Pacifica, pacifica, pathetica….and public radio

  • Pacifica, pacifica, pathetica….and public radio
    As I reported on my program yesterday, the embattled Pacifica radio network continues to hobble through a minefield of controversy, as its management hunkers down to maintain power at all costs–even if that cost is the health of the very network itself. In summary, the most recent news is that Pacifica National Board was on the verge of settling 4 separate lawsuits with plaintiffs charging that the Board had made illegal and undemocratic by-laws changes that shuts out any input or control over the network by its 4 local stations, which provide much of the network’s funding. And then the Board backed out. Supporters of the lawsuit plaintiffs and the save/free Pacifica movement continue with plans for demonstrations at the Pacifica National Board meeting in the Washington DC area this coming weekend.

    In the larger perspective, the problems with Pacifica find their roots the late 80s to early 90s attempt by public and community radio to shore up their finances and decrease reliance on federal funding by streamlining and professionalizing their programming. Arguably, this was also a process of mainstreaming programming. This process turned out to be anything from easy to bloody, depending on the station, with Pacifica the epitome of the bloodiest. Unfortunately, the blood is the result of ham-fisted management approaches that attempted to force decisions made at the top onto staff and volunteer accustomed to having far more input over the course of decisions and programming. When resistence was met, rather than backing off or trying to negotiate amicable compromises Pacifica management simply pushed harder and cracked down. That started more than 5 years ago.

    Perhaps the most prominent architect of the move to statistics based programming and revenue analysis is David Giovanni of Audience Research Analysis — the company that has provided data and rationale for the public radio streamlining project for the last 20 years or so. In community radio this approach, all-too-ironically called the “Healthy Station Project,” was a collossal failure, especially due to community radio’s eclectic and democratic approach. But Giovanni has been significantly more successful in public radio, though at what is subject to debate.

    The New York Times just published an article heaping praise on Giovanni for helping to save public radio. His approach really isn’t complex — it basically amounts to correlating audience ratings with the time when audience pledge calls come in to figure out what program is on when the most well-heeled listeners give money. Without a doubt it is successful in identifying an affluent audience and giving direction for catering to them. What is up for grabs is whether this actually saves public radio, or really just turns it into “country club radio,” that doesn’t turn a proft, but manages to do quite well, thank you, by giving good service to the moneyed intelligentia.

    Certainly this approach has saved some public stations from bankruptcy, and helped others go from funky, open and free-wheeling stations to large, well-established broadcast houses. But what it’s also done is leave a whole lot of listeners out in the cold, along with a whole lot of information and culture. Not to mention leaving an entire radio network on the brink when it proved unable to simply institute a wholesale change in philosophy and approach entirely counter to what it’s core volunteers, employees and listeners wanted.

    Do not mistake, despite all his rhetoric about serving an audience, Giovanni’s approach is not about the audience. It’s about a demographic willing to give lots of diposable income to public radio when it serves their desires. It is not about the public at all, since the public is a much more diverse group not at all equally able to donate tons of money to public radio. To really save public radio you need to find a way to fund it while also serving as broad a segment of the public as possible, not just the most affluent members and their wannabes.

    This is not a wholesale indictment of public radio, its programming and the way it does it business. But neither can one ignore how this push for affluence in one’s audience also pushes the programming to reaffirm the elite establishment rather than challenge it. Sure, that elite establishment might (and I do mean might) be more liberal than Rush Limbaugh. But cow-towing it hardly counts as serving the public, since most American’s lie far outside this rarified realm.

    The result is that thirty years after its creation public radio arrives as part of the establishment, casting aside the marginalized who once might have found a home there. The result is NPR lobbying against small low-powered FM radio stations. The result is that when speaking about the media, “liberal” has been successfully relocated to the center, and center has been moved to the right.
    The moral of the story: sometimes common sense–what Giovanni insists he dispenses–is neither so common nor sensible. Creating radio that serves the actual needs of citizens in a democratic society is harder than selling them creature comforts when that’s what they’ve come to expect from their media. Choosing to join in the dominant approach because attempting to adhere to different (noncommercial) principles is difficult doesn’t really require much genius, and really isn’t something to be so proud of.

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