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Air America – gone. Current TV - gone. Al Jazeera America - gone

Pacifica Radio

Pacifica Radio: An Insider’s View—Grace Aaron

Only Pacifica Radio is still standing.

Many have lamented the perpetual dysfunction and drama surrounding Pacifica. But Pacifica has somehow endured for almost 70 years. It's time to fix it. Actually, it's past time to fix it. The need for revitalization is urgent. All five stations are struggling financially but financial shortfalls at two of the stations are so severe that they are threatening the survival of the entire network.

Also, Pacifica is currently being investigated by the California Attorney General, has lost its Corporation for Public Broadcast funding 2 years in a row (about $2 million lost so far) because of poor financial reporting and will probably lose CPB funding for the next fiscal year. It is also not up to date on other financial reporting to federal and state agencies.

Pacifica's radio signal licenses are estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars. It would be tragic if they were lost. Progressive advocacy groups need media to project their messages. They court, beg and cajole mainstream media with mediocre results. Meanwhile, here is Pacifica, the naughty step child of the left, mostly abandoned by the groups and movements that could save it and build a powerful media force and, at the same time, increase their own clout.

Here's a quote from the Pacifica Bylaws:

"The Foundation is committed to peace and social justice, and seeks to involve in its governance and operations individuals committed to these principles."

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Let me say loud and clear that you are formally invited to join Pacifica governance! Yes, I mean YOU!! What does that entail? Let me explain.

Pacifica has democratically elected local boards that, in turn, elect members of the Pacifica National Board, which controls all its stations and assets. If competent and committed people are elected to these local boards there is a good chance that Pacifica could be fixed.

Pacifica has been mismanaged and misgoverned. The Pacifica National Board has the ability to change the management of the Foundation for the better. The local boards can also spur better management at each of the 5 stations. If the Local and National boards were improved they could make the bold management changes needed and Pacifica could probably be repaired. It wouldn't be easy, but it could be done. There are elections for local boards at each of the five Pacifica stations. A National Election Supervisor has just been hired and the local board elections will begin on June 1st. The local boards each elect four people to the Pacifica National Board. The first step is to elect competent people to the local boards who then elect their most qualified members to the National Board. It's as simple as that.

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There is a very short window for nominations to these boards. The nomination period is scheduled to open on June 1st and only lasts for 1 month. It's extremely important that competent, committed people be elected to these boards. Elections are held every two out of three years. As there was an election in 2015, after this current election there won't be another one for 2 years. That means this election is crucial to the survival of Pacifica Radio!

If you want further information, please don't hesitate to email me. Or you can go to CandidateSlate.org or your local station website.

But isn't radio on the decline? Is it worth investing in? Isn't everyone on the net? Au contraire. Radio listenership has declined only about 5% in the last 15 years. That's less than 1/3 of a percent a year.

According to a recent Nielsen report, "radio leads all other platforms when it comes to weekly reach (93%) among adult consumers".

Statista says:

"Radio is the second most powerful medium in the United States, reaching 59 percent of the country’s population daily. In comparison, 49 percent are reached by the Internet while print media accounts for 13 percent. Only TV, with a daily reach of 80 percent, is consumed on a daily basis by a broader audience. Online radio is, somewhat surprisingly, used by just 15 percent of American radio listeners, even though close to 80 percent of the U.S. population has access to the internet." * Source for statistics: Nielsen Advertising Information Service

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According to the Pew Research Center, “traditional AM/FM radio…continues to reach the overwhelming majority of the American public. As a platform it is stronger than ever as more and more ways to listen continue to emerge.” News/talk/information stations are one of the most popular broadcast radio formats, with an 11% share of listeners among the age 12-and-up demographic in 2014. That is second only to country music.

Some of our signal areas have seen radio listenership increase. Los Angeles has had increased listenership. Commutes are longer because of increased traffic which has boosted radio listenership. 64% of listeners in the greater Los Angeles area listen away from home. Unfortunately, KPFK listenership has been declining for at least the last 10 years. Contrary to the opinions of some, this decline cannot be attributed to Southern Californians listening less to radio.

