Pacifica Radio Board Elections

Terry Goodman critiques Matthew Lasar

On 21 Jun 2010, Matthew Lasar wrote: Pacifica radio board elections? count me out

For the uninitiated, here's Pacifica radio's internal democracy in a nutshell. Periodically the network's bona fide listener subscribers and staff (paid and volunteer) vote for local boards of 24 members each.

Terry Goodman: Actually, they vote for delegate candidates, not LSB candidates. The Local Station Boards have 24 delegate members and one or more non-delegate members, with a third of the delegates terming out at each election.

Matthew Lasar: These boards have some authority over budgets and key management hirings.

Terry Goodman: If an LSB can't approve a budget, the PNB will approve one for them. The LSBs cannot choose any hire, but can prevent a permanent GM or PD hire by not including the ED or GM's favorite in their candidate pool. If the ED or GM has no favorite or no interest, the LSB's favorite may be hired. If the ED or GM has a favorite not in the LSB's pool, then the hire is called "interim" but may last years.

Matthew Lasar: They also appoint delegates to the network's ultimate authority: the Pacifica Governing Board,

Terry Goodman: The delegates (not the LSBs) elect Directors (four from each station area). The Directors are not really "delegates" since their fiduciary responsibilities are to the Foundation. They are not bound to any LSB votes but can be recalled through a special meeting of the local delegates.

Matthew Lasar: which appoints a new Executive Committee every year.

Terry Goodman: Pacifica abolished the PNB Executive Committee in the Settlement Agreement. There is a Directors-only Coordinating Committee that plans in--person meetings, but it is not generally empowered to take other actions on the Board's behalf.

Matthew Lasar: The Governing Board oversees the Pacifica Foundation, which owns all Pacifica property, including the network's five FM licenses in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Houston.

Terry Goodman: Correct.

Matthew Lasar: Worse by any standard

But by any metric, democracy at Pacifica has been a disaster.

Terry Goodman: It has not resulted in good governance, which is the best metric.

Matthew Lasar: Has it alleviated Pacifica's famously contentious atmosphere? No.

Terry Goodman: Democratization has formalized contention in election campaigns and in meetings conducted under the rules of parliamentary procedure, giving public voice to representatives of listeners, who previously had no formal outlet.

Matthew Lasar: In fact, the internal life of Pacifica has arguably become much worse on a day-to-day level.

Terry Goodman: The internal life of Pacifica - what goes on between management and staff at the stations -- has been generally unaffected by governance democratization, aside from the inconvenience of occasional meetings on station property.

Matthew Lasar: Has it helped to improve the network's air sound? To the extent that there have been improvements, they have taken place in spite of Pacifica governance, not because of it.

Terry Goodman: Governance can encourage or discourage air sound improvements, but that's not its real role.

Matthew Lasar: Are Pacifica's finances in better shape because of its democratic structure? Hardly. According to its latest audit, Pacifica Radio earned $12,594,835 in revenue in 2009, a calamitous drop of $4.2 million from 2008, which saw revenue of $16,768,908. In other words, Pacifica lost the equivalent of a third of its earnings for last year. Most of that decline was in listener support and donations, which tanked by 27 percent.

Terry Goodman: Except for governance expenses, the primary responsibility for declining revenues rests with management, which is dependent upon staff. The PNB does choose the Executive Director. The Executive Director does choose station General Managers (but the Local Boards can theoretically impede a GM dismissal).

Matthew Lasar: Two more years of decline like this, and I fear that for all practical purposes, Pacifica will cease to exist. But that doesn't stop the organization from spending a queen's ransom on what seems to be the most important activity to its leadership: governance and the network's failed system of listener-subscriber elections, in which only slightly more than a tenth of the subscribers actually participate.

Terry Goodman: There will be costs in governance, whether democratized or not. Previous governance likely delivered more value for the expense, but also with significant risk.

Matthew Lasar: A "gross exaggeration?"

How much do these elections cost? Who knows?

Terry Goodman: Each Pacifica election costs in the neighborhood of $200,000. There are delegate elections in two out of every three years.

Matthew Lasar: According to this financial document, in 2009 Pacifica spent over a quarter of a million on "board expense" -- $265,687 to be exact.

Terry Goodman: That's the cost of governance.

Matthew Lasar: Another $323,074 was spent on "communications expense,"

Terry Goodman: I don't know what that is. Teleconference fees should already be included in the "board expense" line item.

Matthew Lasar: and $331,640 went to "community events and development."

Terry Goodman: That's not a governance expense.

Matthew Lasar: I'm guessing that somewhere in that cool 900K is the actual sum spent to keep that scary circus otherwise known as Pacifica governance in the manner to which it has grown accustomed.

