PACIFICA’S DIGITAL DIVIDE:
WHAT PRICE THE SATELLITE?
Remarks by Dan Coughlin
The following remarks are from a transcript of Dan Coughlin's speech made at a Pacifica teach-in on April 30, 2000 in San Francisco, California.
As most of you all are aware, in the last fifteen years, and especially in the last four years, there has been this incredible process of media consolidation. And this process has nowhere been more dramatic then in the radio broadcasting industry. While it's easy to see the San Francisco Examiner leave the streets, or US Newsday, it's less obvious when Westinghouse gobbles up every radio station available on the market. One effect of this process, as many of us realize and understand here tonight, is that Pacifica Radio's five FM licenses which were once commercially worthless are now valued at probably much more than 200 million dollars.
It is this commercial context, I think, that it is very important to understand what is happening at Pacifica today because it's affecting not just Pacifica but all major public broadcasters -- just like corporate interests all over the world are affecting public telecommunications, public libraries, public health, public education, publicly owned companies of all kinds. And this is a worldwide process that we call variously globalization, or privatization, Thatcherism, what have you. And of course, Pacifica Radio, as a public broadcaster is not immune from this process.
In fact if we look at public broadcasting in the United States today, it really does not exist anymore. And I'm not just talking about the corporate underwriting of the Lehrer news hour or most public television or public radio programs now being tied specifically to commercial sponsors like GE, or Archer-Daniels-Midland, or Merck. It's just like commercial sponsorship - that relationship. But now public broadcasters in the future, in the very near future, have linked up with private corporations specifically. One of the big new developments in public radio broadcasting is how PRI, Public Radio International and National Public Radio have joined with auto giants, like Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, and telecommunication companies like Laurel, and Lucent, to develop satellite radio. So very soon, I think by the end of this year, you'll be able to buy a new car with a new radio receiver and this receiver will receive digitally streamed broadcast programming from satellites.
Daimler-Chrysler has invested about 100 million dollars in one of these ventures. The Blackstone group, another major Wall Street firm, has put up 200 million dollars. This obviously has tremendous implications for content because Daimler-Chrysler is not putting 100 million dollars into new digital broadcast systems to have NPR News talk about the Nazi labor record with Daimler-Benz in the 30's or 40's, or the pollution of the Daimler-Chrysler Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, [which has caused] environmental havoc in Northwestern Ohio. So that has obvious implication for content.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced just a few weeks ago that in fact they're going to fund NPR to the tune of one million dollars to develop programming for this private venture which is, of course, another example of how the public treasury is used for private profit. So public broadcasters now, if you read the trade press, you can see unambiguously that they've linked their futures to the Daimler-Chryslers, to the Fords, to the Lucents, to the Sonys. [They have not linked themselves] to local communities, not to the farm workers of the Central Valley, not to the new social movements against globalization, or even the educational and religious and rural organizations that fought [for] and created public broadcasting in the first place. This is a fundamental shift in the very idea and practice of public broadcasting, away from the idea of serving the public interest to serving the private gain.
As Pacifica Radio News Director last year, I found myself in meetings with representatives from Microsoft, from Public Radio International, from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. [They were] telling Pacifica about news coverage or how to restructure the network or how to sell stations or how to subcontract out station management if a sale is not politically possible or why to receive corporate underwriting, or why to shift entirely to webcasting.
Perhaps this might be shocking to some of you since Pacifica's whole ethos is independent noncommercial listener-sponsored radio with a distinct civil libertarian and anticorporate culture. But in fact, it is the Federal Government, Corporate America, and powerful broadcasters that were and are shaping many Pacifica policies. And I just want to be clear; I'm not talking about a conspiracy or that Pacifica is going corporate. What I'm describing is the political context within which senior Pacifica managers are operating today in this country under these kind of conditions… So, at the barbecues, at the cocktails, at the public radio conferences these are the people who you're meeting and talking with who are trying to shape Pacifica policies and what is happening with all of radio broadcasting in the country, not just public broadcasting.
Alongside, of course, this restructuring of the industry is also a dumbing down of the content on public TV and on public radio. Now this has been widely commented on; I don't think I'll get into it too much with you all tonight, but again, Pacifica is not immune from these pressures. The CPB, public broadcasters in general, and NPR and PRI in particular, Congress, Corporate America, have put pressure on Pacifica to conform, to tone it down, to be balanced, to keep Mumia Abu Jamal off the air. And their idea of balance, of course, is Coke versus Pepsi, Republican versus Democrat. It's not that if you have a General Leslie Clark on your program, that you should have a peace activist to balance it out. And even, I think, Neil [MacLean—m.c. of the teach-in] mentioned earlier that even the liberal idea of the media as the fourth estate, as another check and balance on the government, is unacceptable. To be critical of power - it is unacceptable - you're just supposed to regurgitate what power says uncritically, and that's considered reporting.
