Liberals have largely bid farewell to the paranoid style of American politics, letting the Glenn Becks of the world indulge in fantasies about Barack Obama's nationality while they get on with the business of governing the country. But at least there's always KPFA. Did you know, for example, that Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman may or may not be taking CIA cash in return for suppressing the truth about 9/11? Or that the station is being hijacked by a cabal of union thugs and Democratic Party hacks? Or that it's being hijacked by 9/11 Truthers and Scientologists? Or that sister station WBAI was allowed to fall into the hands of a mysterious group of black nationalist thugs?
You can learn about this and more if you follow the latest round of elections to the radio station's governing body, where listener activists, station producers, and lefty politicos are throwing increasingly acerbic charges at one another. Over the weekend, Pacifica officials spent days counting ballots in yet another nasty election. As of this writing, it's not clear who came out on top, but who won is not be as important as how the campaigns are conducted, and whether democracy at KPFA is really possible.
Like so many KPFA problems over the years, this is Mary Frances Berry's fault. In 1999, when the then-chair of the Pacifica radio network locked down the station and provoked weeks of arrests and protests, the station's supporters were appalled at how easily she was able to abuse executive power. So when Berry and her cronies were driven out, the staff and listener activists tried to institutionalize as many checks on such power as possible. Their solution? Democracy, everywhere you look.
Under the new arrangement, KPFA is governed by a Local Station Board consisting of 25 people responsible for overseeing staff and management. Some seats are reserved for staff, while others are open to anyone who can get 15 members to sign a petition. Elections are held two out of every three years, for some reason. Each candidate is guaranteed a slot on a three-hour candidate's forum, broadcast over the airwaves, along with the chance to write a 500-word campaign statement. The elections are conducted according to a complex version of instant-runoff voting that few people understand or care to master.
The end result, according to reporter and board member Brian Edwards-Tiekert, is a governance structure that amplifies the angriest voices, distracts from running the station, and depresses everyone with trivial fights. For example, this campaign season, says Edwards-Tiekert, "Fifteen hours of airtime were dedicated to candidate forums for the local board. We spent more time covering KPFA's election than Afghanistan's and Iraq's elections combined."
Edwards-Tiekert is supporting Concerned Listeners, a slate of labor and Democratic party activists that generally support letting the professional staff make most programming and reporting decisions. But more importantly, he thinks the structure will have to be radically remade, or the radio network will be forever paralyzed by an unproductive hyperdemocracy.
"Most people would never go to the trouble and headache of dealing with our governance and election system, unless they were really, really pissed off about something," he says. "And so we have a strange politics of resentment constantly at work. I think there needs to be a serious redraft of the bylaws."
But according to Henry Norr, the former San Francisco Chronicle technology columnist and progressive activist, the problem is that there isn't enough democracy. In 2006, Norr was alarmed when the Concerned Listener slate flooded the membership with mailers promoting itself. To Norr, this represented the introduction of money and politicking into grassroots democratic media. This year, he ran for a board seat with the opposing slate, Independents for Community Radio, to give station volunteers a voice and maintain as much transparency in governance as possible.
"The Concerned Listeners portray themselves as holding back the cranks and kooks," says Norr. The real question, he claims, is "Are we going to be like other nonprofits, or are we going to be more democratic."
Norr's not alone; in fact, he enjoys the support of none other than Grace Aaron and Joe Wanzala, the interim executive director and the vice-chair of the parent Pacifica board, respectively. Aaron argues that if you're going to claim that reserving airtime for KPFA elections means less time for international politics, you might as well say the same thing about the music slots. As for Edwards-Tiekert's complaint about the process, she says that democracy is sloppy, and that's the price you pay for something as special as KPFA. "We're an experiment in democratic media," says Aaron. "What a thought! Most media is controlled by big corporations. We're controlled by our members."
But to Edwards-Tiekert, Aaron and Wanzala represent the sort of fringe personalities that KPFA's hyperdemocracy allows to flourish. Aaron, for example, is a Scientologist, and Wanzala is sympathetic to the 9/11 Truth movement. That such people have managed to exercise control over the network drives him crazy.
"With that threshold of 15 signatures on a petition, you get exactly what you'd expect," he says. "You get 9/11 Truthers, you get fringe sectarian groups, and you get people who want to trade in their elected position for a job."
Aaron bristles when told that Edwards-Tiekert mentioned her affiliation with Scientology. "I don't think religious discrimination has any place at Pacifica," she says. "I never mix my personal beliefs with my political work. I have a right to my own personal beliefs whatever they are."
As for Wanzala, he claims that he is merely "agnostic" when it comes to 9/11. "I just don't think it's been investigated sufficiently."
And so it goes yet again at KPFA. Edwards-Tiekert is calling for an end to this system once and for all.
Aaron has her own solution; she pointedly notes that a movement is starting to recall Edwards-Tiekert from the KPFA board. Round whatever is just about to start.
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