Terry Goodman: The $265,687 figure is closer. Pacifica's democratized PNB has "grown accustomed" to not having the level of perks awarded to previous Pacifica Directors, but there's more Directors under the new system, which means more flights, more hotel rooms, and more inflated catering fees.

Matthew Lasar: I've got the numbers from earlier years (documents folder here). In 2004 the network spent $206,571 in "board election expenses." In 2005 it was $183,941.

Terry Goodman: Membership elections are expensive. Printing and postage costs a lot.

Matthew Lasar: Pacifica's finances web site doesn't include the audits for 2006 through 2008.

Terry Goodman: Pacifica laid off its webmaster a couple of years ago.

Matthew Lasar: And for some reason this latest audit doesn't break that figure down.

Terry Goodman: Pacifica switched auditors last year.

Matthew Lasar: But maybe some recent correspondence can help. Media scholar and Counterpunch author Ian Boal put the last election's cost at $700,000. "This is a gross exaggeration," a former National Board Chair protested in a response.

Terry Goodman: It was a gross exageration. Boal is a poor source for any Pacifica information or analysis.

Matthew Lasar: "The election cost less than half that amount, including lawsuits."

Maybe or maybe not. But for the sake of argument, I'm presuming that the last round cost Pacifica around a third of a million dollars, "including lawsuits," which have become a normal part of Pacifica's internal life.

Terry Goodman: Most Pacifica lawsuits have been initiated by employees or former employees. An election-related suit in Houston was dismissed with minor expense to the Foundation. An election-related suit in Los Angeles was dropped with minor expense to the Foundation. An election-related suit in New York has cost far more than it should, because the Foundation (as in Los Angeles) was following poor advice and refusing to correct its errors.

Matthew Lasar: So if we speculate that in 2006 through 2008 election expenditures stayed at the lowest figure available (2005: $183,941), Pacifica has spent close to a million on its politicians over the last six years.

Terry Goodman: Pacifica's politicians receive little benefit from the elections, which are designed to benefit the members by giving them a voice in governance. Local board expenses are usually in the range of $100 to $200 per month for venue rental and such. National board expenses are much greater.

Matthew Lasar: That's the equivalent of salaries and benefits for two dozen reporters, on-air hosts, and producers.

Terry Goodman: Yes, without democratization there would be no election expenses.

Matthew Lasar: So how did we get into this mess? That requires an analysis of how we got in. Here's mine.

No Left

When this new system was initiated, Pacifica had just recovered from the awful management coups at KPFA and WBAI-FM in New York City from 1999 through 2001. The crude philosophy behind these actions backfired, of course, especially after 10,000 KPFA subscribers demonstrated on behalf of their closed station and reacted with alarm to Pacifica National Board deliberations to sell the license.

Terry Goodman: Yes, though the "deliberations to sell the license" could more fairly be characterized as "the initial distribution of a proposal to cash in commercial band licenses by swapping them for noncommercial band licenses."

Matthew Lasar: Thus came ever louder calls to reclaim the organization, which lunged Pacifica in the opposite direction: the excruciatingly democratic by-laws of 2002, partially summarized above. This reform had its heart in the right place, but the conditions for its success were never met. Making democracy at Pacifica radio work would have required an enormous commitment from progressives across the country.

Terry Goodman: The primary condition for success that was not met was cooperation and commitment from Pacifica's management.
Matthew Lasar: The task needed an influx of skilled people and money. But none of that materialized in 2002 and 2003. Quite the contrary, the national celebrities who very actively supported the democratization of Pacifica from 1999 through 2001 walked away from the project.

To be fair, they had bigger fish to fry by 2002: Web 2.0 and its possibilities beckoned, the Bush regime was in full swing, the war in Iraq was impending.

Terry Goodman: Continuing national celebrity involvement may have helped in securing a better Executive Director, but even a professional Board would have needed Foundation management to cooperate in providing information for Board deliberations.

Matthew Lasar: But there were less noble reasons for the abandonment of the cause. Various luminaries in media and the academy (Zinn; Ellsberg; Chomsky) offered rhetorical support to Pacifica democracy on behalf of individual Pacifica programmers and staff who were, in fact, just trying to save their jobs or shows at the stations. Not a few individuals who cheered the process on read the Pacifica fight less as a institution building project, and more as a metaphor for the larger corporatization of media. And the losers in the struggle - those who supported the old regime - certainly weren't going to lend a hand to Pacifica's reconstruction.

Terry Goodman: Management non-cooperation with the new governance allowed managers to continue on with little accountability.

Matthew Lasar: Bottom line: the American Left was willing to fight the Pacifica war, but it wasn't willing to stick around for the peace. And democracies don't just magically work by themselves. They need resources and stability to flourish. Instead, democratized Pacifica radio found itself starved for support during a period of declining radio listenership and revenue.