So again, Pacifica is not immune from those kinds of pressures, and that happens consistently at the very highest levels of the organization, and even down at the lowest levels as well.
But there is, of course, an alternative for public broadcasters, for media workers and community activists. We do not have to become allied with private interests, with private corporations or with public agencies, or become Washington-centered. We do not need to listen to the sirens and the finger-wavers who are telling us to go mainstream and abandon Pacifica's anachronistic mission of peace and social justice. I think, instead of eviscerating our community roots, we need to deepen them. Instead of dumbing down, we at Pacifica need to smarten up. Instead of just trying to sit at the table in the castle, we need to go to the cottage. And we have very successful models of this approach within our network.
Take a look at Democracy Now! One of the reasons why it is successful, like breaking stories, national and international stories on a regular basis, is precisely because it comes from the bottom up. It has community roots, and it's sustained by community journalists at a vibrant community radio station, WBAI, in New York. WBAI over the years has reflected very successfully the social and political currents that are changing this country: immigration, police brutality, the African Diaspora, student sweatshop activists, the international human rights movement, globalization, the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.
This is true, I think, at KPFA. I don't know KPFA that well but some of the finest work and the finest journalists in this network are produced at the local community level - journalists like Laura Flanders, who came out of WBAI, Verna Avery Brown, who came out of WPFW, Larry Bensky, thirty years out of KPFA. These people did not come from the sky and drop down from CPB, or public broadcasters, or private corporations. They had community roots, and they were shaped and produced by social and political realities of these communities.
WBAI, in particular, under the leadership of Samori Marksman, before he passed away last year, produced some of the best programs and programming in the country. WBAI improved the quality of its shows. The shows and programs and news departments won numerous awards. WBAI, yes, it sharply increased its audience over the last decade and WBAI had the first million-dollar fundraiser in community radio history. It achieved these milestones not by killing its community roots, or by abandoning Pacifica's mission, quite the reverse: It strengthened its mission, and it strengthened its community ties. And this is very important, to understand what the real debate is in Pacifica...
Too often the debate is framed between those who want to improve the quality of programming and build audience, and those do not. That's not the debate that's happening, as far as I can see it. Rather, the issue is how do we build for the future, how do we improve the network, how do we improve our programming, how do we build audience? And this is crucial to understand, because this debate then has important implications for how the network is organized, and what kind of programming we do.
We at Pacifica can have, and I think need to have, a democratic media organization, one that starts from the bottom up, an organization that is accountable, a media that can deepen and grow through participation and representation, not by exclusion and repression. As an organization, Pacifica needs to have internal democracy and transparency at the highest levels. Pacifica also needs to find a space for great broadcasters, for people like Larry Bensky, for Laura Flanders, for Verna Avery Brown. People [who] are being driven out of the network.
I was just in LA where Frank Stoltz, [has been] the news director at KPFK. Friday was his last day. We know the conditions under which he had to work and it's a terrible loss to the network that somebody like Frank Stoltz is moving on. And this is happening throughout the network where talented producers, talented journalists, are leaving, or being driven out.
I think also Pacifica needs to not be afraid of speaking truth to power, to not be afraid of tackling the controversial issues… The present organization of society creates war and poverty and racism and, like Lew Hill, we want to abolish these conditions of human life. We shouldn't be embarrassed by that. In fact, I think this is how we can build the network, by challenging, by taking on the establishment, by being critical. This is how we can distinguish ourselves as well from the rest of the media in the United States…
For Pacifica to be able to air the voice of a journalist from death row and for Pacifica to be able to stand up to the Daimler-Chrysler's, to NPR, to the CPB, and to provide a real alternative, it needs all of us. We have to continue to organize ourselves. We are part of a growing media and democracy movement that is having a powerful effect nation wide - most recently in Seattle and Washington D.C. But, we still need to deepen and broaden our organic relations with communities and to overcome divisions, and to deepen our political work at the grass roots in order to ensure that Pacifica Radio stays true to its mission: stays a voice for people engaged in trying to change the society that we live in.
Dan Coughlin was removed from his position as director of the Pacifica National News (PNN) after airing a thirty second news report about Pacifica Affiliates one-day boycott of PNN to protest Pacifica’s censorship of KPFA news. He continues to be employed by Pacifica. This speech reflects his personal opinions.
As Pacifica Radio News Director last year, I found myself in meetings with representatives from Microsoft…[telling us] about news coverage or how to restructure the network or how to sell stations… or why to receive corporate underwriting, or why to shift entirely to webcasting.