WTF? Pacifica Docks Free Speech Radio News $13 Grand a Month

Being kind of distracted the last few months, I missed the news that the Pacifica network has cut its contribution to the Free Speech Radio News budget by $13,000 a month.

For those not familiar with these two organizations, Pacifica is the nation’s first community radio organization, currently owning and operating five stations around the country, along with a satellite network interconnecting community stations. FSRN is a daily half-hour news collective the formed out of the ashes of Pacifica’s radio news program in the late 90s as a constructive protest against censorious policies being carried out by Pacifica during a protracted struggle over control of the network.

In my opinion FSRN is the best daily half-hour of news on the radio in the US. Because it is worker-run we hear regularly from reporters all over the world who are from these countries and regions and in touch with their local issues in a way that no American or western reporter could. To me it represents the ideal of community radio, where people have the opportunity to speak for themselves and their communities rather than only have their voices represented by someone else. As a collective the editorial control remains in the hands of all members rather than being consolidated in just a few.

In the end a settlement was reached over control of Pacifica ousting the former board which apparently had improperly consolidated control and was considering selling one or more of its stations. With the election of a new board came a reuniting of FSRN and Pacifica, as the network began carrying the program on its satellite network and providing funding.

Relations between Pacifica and FSRN have not always been rosy. FSRN is worker-run collective that is not under Pacifica’s control, and I’ve often heard rumblings that Pacifica would like again to have its own daily news broadcast under its direct control.

However, I don’t know if this recent budget cut is representative of such an initiative, or just simply a result of fiscal problems.

According to an article in NYC Indymedia’s The Indypendent, there are indeed finance problems at Pacifica that seem to stem from earlier and ongoing conflicts within the network:

Pacifica has lost several lawsuits filed by former employees, with others still pending. Some of its own producers allege the network may be paying its legal fees by pulling money from reporters who gather the news.

“They are taking money we bring in, in order to pay for mismanagement,” said founding FSRN producer, Aaron Glantz, who helped produce the Winter Soldier Hearings, where veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars spoke out publicly, for Pacifica in March.

Now FSRN is actively trying to raise funds through donations and, possibly, grants. I hope that they are able to make up the shortfall in order to continue production. By comparison to most nationally syndicated programs FSRN gets by on a shoestring. The annual $156,000 that FSRN is losing from Pacifica looks like the coffee and bottled water budget for a recently canceled NPR program that aired on many fewer stations.

Good reporting takes time, and therefore it takes money. If we want to hear incisive, thoughtful reporting, especially from people and places less heard from in the mainstream, then it needs to be funded. Even if a reporter isn’t working full time, every moment she spends reporting is one that she’s not working making a living elsewhere. For all of the feel-good boosterism we hear about so-called citizen journalism we can’t forget that in-depth reporting is more than showing up on the scene of some event with a cell phone or digital camera.

FSRN doesn’t have the same (cult of) personality-driven allure of Pacifica’s more well-known syndicated news program, Democracy Now. It’s too bad, if not unexpected. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that cutting FSRN’s budget is an enormously myopic move on Pacifica’s part. At the same time, it’s also an object lesson as to why remaining independent was a smart decision for FSRN. Pacifica can revoke their share of the funding, but they can’t just shut it down. FSRN started without Pacifica, and I’d like to think the show can continue and survive without Pacifica.

The continued survival of FSRN will require the continued support of the community stations that carry the program. Many stations–like my old home WEFT–started carrying FSRN from the very start, contributing money directly. Perhaps its time for this to happen again, for stations and their listeners to support FSRN directly so that it doesn’t need Pacifica’s money.

In my fantasy world this would allow stations to disaffiliate from Pacifica in protest while keeping FSRN on the air. However, this is truly just a fantasy since Democracy Now is perhaps the most sacrosanct program on community radio, and nary a community station can afford to threaten its ability to carry it by dropping Pacifica affiliation. To do so would spark armchair activist riots in college towns and progressive urban enclaves all over the nation. But I digress….

Right now Free Speech Radio News needs financial support, and I urge everyone who supports grassroots radio journalism reflective of the true spirit of community radio to contribute what they can.


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