Terry Goodman: The amateurs elected as Delegates in Pacifica's early elections didn't know enough to get themselves trained, and Pacifica's managers didn't care enough about being responsibly governed to invest in that needed training. Over the next year or two, bad habits then became the ways things in governance were done (or not done).

Matthew Lasar: Bottoms up

Into this void stepped elements who until then had been excluded from Pacifica governance. In my opinion, no one will ever describe them better than Boal, also horrified by the present situation: "the esperantists, propeller heads, world government paranoiacs, and stranded Maoists who are regularly elected with as few as two hundred votes out of the many tens of thousands of listeners at each station."

Terry Goodman: It's exaggeration, but it makes the point.

Matthew Lasar: Apparently the chair to WBAI's Local Station Board as of January thought he was being reasonable when he assured a New York Times reporter that, while he embraces various 9/11 conspiracy theories, "He draws a line at those who believe that the planes that hit the World Trade Center towers were holograms."

Terry Goodman: First of all, the comment was filtered through the brain of a New York Times reporter. Second of all, everyone embraces various 9/11 conspiracy theories -- there was more than a single airliner hijacked simultaneously, so there was obviously a conspiracy.

Matthew Lasar: Earlier the Pacifica National Board's governance committee considered a funding disclosure motion "the objective" of which was "to have [Democracy Now's] Amy Goodman tell us where she's getting money and what the money is buying."

Terry Goodman: The purpose of the motion was to establish a Pacifica policy on program funding disclosure. Apparently, if Pacifica already had such a policy, it was not made available to its Board of Directors.

Matthew Lasar: The reason for the motion, its advocate explained, "is because there has been a lot of debate about whether Amy Goodman has received CIA conduit foundation funding from the Ford Foundation and other places known long time suspected conduits for CIA funding."

Terry Goodman: The maker of the motion had apparently received information about the content of Democracy Now!'s annual public IRS Form 990 filings that he considered alarming, but whether or not he had cause for alarm doesn't detract from the fact that having a policy on funding disclosures would be a good thing. The Federal Communications Commission requires sponsorship identification in broadcast programming, and It is appropriate for Pacifica to, at a minimum, insure its regulatory compliance.

Matthew Lasar: Boal correctly identifies the problem as stemming in large part from Pacifica's single transferable voting system, which picks winners who have received very few votes.

Terry Goodman: No, delegates are elected with few votes because there are few voters and there are several delegate seats to fill in each election.

Matthew Lasar: But it's also what the by-laws don't require that has contributed to the problem. First, almost all LSB seats go to elected listener delegates.

Terry Goodman: Three-quarters of the delegates are from the listener-sponsor category of members.

Matthew Lasar: A smaller portion go to station staff elected by the staff. That excludes a huge constituency on the Left -- talented people who have something to contribute, but don't want to run in elections.

Terry Goodman: Nothing in the Pacifica Mission limits Foundation participation to "left" constituencies. Talented people who have something to contribute to governance should be incorporated via LSB advisory committees doing the real work of governance; but most LSBs have structured their committees to discourage good advice, in part because the elected Delegates have never been trained in the principles of policy governance, the parliamentary rules on the proper composition of committees, or the meaning of the bylaws section that briefly explains how these LSB committees were intended to be structured.

Matthew Lasar: Second, Pacifica's by-laws don't establish a clear firewall between governance and programming. So most individuals elected to Pacifica's boards see their job as in some capacity acting as the program director for their respective Pacifica station.

Terry Goodman: Good point.

Matthew Lasar: At one Berkeley LSB meeting that I attended, the discussion was ostensibly about approving the station budget. But several board members launched into rants about how the problem with the budget was that they experienced KPFA's programming as too dull; that was the real issue.

Terry Goodman: That's the issue when evaluating the performance of a Program Director. The KPFA LSB hasn't done especially well in establishing a pool of candidates for the position while the station rotates through General Managers.

Matthew Lasar: In the last election, a Bay Area newspaper endorsed candidates who promised to try to get the paper's editors air time on KPFA.

Terry Goodman: Even in Pacifica, you can't trust campaign promises.
Matthew Lasar: In short, most of Pacifica's "board members" don't actually see themselves as board members, preoccupied with the unglamorous but necessary work of such folk -- budgets, recruitment, capital campaigning, strategic planning, and such. They really want to be their station's general manager or program director, or spend their days telling those people what to do. Their campaign statements are inevitably about "taking back" their station because it isn't radical, diverse, militant, conspiracy focused or what-have-you enough. And once they get their board seat, they find themselves confronted by other self-appointed saviors with contrasting agendas, and paralyze their board's potential usefulness with their disagreements.

Terry Goodman: True enough. Until LSB members obtain the necessary training to understand the role assigned to these bodies in the bylaws (and the potential role that could be delegated by the PNB), they will not establish local governance mechanisms that will attract candidates interested in doing the real work that could be done in those roles.

