The Value of Democracy
a letter from Robbie Osman
We owe our adversaries
the compliment of an argument.
KPFA is, once again, holding elections for board members. And, once again, listener subscribers are wondering what’s what and who’s who.
To make things even more confusing, at the same time, some people are arguing that democracy itself is dangerous for KPFA and that the reforms instituted after the station's staff and listeners successfully resisted a board coup in 1999-2001 ought to be rescinded. Here, for any who might be interested (and who might have the patience to read this long essay) are my thoughts on some of the questions before the station and its supporters.
For those with less patience I’ll begin with my conclusion. Listener participation is necessary to KPFA’s health and effectiveness and the station is weaker when it is absent or excluded. The upcoming election may decide once and for all whether listeners and subscribers will play a role in station and network decision-making.
The very idea that there could be an antidemocratic faction in the KPFA community will strike some as outlandish and unlikely. And, to be clear, it is not that there are KPFAers who oppose democratic decision-making as a matter of general principle. But many in the KPFA leadership, and some in the community who support them, have opposed and subverted the democratic reforms that followed the attempted Pacifica board takeover and explicitly maintain that democratic process is not appropriate for KPFA’s governance.
The station’s core staff is, practically speaking, free from accountability to listeners and subscribers. The mechanisms of listener participation that were won by the station’s supporters after the struggle a decade ago survive in the by-laws but have been undermined and ignored as far as actual programming has been concerned. The station’s core leadership touts their freedom from accountability as the only way to avoid condemning the station to a future of incompetent leadership and lunatic programming which they say would be the result of allowing listeners to have some control over programming.
Here are some facts that are demonstrably not lunatic. KPFA is losing listeners, it’s losing income, and it is cutting staff. Staff cuts could negatively affect programming and that could lead to further loss of listeners and income. This is a spiral we can't afford to get caught in. If we want to arrest it we have to make an honest assessment of its cause.
KPFA’s leadership blames ‘hard times’ for the station’s decline. They point to the bad economy. But a bad economy doesn’t cause a radio station to lose listeners; it doesn’t cost anything to turn on a radio. And KPFA has always attracted its greatest income during difficult times when listeners are especially appreciative of information and inspiration. Besides, during the ten years that KPFA’s audience has been declining, NPR’s audience share has soared, and Democracy Now!’s reach has vastly expanded.
Source: Chart Busters
The station’s decision-makers also blame competition from new media, but the spectacular expansion of progressive programming in various venues over the last decade is not the cause of KPFA’s decline. Rather than using it as an excuse for our failure to grow, we need to be asking why KPFA has not shared in the explosion of attention to left-of-center media during the last decade.
The station’s decision-makers and their defenders even blame the decline in listenership on the democratization that happened as a result of the community retaking the network from a usurping board of directors a decade ago. But station programming decisions are presently and have always been controlled by the inner station leadership; a nominal change in governance that never materially affected programming cannot decrease listenership.
One thing that the station’s inner group never mentions when discussing possible reasons for KPFA’s stagnation and decline is their own programming decisions. You don’t need to be a radio professional to know that that’s the first thing that ought to be considered.
Most of the heated conversation in KPFA’s conflicts centers around personalities and politics but at its core the station’s problem is structural. The problem is that programming decisions at KPFA are made by people who have a great personal stake in the decisions that they themselves make. And that means that programming decisions at KPFA are too often made in the interests of those who make them.
I hope we can agree on some axioms:
The reality of decision-making at KPFA is that, in the realm of programming at least, the division between management and employee has been effectively erased. Managers usually come from among the core staff and even when they come from outside they quickly learn that they can’t rock the boat if they hope to survive. The station allocates program time under a system of mutual protection and patronage in which there is no one from outside the station staff to provide restraint to the impulse to divide up the station’s airtime and resources in the interest of those who work there.
This is not to say that KPFA does not produce excellent programming. The station has always attracted talented and committed staff and programmers. But we are human, and paid programmers will want to defend their positions, unpaid programmers defend their programs, and those with jobs defend their jobs. This is not wrong and this is not the problem. The problem is that there needs to be an empowered, disinterested counterbalance that puts the station’s mission first. And there isn’t.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult for ordinary men.
