Rescuing Lew Hill’s Pacifica

by Akio Tanaka

Originally published on Indybay:

The real threats to the Pacifica network are the stations that are not self-sustaining, and a National Board that is unable to address the problem.
Each station has to be self-sustaining, and a functional National Board has to be able to take appropriate remedial action when they’re not.
Lew Hill founded Pacifica with a promising vision, yet Pacifica is struggling mightily to survive. How did this come about?

One problem is that some stations misconstrued Lew Hill’s view on programming. Because Lew Hill was a conscientious objector during WWII, many people have assumed that he founded Pacifica to broadcast only “wildly unpopular perspectives that could never get on the air anywhere else.“ Lew Hill’s view on programming was more expansive and enlightened. He said Pacifica was “to give the genuine artist and thinker a possible, even a desirable, place to work in radio.” He added “KPFA’s present [1951] air schedule is a modest example. It embraces four main categories— 1) music, 2) drama and literature, 3) public affairs, and 4) children’s programs.”

Another problem is that some stations are ignoring the critical need for listener sponsorship. Stations can choose to focus on programming for peace, social justice and diversity as long as they remember that the programs still have to garner enough listener members to support the station. Having poorly produced shows that don’t do that, don’t help fulfill the Pacifica mission. Lew Hill said, “We make a considerable step forward, it seems to me, when we use a system of broadcasting [listener sponsorship] which promises that the mediocre will not survive.”

By narrowing the scope of programming, and ignoring the necessity for listener support, some stations run large deficits year after year and drain the network of resources. The Pacifica National Board (PNB) has been dealing with this problem by taking money from self-sustaining stations. This fails to deal with the root problems noted above and is simply not sustainable.

The current governing structure, set in place over 20 years ago, has proven to be incapable of dealing with Pacifica’s root problems. It is also undemocratic, allowing all stations the same number of representatives, regardless of their listening audience size and/or their ability to be self-sustaining.

In order to have a more democratic and functional National Board, members petitioned and voted for new bylaws in June 2021. Members approved these new bylaws by a margin of 55% to 45%. Under the New Day Bylaws, the National Board would be smaller, more nimble, and have a majority of Directors (12 of 15) directly elected by the members, resulting in much more democratic representation.

To date, these new bylaws have not been implemented because Pacifica ruled that the new bylaws were NOT approved, based on a highly questionable interpretation of our current bylaws and California law. That ruling is currently being challenged in the courts.

Lew Hill said “Anyone can understand the rationale of listener sponsorship—that unless the station is supported by those who value it, no one can listen to it, including those who value it. This is common sense.”

To rescue Lew Hill’s listener sponsored Pacifica Radio, each station has to be self-supporting, and a functional National Board has to be able to take appropriate remedial action when they’re not.

The status-quo situation is neither tenable nor sustainable.