Here are some more interesting statistics for you:

  • Three out of four Employed Adults 18+ listen to Radio each day (74.5%). (Nielsen Audio, Q2 2014, Los Angeles Metro, Employed Adults 18+, Monday – Friday, 5a-mid)
  • More Adults 18+ listen to the Radio each day (69.5%) than listen to any
  • Satellite Radio in past week (10.2%). (Nielsen Audio, Q2 2014, Los Angeles Metro, Adults 18+, Monday -Friday, 5a-mid and Scarborough Release 2 2014, August 2013 – July 2014, Los Angeles Metro, Adults 18+)
  • More people hear Radio each day (69.5%) than visit Pandora in the past
  • month (21.2%). (Nielsen Audio, Q2 2014, Monday – Friday, 5a-mid and Scarborough Release 2 2014, August 2013 – July 2014, Los Angeles Metro, Adults 18+)
  • *Seven out of ten people (69.5%) listen to Radio for 2 hours every day.
  • (Nielsen Audio, Q2 2014, Los Angeles Metro, Persons 18+, Monday – Friday, 5a-mid)

AM/FM RADIO REMAINS THE AUDIO SERVICE USED BY MOST AMERICANS

What are Pacifica's problems and are there any solutions?

There is a simple solution. Pacifica has democratically elected local boards that, in turn, elect members of the Pacifica National Board, which controls all its stations and assets. If competent and committed people were to be elected to these local boards there is a good chance that Pacifica could be fixed.

As mentioned earlier, electing competent people to the local boards of the 5 Pacifica stations is the key.

Let me give some details. The Pacifica Foundation owns 5 radio stations: KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFA in Berkeley, KPFT in Houston, WBAI in New York and WPFW in Washington, D.C.

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It also has an affiliate network of about 150 stations and a historical archive. The radio stations are faltering and some have serious shortfalls. All this may push the network into some form of bankruptcy if not remedied soon.

But there is another problem facing Pacifica. As mentioned earlier, its failure to comply with federal, state and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) financial reporting requirements has already resulted in the loss of its funding from the CPB (typically 10% of its annual gross income). Also, Pacifica is currently being audited by the California Attorney General. If Pacifica doesn't straighten out its financial reporting miasma it could lose its nonprofit status and its licenses to broadcast. This is very serious!

Some have the view that Pacifica can't be saved. They say that the financial situation is too dire to be remedied. This makes no sense. It is true that Pacifica has debts of $3 or $4 million. But its assets are worth something around $100 million. Also, Pacifica still has an annual gross income of $11 to $12 million dollars. The current financial situation is not sustainable because the stations have income that is lower than their expenses. But this could be remedied. Part of the problem is that Pacifica owes approximately $2 million to Democracy Now! because of past failures to remit monies owed to it under a now expired contract. Because this debt is on our books, we cannot easily secure lines of credit or loans. Of course, this isn't the only reason our credit rating is low. Obviously, our failure to comply with standard financial reporting deadlines has not helped.

Although Pacifica stations have lumbered along somehow managing to keep programs on the air and pay staff and expenses, these stations have been going through a long term decline in listenership and membership. Gimmicks have been used to drive up the income at some of the stations. KPFK started this trend about 10 years ago by offering unique premiums such as videos about conspiracy theories such as those surrounding 9-11, health remedies and other controversial subjects. These brought in significant amounts of money. In fact, these premiums generally raised more money, per hour, than other fund drive efforts. Now KPFK pre-empts its regular programming during a large portion of its fund drives and offers premiums on a variety of subjects. These unusual short term solutions have become permanent and have helped shore up KPFK and WBAI financially but have undermined the listenership and membership at those stations, particularly irking it's long time members and supporters.

Better governance gives us the first step to fixing Pacifica.

The Pacifica stations are all located in metropolitan areas with huge populations. Most of the public knows only one thing about us -- our programming. As 80% of Pacifica's income has traditionally come from on-air fund drives urging listeners to support the station, it makes sense that if we had more listeners our fund drives would be more successful.

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Programming improvement is the key to saving Pacifica.

Programming improvement is an immediate, short, medium AND long term solution to Pacifica's problems.

There is nothing that will improve our on air fundraising more quickly than programming improvement. A radio professional explained this to me. We have a loyal audience, even if it is not large. If our programming is improved many of them will stay tuned in longer and that's where you get an immediate boost in listenership. If more people are listening, more people will hear and respond to our fundraising appeals.

Station Managers have been reluctant to change programming, mainly because programmers who fear their shows will be taken off the air pressure station management and the local boards. Programmers often have friends and family on the boards to ensure that their shows won't be axed. As each station sometimes has 100 or more programmers (mostly unpaid) and they each have friends and family, this lobbying can be overwhelming. Hardly any manager has had the courage to do what really needs to be done -- improve the programming! Marc Cooper, a former host and news director at KPFK summed it up in a 2014 news article, “The central underlying problem at Pacifica is that in the end, what dictates everything is the individual programmer's desire to hold onto his or her airtime. Management has always been weak.”

