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Column: The crisis at iconic public radio station KPFK gets deeper

Ian Masters
KPFK host Ian Masters at the listener-sponsored station’s North Hollywood studio.
(Los Angeles Times)

As host of the political talk show “Background Briefing” on the Los Angeles listener-funded radio station KPFK, Ian Masters is used to delving into controversial, polarizing issues.

Lately, he’s been getting a lot of angry emails from listeners. But they’re not complaining about his choice of topics or even his progressive take on current affairs.

Rather, they’re expressing outrage at the amount of airtime KPFK is turning over to programs pitching alternative health and wellness nostrums and wild conspiracy theories, particularly during its ever-lengthening and ever more frequent fundraising drives.

We need a board that can attract donors and refinance the loan. Our governance doesn’t seem to be able to deal with these things.
Pacifica board member William G. Crosier
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“They can’t stand it,” Masters told me, adding that he senses the downside personally. “My credibility is assaulted every day because we’re selling this snake oil.”

That’s as concise a picture as you’re likely to get of the crisis confronting KPFK, which is now entering its seventh decade, and engulfing the Pacifica network of which it’s a flagship. Pacifica was founded by pacifists in 1946 and launched its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, in 1949.

Those stations and others in the Pacifica network have been suffering from declining audiences for years. The central board and managements overseeing the stations have tried to make up for shrinking listener donations by airing prepackaged programming.

Although those programs do bring in more money by offering gifts to donors, longtime hosts feel they may be driving away the stations’ traditional fans, exacerbating the long-term decline. The station broadcast 138 days of fundraising appeals last year; 10 or 20 years ago, says Masters, fundraising was limited to perhaps a week or so every six months.

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“We’re not fulfilling our mission through these premiums,” says Anyel Fields, KPFK’s general manager. Fields says that when KPFK made a fundraising pitch while airing political commentary following President Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, it attracted about $500 in pledges. But some health-and-wellness programs will draw $3,000 to $4,000.

“We get addicted to that,” Fields told me. “But we lose the essence of who we are.”

Among the hallmarks of truly independent thinkers is that they’re impossible to manage.

The decline of Pacifica in general and KPFK in particular represents a squandered opportunity on the radio dial. Other public broadcasting, such as National Public Radio, has been accused of moving toward the political middle, while right-wing talk radio and Fox News seem to be on the ascendance in the media universe — leaving Pacifica as one of the last progressive voices on the air.

Given that it owns the most powerful radio signal in the U.S. west of the Mississippi, KPFK’s listenership is strikingly small — a cumulative audience of about 130,000 in an average week or as few as 1,000 listeners during an average quarter-hour, or 0.3% of the Los Angeles radio audience or less at any given time, according to Fields and the Nielsen survey. The KPFK transmitter’s rated power of 110,000 watts is strong enough to reach from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

By contrast, public radio powerhouses KPCC and KCRW, with signals about one-tenth KPFK’s power, have as much as 10 times the audience.

The Pacifica Foundation, which comprises five FM radio stations — including WPFW in Washington, D.C.; KPFT in Houston; and WBAI in New York — has been in the forefront of progressive broadcasting for most of a history that encompasses landmark battles over free speech and politics.

In 1957, KPFA won a George Foster Peabody Award for programming critical of Joseph McCarthy. The network supported protests of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and in 1970, its KPFT was forced off the air when the Ku Klux Klan blew up its transmitter tower.

WBAI was the original broadcaster of comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine, drawing a reprimand from the Federal Communications Commission in 1973 that was later narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court.

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In recent years Pacifica has lurched from financial crisis to crisis. But more recently the problems have coalesced into an all-encompassing emergency amounting to what then-interim Executive Director John Vernile called in September “an existential threat.”

Few corporations in the world strive to project as sunny a public image as Walt Disney Co.

The threat partially reflects dysfunction on Pacifica’s board of directors. With 22 representatives elected by “members” of the local stations — defined as anyone who contributes $25 or more in a year — the Pacifica National Board is regarded by experts in nonprofit governance as too large to provide effective leadership, especially since members seem to spend as much time on internal squabbling as on the immediate problems facing the network.

The directors also have been accused of micromanaging the local stations, creating confusion among the staff. The extent to which the board is “involved” in management decision-making is “more than anything we have experienced,” the National Educational Telecommunications Assn., which provides administrative services to public media licensees and has been assisting Pacifica, told directors late last year.

Management turnover has been unrelenting, with 19 executive directors or interim executive directors having served since 2003.

Pacifica’s financial prospects lend new meaning to the term “dire.” In his September presentation to the board, Vernile — who lasted only a few months in his position — pointed to a “spiraling cash flow crisis.”