The arguments made by core staff to justify excluding listeners from station decision-making are pretty much the same arguments that unaccountable leaders have always made to maintain their positions. Those who hold power warn that if they are forced to share it with other stakeholders, foolish, alien, incompetent, unworthy, or even malevolent players will take control and destroy everything. In order to keep the trains, or in this case the radio programs, running on time, they argue, it is necessary to let the leadership set the direction, make all the decisions, and be judged only by themselves and each other.
When Esperantists Attack
Supporting this claim that the community has to be kept from any powerful role in station decision-making has necessitated one of the most ugly aspects of this controversy. Those listeners who have worked to realize the promise of a democratized Pacifica have been maligned by caricatures so extreme it’s surprising that they were not self-defeating. Ian Boal, writing in Counterpunch, told his readers that the listeners elected to the station board tended to be "esperantists, propeller heads, world government paranoiacs, and stranded Maoists”. Max Pringle of KPFA’s news department argued that it made no more sense to let listeners participate in making programming decisions than it would to let the passengers take over the cockpit of an airplane. And Conn Hallinan warned that if the listeners are allowed to control programming we will end up with “all conspiracy all the time” radio.
It’s a wonder that such hyperbolic claims have been taken as seriously as they seem to have been. Don’t accept them. Those who oppose community participation in KPFA's decision-making ought to address the problems caused by exclusively in-house decision-making rather than just defame those who want change.
Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.
Listener-elected representatives have, for the most part, acted thoughtfully and responsibly. It would be as easy to point to flaky, disruptive, and even dangerous behavior among the station’s leadership and staff as among the vilified listener-elected board and program council members. More importantly, even if the listener-elected representatives were every horrible thing they are accused of being, the remedy would not be ending listener input to the station’s deliberations but electing better representatives. Democracy has never offered a guarantee of effective leadership, only the right to remove bad leaders and replace them with better ones.
Consider the argument that listeners don’t know enough about radio to be taking part in programming decisions. It’s nonsense. KPFA’s subscribers and listeners are in a far better position to make considered judgments about what is and what is not effective programming than the average American citizen is to make informed judgments about, say, national security questions or health care policy. If we accept the claim that bringing a degree of democratic representation to KPFA is too dangerous and destabilizing to risk, what democratic institutions and rights can we defend?
Loonies of Mass Destruction
The charge that allowing listener representatives be part of an effective program council would lead to ‘all conspiracy-all the time’ radio calls for a more detailed response because of how starkly it flies in the face of actual station history.
There is no concerted effort to increase so-called ‘conspiracy’ oriented programming. There never has been; it’s a fabricated danger.
On the other hand, here’s some station history that is real. It’s worth revisiting because it illuminates the real ‘danger’ that that ‘lurks’ in listener participation. For a while, as part of the democratization that followed the rescue of Pacifica, there was, or seemed to be, listener and unpaid staff representation on KPFA’s Program Council. At that time a proposal to change programming, initiated by unpaid staff and listener representatives, precipitated an actual conflict between the unpaid staff and listener representatives on one hand and the station leadership on the other. This conflict had nothing to do with ‘conspiracy’ programming. It was about what time the station ought to air Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!.
By examining studies of radio listening patterns and KPFA’s own fundraising data the Program Council’s unpaid staff and listener representatives saw that Democracy Now! drew between twice and three times the listener support (measured by contributions and ratings) of KPFA’s Morning Show. KPFA aired the hour long Democracy Now! then, as it does today, at 6AM and again at 9AM. The Morning Show runs from 7 to 9. Generally more radios are on between 7 and 9 than at any other time during the day. It’s called ‘morning drive time’. By 9 many people who tune in between 7 and 9 are at work or at school and cannot listen to the radio. The listener and unpaid staff representatives proposed that the station air the more popular Democracy Now! at 7 rather than 9 so that folks who couldn’t tune in from 9 to 5 could listen. That could be expected to increase listenership, increase income, build listener loyalty and support the station’s mission. The full two-hour Morning Show would air beginning at 8.