Matthew Lasar: Some folks have offered services in contrast to the above, it should be noted. Here in the Bay Area, the Concerned Listeners slate has fought the good fight to bring skills and sanity to the governance table. But they've been consistently bludgeoned by the propeller heads. Anyone would be. Pacifica governance as it is currently constructed is a losing game for the reasonable person.

Terry Goodman: Appropriate board training will require a management initiative and additional investment.

Matthew Lasar: The (hopefully) future

What should replace this mess? Assuming that Pacifica survives the next few years, I'd like to see governance go back to something like what it was around 1998 -- smaller, self appointed local station boards that elect delegates to the national board; some kind of mechanism of recall for lousy board members; some kind of clear proviso that board members have nothing to do with programming. That's it in the summary version.

Terry Goodman: Making the boards smaller would require bylaws amendment, but a firewall between governance and programming could be adopted as a PNB policy. Under the existing bylaws, lousy local delegates can be removed by a vote of the Directors, a vote of the local Delegates, or a vote of the local membership category after submission of a petition with enough signatures.

Governance is not rocket science and it is not broadcast management. Even inexperienced amateurs could be trained in how to do it smoothly. The key to good governance is using it as a mechanism to accomplish decisions from among competing good options. The key to that is to limit board decision-making to proposals fully-vetted by well-staffed standing advisory committees. If individual LSB Member motions were routinely referred to committee, and if the committees were staffed by volunteers from the membership chosen on the basis of their related qualifications and expertise in providing trustworthy advice in motions crafted so as to obtain majority approval with a minimum of debate, progress could be made.

Matthew Lasar: Doubtless those of you who have always found me annoying and reactionary are cheering this post (Lasar withdraws! Hooray!). Those of you at least somewhat sympathetic to my viewpoint may forward it to one or more of the slates running in this election cycle. You will probably be told that now is not the time to leave the field of battle. The situation is dire (it always is). The very future of your respective station is at stake, and your absence (being what a wonderful, indispensable person you are) would literally represent the death blow to Pacifica radio, or some significant portion of it.

Terry Goodman: The Local Station Boards have little relevance to the stations. They won't be local governing bodies until delegated additional authority by the PNB, and that won't happen before they do a better job in the role already assigned. The selection of delegates does impact the eventual selection of Directors, however; and the selection of Board Directors impacts the selection of Executive Director and the authority that he or she is allowed to exercise.

Matthew Lasar: I, on the contrary, think that your non-cooperation with this farce could actually help Pacifica radio. The organization's current by-laws stipulate that these elections must receive ballots equal to 10% to claim legitimacy. Let's send a message to Pacifica's bloated political class that it is anything but legit.

Terry Goodman: The bylaws stipulate that when quorum is not met the current delegates retain their seats with the legitimacy established in prior elections.

Matthew Lasar: And next time you pledge money to your local Pacifica station (as do I), include a note stipulating that you want your donation to be used for programming, not elections or board related administrative costs.

Terry Goodman: General listener donations are all treated the same regardless of the inclusion of stipulating notes, unless funds have been solicited for a particular purpose. Major donations and bequests can include restrictions on the use of such funds by requiring that the recipient agree to terms as a condition of fund acceptance.

Matthew Lasar: It's your call. As for me, I'm out. I supported this experiment, but it has failed.

Terry Goodman: The experiment in governance democracy has had few successes. I agree that it has largely failed, though in an environment of perpetual sabotage from within and without. It could be corrected through management initiative and relatively minor investment, but the chance of such initiative developing appears slight.

June 28, 2010
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Terry Goodman: served Pacifica in a variety of volunteer, staff, and management roles at KPFK and KPFT in the 1970's. He was elected twice to the office of KPFK Delegate following Pacifica's governance democratization, and those terms included service as Secretary of the National Finance Committee and Chair of the PNB Elections Committee, among various local positions.

Goodman is an outspoken and controversial internet list commentator on Pacifica affairs (especially Mission and Bylaws related issues), but is sufficiently recognized for fairness and personal integrity to have continued service as parliamentary advisor to some KPFK Chairs and as Teller for most KPFK area board elections. Though based in the Los Angeles area, he maintains perspective on the affairs at other stations and at Pacifica National through list participation, private correspondence, and by devouring posted documents and media files.

Goodman's opinions are sometimes informed by broad study and a variety of experiences in law, business, politics, psychology, sociology, technology, and broadcasting. He authored a rather comprehensive but admittedly biased examination of Pacifica issues in 2006, which may be found on the bottom half of the page at Pacifica Issues
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Also by Terry Goodman:

The "Gag Rule" at KPFA by Terry Goodman

The Layoffs at KPFA at KPFA by Terry Goodman


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