That’s merely the latest manifestation of a long-term decline. In fiscal 2000, according to an audited financial report, the foundation had assets of $8 million; it operated in the black, with revenue of $11.5 million from listener donations, grants and other sources and expenses of $10.9 million.

The term “socialism” has been enjoying something of a vogue lately, typically used to describe policies that were part of American mainstream politics as recently as the 1980s.
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By fiscal 2017, the network had accumulated an operating deficit of $4.6 million. It owed a total of more than $8.2 million, which swamped its depleted assets of $3.7 million. The auditors said the foundation’s condition raised “substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

The chief drain on Pacifica’s resources has been WBAI. As Vernile told the board, the New York station had been derelict in its financial support of the network’s overhead and had been unable to meet its payroll, forcing the other four stations to make up the difference and drain their own coffers to keep WBAI operating.

WBAI was also the source of the most pressing challenge then — and still: a $3.25-million emergency loan Pacifica received in 2018. The loan covered Pacifica’s back rent (plus interest) to the owners of the Empire State Building for the broadcasting antenna of WBAI, which had been perched atop the landmark Manhattan skyscraper.

The loan, which was advanced by FJC, a nonprofit lender to charitable organizations, allowed for interest-only payments until this June — at a floating rate that is currently 7.5%. After that the foundation will have to start paying down the principal as well, a total of $73,000 per quarter, followed by a balloon payment of the remaining balance in April 2021. The auditors said in 2017 that it was “not entirely clear” how the loan would be paid off. It’s still unclear.

In October, Vernile attempted to stem the outflow of funds to WBAI by laying off virtually its entire staff, canceling its local programming and substituting feeds from Pacifica’s national programs. But those steps were blocked by a state judge. Vernile was subsequently overruled by the board and left his post.

Vernile observed that Pacifica has numerous options to meet its financial demands, none of them palatable. The foundation owns the studios of KPFK, KPFA and KPFT, properties that could be worth about $11 million total on the real estate market. (KPFK’s studio is on Cahuenga Boulevard in North Hollywood, hard by the 101 Freeway.) All three properties are pledged as collateral for the loan, however — raising the possibility that the stations might become homeless if the loan isn’t paid off or renegotiated.

Pacifica’s most valuable asset may be WBAI’s spot on the dial — 99.5 FM, in the band in which commercials are permitted; frequencies below 92.1, such as KPFK’s 90.7, are reserved for noncommercial broadcasting. WBAI’s frequency could be worth as much as $15 million if swapped to a commercial broadcaster, according to some estimates, but Vernile ruled that out, since completing such a transaction might take years and would deprive the station of part of its identity. “No one who loves and supports Pacifica should even consider selling, swapping or leasing our frequencies,” he told the board.

The governance problems at Pacifica originated, as it happens, with a movement in 2000-01 to make the board more “democratic.” Under the new rules, “members” at each flagship station elected boards of delegates, which in turn appointed four national directors; Pacifica’s more than 150 affiliate stations appointed two more.

Critics of the board say that because the vast majority of members don’t vote, the process has been co-opted by self-interested groups that have stacked the board, resulting in factionalism and dysfunction.

They’ve started a movement for new bylaws that would cut the board to 11 members and give it a majority of radio and broadcasting professionals. “We need a board that can attract donors and refinance the loan,” says William G. Crosier, a board member from Houston who is one of the leading insurgents. “Our governance doesn’t seem to be able to deal with these things.”

Incumbent directors dispute that. “The board has been very functional,” says Grace Aaron, a director representing KPFK. Aaron also maintains that WBAI has been “scapegoated” as the cause of the current fiscal crisis “because it’s running at a deficit.”

Aaron acknowledges that the foundation’s disorganized leadership has contributed to its financial issues. Because Pacifica hasn’t produced an up-to-date audited statement, she says, it’s ineligible for grants from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which deprives the foundation of as much as $1 million a year in funding.

Aaron also defends the proliferation of independently produced health and wellness programming on the Pacifica airwaves. “Because we don’t accept corporate underwriting, we’re free to speak our mind,” she told me. That includes criticism of the “pharmaceutical industrial complex.”

She says “alternative medicine is anathema on most other media but people crave information about it — some alternative medicine is wacky, but some is rational information about nutrition, and vitamins and minerals. We’ve found that to be very popular.” Yet Pacifica’s offerings sometimes cross the line into anti-vaccination claims that have been decisively debunked by scientists as well as other dubious advice.

Can KPFK be saved, or even revived? Fields says he wants to position the station as “a public and community media platform” focused on local, regional and national issues.

That would come a lot closer to the ideals of its founders, and arguably the concerns of its listeners, than health and wellness pitches. But Fields will be in a race — can he put the station back on the road to growth before its owner’s financial problems blow it to smithereens?


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