The paid staff Program Council representatives did everything possible to avoid allowing the station's senior programmer's ownership of the 7AM to 9AM turf to be called into question. At first they refused to discuss the idea. They kept the question off the Program Council's agenda for months. After many months, the unpaid staff and listener representatives managed to force the issue onto the agenda and the change was mandated by the Program Council majority.
That was it. From that moment forward the station's leadership was at war with the idea of listener and unpaid staff representation on the program council. Even after the station board reaffirmed the propriety of the decision to air Democracy Now! at 7 the station’s paid staff flat-out refused to implement the change.
This all happened a long time ago, but it’s worth recounting because it is the real event that the ‘all conspiracy all the time’ canard seeks to misrepresent. The station's decision-makers who argue for keeping 'outsiders' from influence over programming claim that they are protecting the listeners against a takeover by what they characterize as 9/11 conspiracy loonies but the reality is that they are protecting themselves, their turf, and each other from the possibility of change. That’s a hell of a difference.
There is no way to measure how much stronger KPFA might be today (in terms of income or listenership) if, nearly a decade ago, the much more popular Democracy Now! had been moved to an hour when students and people who work 9-5 could listen. Media people know, however, that a strong program is strongest in prime time and can boost the audience for the programs that follow it. A 2008 presentation from Pacifica contains a chart indicating that, although Democracy Now! continues to be broadcast at a less advantageous time, it continued, at least until then, to far out-perform the Morning Show.
If KPFA were run as a business, its owners would never allow the station’s earning capacity to be thrown away like that. If it were unambiguously mission-driven, it wouldn't squander the opportunity to strengthen KPFA’s income, ratings, and effectiveness. But, as our decision-making is presently structured, turf protection can veto a clearly called-for change in the program schedule.
Here's another example:
A little over a year ago, when the Israeli Army began intensively bombing Gaza, I arrived at the station to host my 11AM Sunday morning program, Across the Great Divide. KPFA's news director, Aileen Alfandary, met me outside the on air studio to let me know that the first few minutes of my show would be pre-empted for news of the invasion. We both shook our heads in horror at the brutality of what was going on and I asked her if she would convey her horror to the listeners. She said ‘No. We don’t do that’. And, of course, she didn’t.
We have the right, we have the responsibility, to ask. How and why and when did KPFA decide that ‘we don’t do that’?
I’m not a big fan of the 'neutral newscaster' model of news delivery. I much prefer the fair but not faux-neutral style of, say, Rachel Maddow or the out front engagement of Democracy Now! which put its agenda in its name—with an exclamation point. Others may prefer the way KPFA presents the news. They can, not unreasonably, argue that the station's values are reflected in the evenhanded way stories are presented and in the stories the news staff chooses to cover and the participants they invite to comment. It’s a question about which honest people can disagree. But not at KPFA. Not in any practical sense anyway.
This post is not the place to debate the relative merits of news formats and styles. I do, however, want to flag the structural question involved and highlight its importance. The choice of news styles or formats is one with the potential to have a very great impact on KPFA’s political effectiveness and financial wellbeing. Olbermann and Maddow, Stewart and Colbert, a dozen different news and commentary sources on the web, Democracy Now! on radio—all of the stunning successes of the last decade, regardless of the medium—are characterized by the willingness of the hosts to articulate and reflect the concern, feelings, analysis, values and outrage that listeners and viewers experience. At the very time a large and grateful and supportive audience was beating a path to the doors of those who offered passionate, intelligent, committed, effective, audacious, creative, and explicit opposition to the Bush parade of lies and horrors, KPFA news was maintaining its neutral ‘we don’t do that’ style—and the station was losing listeners. And income. And influence. It is at least possible that had KPFA adopted another news philosophy and style, the station led by its newscast might have shared in the huge expansion of audience that flocked to those other left-of-center sources. And for that reason, the question of how we present the news has to be open for real discussion among those with a stake in KPFA’s success and the success of its mission.
