT

$16,886,090 - WBAI

$  4,205,314 - WPFW 

This would give KPFA, KPFK, KPFT & WPFW each roughly 2-1/2 to 3 years' gross income which they could use as endowment funds, while WBAI would have an extra boost to help them deal with the disruption, difficulties and logistics of moving their signal.  If the stations fail to handle the money wisely, the damage they can do would be limited, as it would not impact the other stations or Pacifica Foundation.

Pacifica Foundation would have a sufficient endowment fund so that, with careful stewardship, it could preserve the historic Pacifica Archives as well as help to provide much needed grants to independent producers for the production of alternative progressive media in this country.

Many of us have devoted many years to Pacifica and its radio stations, and we care deeply about them even though we may disagree about how they should be programmed, operated, managed and governed.  It is time to for all of us to stop this destructive conflict and to find a way to move on in the best interests of fulfilling the mission of Pacifica and our respective stations. 


Respectfully submitted, 


Carol Spooner
Former Pacifica Foundation Board Member

(January 2002- January 2005)