There are lots of good programs around. Each Pacifica station has access to programming from the other 4 stations. Programming from the Pacifica Affiliates can also be used. And don't forget the content from the Pacifica Archives, which has always been very popular with listeners.

Programming improvement is the simplest, fastest and most cost effective way to increase revenue at all Pacifica stations. Traditionally, about 80% of the gross income of the 5 Pacifica stations has come from on-air fundraising. Another 10% has come from off-air fundraising and 10% from Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, we have temporarily lost our CPB funding, which has seriously impacted our revenue. It would, of course, be good to increase off-air fundraising, but it would be wise to concentrate on improving our tried and true revenue stream, which has always been on-air fundraising.

Money, or lack of it, is not really the main problem Pacifica is facing. Those of us who really care about Pacifica want to see it have greater impact on the world around us. We want to provide information and inspiration to our communities, nation and the world. We know that what we broadcast is rarely available elsewhere. Concentrating on increasing revenue alone doesn't satisfy what we're all here for. Increasing listenership does. Increasing listenership will, of course, increase revenue as we will be appealing to larger audiences and that will result in greater per day fund drive donations.

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” - Albert Einstein

Our listeners know our stations through our programming. Very few of them pay attention to our internal affairs. If we want more support we should improve what's on the air. We need to do market research to find out what people in our signal area want to hear more of and what we're not covering that is important to them. We need to improve our production values. We need to ensure that our signals are as audible as possible in as large a geographical area as possible.

It is also urgent that we improve the speed and accuracy of our financial reporting. We have lost our Corporation for Public Broadcast funding for at least 2 years now and it looks like we will not be receiving any for the upcoming year. This is a terrible waste! This funding is about $1 million per year! We can't afford to lose it because we simply haven't been able to get our bookkeeping done! Currently, 3 of our stations do not have business managers. They don't even have staff who can do simple bookkeeping tasks. Because of this we are having trouble getting our 2014 Audit completed. And if we don't get our fiscal year 2015 audit completed by June 15th we will most likely forfeit our CPB funding again.

Obviously, standard business practises need to be instituted and implemented. We need to do periodic evaluations of programmers, staff and managers. Business managers need to provide financial information in a timely manner and our income and expenditures need to be as transparent, current and as available as possible.

Our managers should be evaluated on clearly stated performance criteria. Underperforming personnel should be given any help they need to improve. But we should also be willing to remove those who continue to underperform, whether paid or unpaid.

We should ensure that our performance criteria is objective. Also, we also need to maintain our principles and adherence to the Pacifica Mission. Our programming should reflect our values.

Why not secure major donor funding?

First of all, the Charity Navigator has listed a 'donor advisory' for Pacifica. This is serious and discourages larger donations and makes it very difficult to get grant and major donor funding.

Also, our fiercely independent programming rubs many establishment types the wrong way. For example, this has negatively affected KPFK in the past and very recently. The KPFK Folio of Mid April, 2016 stated:

'Ralphs has succumbed to pressure from the pro-war website "Join the Boycott," which instigated a social media campaign and active protest against Ralphs because of the grocery company's support of KPFK. Kendra Doyel, Vice President of Public Relations and Government Affairs for Ralphs, cited emails and a protest at Ralphs' Beverwill and Pico location that claimed KPFK is "anti-Israel" and "anti-Semitic." This is the second time Ralphs has endorsed "Join the Boycott's" opposition to KPFK, the first time in 2009.'

A few years ago KPFK lost support from Whole Foods due to similar pressure.

Pacifica has invested in development in the past from time to time but the results have been less than encouraging as far as I can tell. In 2009, Pacifica hired a National Development Director. This investment was a total failure. KPFK had a Development Director in 2006 and 2007. To my recollection, this staff member barely raised her own salary.

Let's take a look at the Audited Financials for KCRW, an NPR station that is located in Santa Monica California. It is similar to KPFK in that it is a news/talk station with some music. Its annual expenses are about $21 million. Its fundraising expenses are about $4.5 million, or about 21%. It's true that KCRW receives considerable major donor, grant and corporate sponsorship funding, however, this funding is not automatic. KCRW invests heavily in efforts to keep this revenue stream going.

Our Pacifica stations could do likewise, but planning and investment would be needed.

The fastest way to improve our chances of raising major donor and grant money is to vastly improve our financial reporting, institute standard business practices, and improve our programming and our public relations. Of course, volunteer efforts to raise funds are always welcome.

From time to time we get bequests and other large donations. This is often due to good work done many years ago. In my opinion, planned giving and other major donor efforts can reap significant rewards, but they often are rewards that will be harvested in the future.

