Information Shortage

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Berkeley – Information from Pacifica’s National Board out to the members it represents has been a little scarce as of late, with 4 consecutive closed session meetings on January 25 and Feb 1, Feb 8 and Feb 15 not providing the routine report out. The audit committee has also not filed report outs from its last three closed session meetings. Part of the problem has been the transition between executive directors as Tom Livingston takes over for Bill Crosier and part the annual turning over of the national board. This year’s rotation of national board members has been far from smooth with repetitive director elections from KPFA’s local station board, which has been hemorrhaging members at the rate of one a month, and filing lawsuits against Pacifica. More on the KPFA directors mess below. 

Back in late January, the Pacifica National Board approved a friendly loan from KPFK members to pay off the judgment due to the Empire State Realty Trust and bridge the organization to a $3 million dollar 3-year line of credit intended to tide the organization over until it can decide how to leverage its $10 million dollars in real estate and $100 million in broadcast licenses to pay off acculmulated debts, primarily to the Empire State Building, Democracy Now and the network’s duplicative fixed benefit pension plan. The exact amount of the debt has been a subject of debate with an $8 million dollar amount thrown around the media. When this publication asked for substantiation of that figure, since it was approximately double the known debt level 4 years ago, the document provided by Pacifica’s chief financial officer indicated the $8 million figure included a $1-$1.5 million dollar estimate for the legal and administrative costs of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing (which has not happened), $500K in “ongoing operating expenses” and $650K listed as accrued for program fees for Democracy Now in FY 2013, although the second five year contract with DN expired on October 1, 2012. The program has since been supplied to Pacifica without payment for 4 years.

The friendly loan fund is in an LA-area escrow account while a prominent public media broker assists Pacifica in discussions with the Empire State Building aimed at resolving the long-term outcome of the contract, which runs until April of 2020 at ever-increasing rates. By the final year of the contract, annual expenses would approach $750K a year (currently it’s at about $600K annually). This is an amount that would sink almost any community radio outlet in the country.

The slightly exaggerated $8 million debt amount was used, mostly at KPFA, but also in a few other sectors of the network, to push for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, an expensive and risky process (85% of entrants into Chapter 11 never get out of it) that would have placed the nation’s only progressive media network at the mercy of the federal judiciary and a creditors committee. The national board rejected that route in January 2018, choosing instead to accept a short-term loan from its Southern California supporters and then to mortgage property for a line of credit in order to maintain autonomy for the harder decisions that lie ahead in the next few years. Some in the network have remained distressed by the avoidance of bankruptcy, despairing that the network’s members, who fought hard in the late 90’s for the right to decide on any swaps, transfers or sales of broadcast licenses, would ever agree to leverage “their stations” assets. These folks are essentially taking a Hobbesian view and prefer to rely on the authoritarian force of the judiciary to make the decisions instead of Pacifica’s members.

KPFA’s litigious lawyer on the local station board, Bill Campisi, stated in a February 18 email: “Full Disclosure: I and some other people are considering whether to file a lawsuit which will ask a Court to appoint a receiver to take over the management of Pacifica and decide what to do: either reorganize the governing structure of Pacifica or dissolve Pacifica”. Campisi would have no standing to file such a dissolution lawsuit as it requires the consent of 33% of the nonprofit’s membership (some 15,000 people) or the participation of the CA Attorney General, but threats continue to be made.

On another side of the fence, a number of WBAI programmers continue to push for the NY station to be leased out in a public service operating agreement (PSOA) to former Pacifica executive director (2002-2005) Dan Coughlin via Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the NY public access channel Coughlin runs. The PSOA offer, which has been floating around since at least 2011, would pay ongoing operating costs including forward payments to Empire State, but leave the other 4 Pacifica stations stuck with all debts accrued prior to the operating lease, with no access to WBAI’s income during the lease period. In its earlier iterations, Coughlin’s offer was clearly non-temporary in nature as it removed WBAI’s occupancy in its Brooklyn rental property, and incorporated all BAI programming into MNN, leaving nothing viable at the end of the operating agreement. Coughlin was the ED of Pacifica during the negotiation period for the catastrophic Empire State lease and resigned from the position 2 weeks prior to his successor Ambrose Lane signing the 15 year lease. Apparently, without saying “No, don’t sign it or Pacifica will go broke”.

Coughlin has his own troubles with the public access community in New York City, having been sued by Deep Dish TV co-founder Dee Dee Halleck and Puerto Rican poet Jesus Papaleto Melendez for banning them from MNN’s premises. Coughlin’s somewhat quixotic argument that a public access channel is not a public space was rejected by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on February 9, which stated: ““We conclude that the public access TV channels in Manhattan are public forums and that MCAC’s employees were sufficiently alleged to be state actors taking action barred by the First Amendment to prevent dismissal of the claims”.

Meanwhile, KPFA’s local station board which has lost seven members since the last election set in 2015-2016, continues to turn itself into a self-selecting body in an ironic joke on the station’s rebellion of 1999. No less than Carol Spooner, the architect of Pacifica’s democratized bylaws, was the latest old hand to reverse course and grab on to an appointed seat. In so doing, Spooner skipped over no less than 20 different write-in candidates who had been written in by KPFA’s members, including seven former members of the KPFA local station board over the past decade and a half. As with the first appointed seat given away in January to Susan Da Silva, there was only one candidate for the seat provided, and it went to another retired white woman with a decades long history in KPFA politics. A third appointed seat will be filled in the March board meeting.

The skipping over of write-in candidates, whatever representational concerns it presents, maintains the disproportionate whiteness of KPFA’s local station board which, at a ratio of 70% (17/24) is considerably whiter than the 9-county Bay Area (which was 43% non-latinx white as of the 2010 census) and the station’s domicile county of Alameda (which was 34% non-latinx white as of the 2010 census). It is likely that at least one of the write-in candidates would have taken a seat if offered one. Samsarah Morgan, a Black Oaklander who served on the board from 2013-2016, intended to run for re-election in 2016 and filed papers to do so, but ended up being declared ineligible after a membership renewal on a monthly installment plan didn’t hit the required amount by the deadline. Morgan was never offered the seat despite being on the runners up list and her willingness to serve a second term on the local station board.

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Started in 1946 by conscientious objector Lew Hill, Pacifica’s storied history includes impounded program tapes for a 1954 on-air discussion of marijuana, broadcasting the Seymour Hersh revelations of the My Lai massacre, bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, going to jail rather than turning over the Patty Hearst tapes to the FBI, and Supreme Court cases including the 1984 decision that noncommercial broadcasters have the constitutional right to editorialize, and the Seven Dirty Words ruling following George Carlin’s incendiary performances on WBAI. Pacifica Foundation Radio operates noncommercial radio stations in New York, Washington, Houston, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and syndicates content to over 180 affiliates. It invented listener-sponsored radio.

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