But the question of what policies and standards KPFA should bring to our newscast is off the table. The right to make that decision is, in effect, privately owned. KPFA’s news directors make such decisions, nominally, I suppose, in concert with the station’s program director but practically speaking by themselves. Our news directors choose to present the news the way they have presented the news for the past twenty-five or thirty years and, unless KPFA opens up its decision-making structure, that’s how things will be for many years to come. Assuming we survive. Stephen Colbert, in mock praise of George W. Bush’s consistency, said at the White House correspondents’ dinner ‘What he believes on Monday he believes on Wednesday. No matter what happened on Tuesday.’ I don’t think that that's the sort of consistency we ought to be able to brag about.
Even if you're on the right track,
you'll get run over if you just sit there.
KPFA's drive-time programming is crucial to developing and maintaining the station’s listenership. Its success or failure will be reflected in the general enthusiasm of the station's present and prospective supporters and in the audience for all the rest of the station's programming. It ought to be reevaluated often and decisions about its style and content have to be made in the interest of the station’s mission rather than in the interest of those making the decision. That requires empowering disinterested decision-makers.
One doesn’t have to find fault with KPFA’s Morning Show to see the value in having it begin an hour later so that our most appreciated program can be on when it can attract and inform and inspire a bigger audience. And no disrespect of our news programming is implicit in saying that a station that won't adapt to changing times and learn from the successes of others should not be surprised if its listenership and income and political effectiveness decline.
What Can We Do?
KPFA needs to have programming decisions made by a Program Council that is advised by station staff and led by a talented program director but which has enough listener-elected representation to prevent the Council from favoring the needs of the programmers over the mission itself. It needs a manager who will insist that the station’s paid staff respect and implement the decisions of such a Program Council. And it needs an executive director who will back up such a manager and a local and national board that will do the same for the executive director.
Pacifica's election rules very properly forbid programmers from using their airtime for making specific recommendations of candidates or slates of candidates. And since I've mentioned this site on my radio program I will make no such recommendation here.
But I can urge you to evaluate the candidates and the issues carefully and to vote in this important election. It will determine who sits on the Local Board and the Local Board will both make important decisions for KPFA and appoint representatives to the National Board. How this election goes may determine whether the new Local and National Boards will support some degree of listener empowerment in programming decisions. The creation of an empowered Program Council that includes listeners can provide a counter-balance to the temptation to divide up the station's airtime and resources among the staff, in the interest of the staff. It's also true that if a board majority opposed to listener input is elected it will have the power to rewrite the by-laws to end the possibility of bringing accountability to the station's programming. That would be, practically speaking, irreversible. Game Over.
I don’t mean to minimize the difficulties of bringing listener influence or control back into KPFA’s programming decisions. I also don’t think we should minimize the contributions of the people who work at the station and make KPFA happen. My criticism of our present decision-making structure does not mean that I don’t respect their achievements or appreciate their effort and sacrifice. Producing radio the quality of KPFA’s programming takes dedication and talent and hard work of the sort that can’t be micro-managed by boards and committees. The folks who do that work, paid and unpaid, deserve our gratitude. But that doesn’t mean that the station belongs to them.
We do not have a lot of experience in merging democratic oversight and creative radio production, so there will be missteps and mistakes. And there will be people who find in each misstep a reason to entirely abandon the effort to incorporate listener participation into the station's programming decision-making process. But if an honest and fair-minded effort is made by listeners and programmers I am convinced that a way can be found to respect and honor KPFA’s staff and volunteers, guarantee them the room to produce brilliant progressive radio but stop well short of giving the station to anyone as personal property.
KPFA is the achievement of generations of thoughtful and committed staff, programmers and listener-supporters. It would be wrong for us to let its potential be squandered in the service of turf protection. Keeping things just as they are may seem more comfortable and less demanding - but the station’s present course doesn’t lead to where we want and need to be.
Thanks for listening.
You can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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