It’s Official: PNN Off the Air; What’s the Future for Community Radio Networks?

  • It’s Official: PNN Off the Air; What’s the Future for Community Radio Networks?
    On Friday Pacifica Network News confirmed on-air that it would be its last program. Half the program was dedicated to a dicussion between senior Pacifica journalist Don Rush and Nation editor and Pacifica contributor Marc Cooper on the history and demise of PNN. The last segment was a near-vitriolic commentary from Saul Landau on the demise of PNN, wherein he acknowledges the incompetence of the former national management of Pacifica, but also lambasts the activists who have now taken control of the network. Click here to listen to these two segments in RealAudio. Pacifica also put out a press release detailing the budget cuts leading to the cancellation of PNN and the measures being taken to shore up the network’s finances. You can read it here.

    On the final PNN, Marc Cooper really lays into Pacifica for what he deems to be its “failure” to turn PNN into a national 90 minute news broadcast that competes with NPR’s All Things Considered and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. He partially places blame on the debate between the autonomy of Pacifica’s 5 owned stations and the national network for the failure of more national programming to develop. I wasn’t at Pacifica during the 1980s when things took root, so I really can’t comment on it. But what struck me about this conversation was that the issue of Pacifica’s affiliates was never addressed, even while making much of the fact that NPR and Limbaugh each have hundreds of affiliates.

    My experience at WEFT in the last eight or so years has shown Pacifica taking its affiliates for granted while at best providing minimal “customer service,” and at worst subjecting the affiliates to outrageous contracts combined with an utter refusal to negotiate terms in anything approaching good faith. By comparison, as a network NPR typically treats affilates pretty well, and has even been willing to negotiate with a small station like WEFT, which is served by its satellite network but doesn’t air any of its major programming.

    PNN was down to just a handful of affiliate stations in the last year because Pacifica’s outright abuse of its affiliates reached an all-time high. Regardless of the relative quality of the program in its final days, the fact cannot be denied that only a small portion of its former listenership even heard its good-bye. That simple reality must be acknowlegded when trying to estimate the program’s demise.

    The issue of democratic governance also seemed to be glossed over, especially the undemocratic centralization of power in the Pacifica national board that happened in the last few years. But more importantly, it must be recognized that a community radio news network cannot be built in the same manner as NPR. They do not operate the same way. Regardless of its “public” nature, NPR is still primarily a top down organization, with decisions made by management, and it broadcasts to stations that are run much the same way. Although there are advisory boards and other such quasi-democratic bodies, when all is said and done, decisions are made by CEOs, station managers and program directors–there is no actual democracy. This type of organization and decision making lends itself well to centralization and a centralized network like NPR. So, then how do you create a radio network when the power is distributed and mostly democratic?
    That’s still an open question, but I can tell you that Pacifica did not know the answer. Achieving a network like NPR with community and community-like stations requires causcusing, discussion, debate and deliberation. And in large quantities, it also requires trust. I think it’s clear to anyone who’s paid attention to Pacifica in the last ten years that trust is something that has been distinctly lacking. When faced with the problems of managing a distributed semi-democratic system in the late 1980s and early 1990s Pacifica and a lot of community stations as well decided to fix the problem by centralizing and forcing top down management. I think it’s fair to say that this imposition was a failure.

    For examples of models that might work better one can look at Pacifica’s former and once-again flagship program Democracy Now, which managed to stay on the air at affiliates even when it was booted from its own network. Free Speech Radio News as well has shown some success in putting together a network of affiliates, even though a big percentage of them were wooed from Pacifica. Something else FSRN has done well is to rely on affiliate stations for news reports, so that the news is not reported only by the program’s producers, but also contributed by the stations themselves. The Urbana IMC has been one such contributor. Thus even the daily production of FSRN is less centralized than PNN was.

    The Indymedia movement also provides an example as a radically decentralized and democratic network that nonetheless produces a global half-hour monthly television news program, along with lots of radio and print content. The distribution and distance of the network provides unique challenges that prevent it yet from being like a Pacifica radio network, but this has as much to do with capital resources–of which it has little–as it does with its organization.

    Pacifica may yet be able to create a radio network with a wide affiliate base, but it is almost starting from scratch again in repairing broken relationships and providing service to them in exchange for needed funding. But this effort must be grassroots and democratic. It must be about building trust both inside the network and around it. It must be about addressing problems honestly, and about taking constructive feedback. It should mean giving national listeners and affiliate stations a place at the table. These folks have an investment in Pacifica and must have some agency in its governance, planning and future if it is truely to become a national network rather than an interconnection of five stations with some affiliates thrown on top. To be a democratic and progressive radio network it is not sufficient to simply air “progressive” programming — indeed if the managemet of that programming is centralized and top-down, that will eventually be reflected in the programming and manifest itself in a growing conservatism, a preoccupation with ratings and other conventional measurements favored by the commercial system, and an aversion to reassessing itself. A democratic radio network must be run democratically, with all interested, affected and invested parties welcome to the table and given an actual, true and real opportunity to create and run the beast. Until that happens it will be fighting itself.

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