I hope that somehow board members, managers or staff will procure significant major donor income and prove my arguments wrong. If you know an extremely wealthy person, please do not discourage him or her from giving us a large gift. This can happen, but it is usually the exception, not the rule.

What about putting on major fundraising events?

Past efforts to do so have had mixed results. In May 2013, KPFK had a major fundraiser at the Nokia Theater that lost $50,000. WPFW put on a major event in 2006 (not certain of the exact date). It was very well attended and a public relations success and it purportedly raised a significant amount of money. However, a later audit of the proceeds found that the event actually lost about $35,000.

Several stations hold smaller events on a regular basis that are successful at raising money. However, these events sometimes take up a lot of staff time and resources. Events that are mainly run by volunteers can and have been successful in raising some amounts of money and I believe an annual major fundraiser put on by KPFA is consistently profitable. My knowledge of the details of these events is somewhat sketchy, but I do know that over a period of at least 10 years many off air fundraising efforts have been tried at the 5 Pacifica stations. Some have had some success, but none have raised enough to indicate that this type of revenue generation would ever supplant on air fundraising. Of course, off air fundraising is a vital part of the mix as it has always provided about 10% of Pacifica's income. Also, it improves our interface with communities in our signal areas and promotes our stations.

I recall Kim Klein, a very well known progressive fundraiser, giving a good piece of advice in a lecture I attended. She said that it would be wise to apply the rule that if your organization gets 60% of its revenue from a particular form of fundraising it would be wise to devote 60% of your time to enhancing that type of fundraising. Applying that advice, we should be spending 80% of our effort on enhancing on-air fundraising as that's where we've been getting at least 80% of our income. We shouldn't neglect off-air efforts, but the amount of time, effort and investment in off-air income should probably be about 10% or so.

What about accepting Corporate Underwriting?

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First, it's unlikely that we would be offered underwriting due to our poor Charity Navigator rating and our coverage of controversial issues. Beyond that, there's a reason that Pacifica has fought to remain free from corporate influence and FIERCELY INDEPENDENT. This reason was best stated in a Ralph Nader interview of Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, the newsletter for Fairness & Accuracy in Media:

“We did couple of studies in the past year or so of the boards of public radio and public TV stations. And it is astonishing how packed these are with corporate interests, with corporate executives, largely from the financial industry. They are the large majority on almost every board that you can find them on your local PBS or NPR station. And that is because the fundraising at these institutions focuses on getting millionaires to write them big checks. And that is what keeps the lights on there. And they also depend very heavily on corporate underwriting which would be called “advertising” if it was on a regular station. But they refer to it as “underwriting” because it's public television...Regular people send checks in and get a tote bag in return, they are paying for the infrastructure. They are paying for the studio and for the broadcasting tower and so on, and the actual content is paid for, largely by the corporations. And so they are the ones who really have the say on what goes out over the air. And more often than in the past, you are seeing corporations being able to give money to programming on PBS that boosts the corporation. You know they are not, as you know, just polishing their image by being up against quality programming. They are actually able to get programming out that is propaganda for their product.”

Is Pacifica still relevant?

Many of us think Pacifica is more relevant and needed than ever. It provides some balance and push back to the rightward trend of major media. As explained earlier, people still listen to radio more than any other audio platform. People who use media on demand such as internet and cable TV sources often simply go to sites that support their underlying views. Radio can expand their understanding of subjects they might not seek out on their own.

Media has become more and more consolidated, newspapers have been struggling financially, investigative reporting is more the exception than the rule and huge sums have been expended to subsidize conservative ideology.

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It's not well known that many right wing media outlets are not as popular as they seem. Some are heavily subsidized by billionaires, often from foreign countries. One example is the approximately $100 million per year subsidization of The Washington Times year after year by foreign sponsors linked to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Another is the funding by Rupert Murdock of Fox News and other media outlets. Enormous sums of money have been poured into our supposedly 'free' media by corporate heavyweights who have also subverted public media to a good extent.

For updated news about the goings on at Pacifica, see https://pacificainexile.org/

Given the financial and other forces lined up against Pacifica, it's miraculous that this network has remained on the air for 70 years! As a friend of mine once told me, "Freedom isn't free, but it's worth it."

If free media is important to you, if democratic media seems like a good idea, please support the upcoming Pacifica local board elections in any way you can! We need candidates for our local boards in D.C., New York, Houston, Berkeley and Los Angeles and we need people to help them get elected. For further information, go to: www.CandidateSlate.org.

grace aaron

Grace Aaron
Pacifica National Board Member 2008, 2009 and 2016, interim Exec Dir 2009

The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own and do not represent Pacifica Radio, or any faction, group or entity related or unrelated to Pacifica.

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