What Happened at Pacifica? It’s Complicated

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Fresno-based KFCF Station Manager Rych Withers. Photo by Peter Maiden

By Peter Maiden

“When I talk to people about it their eyes glaze over,” said Rych Withers, station manager at Fresno’s KFCF. Yet there’s been genuine concern among KFCF listeners that Pacifica, the only left-wing radio network in the United States, is going through one of its greatest death-defying crises. In mid-January, irreplaceable assets belonging to the network were about to be seized at any moment due to debt created by WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York City.

KFCF, at 88.1 on the FM dial and live streaming at KFCF. org, is not a Pacifica station, but depends for programming and fund-raising on KPFA in Berkeley, Pacifica’s flagship station. KFCF, as listeners are aware, rebroadcasts KPFA for much of its schedule.

What would happen if KPFA were to shut down? “We would be on our own in terms of programming,” Withers said. “I’d have to come up with another 140 hours a week of programming, and we would have to restructure our fund-raising to do it all locally.” The good news for listeners is this is something he thinks KFCF can do, and he is not particularly nervous about KFCF’s future.

KFCF was founded in 1975 by a group of academics who had gathered to protect their rights to expression within local colleges and Fresno State University. They were harmonious with the rebel ethic of Pacifica. “At that point,” Withers said, “there was no NPR, no PBS, no Radio Bilingüe; there was no public media in this town at all.” KFCF owns its own transmitter and rents space on a tower located in Meadow Lakes, between Auberry and Shaver.

WBAI had signed a lease renting space on a transmitter atop the Empire State Building for $60,000 a month and then failed to pay. WBAI now owes $1.8 million plus interest and legal fees. As the Empire State got a judgment and was poised to seize real estate and bank accounts from the network’s stations, Pacifica decided to accept a $2 million loan from some Pacifica supporters in Los Angeles. This could pull Pacifica back from the brink.

According to Pacifica in Exile, a Web site about the network’s issues: “The member loan is a short-term bridge loan intended to pay off the judgment immediately and transition the organization into a three-year line of credit that will follow.” KPFK, the network’s Los Angeles station, is collateral for the loan.

The loan has to be studied by experts. The full cost of paying the transmitter bill is around $2.4 million, so more is needed. However, KPFA’s building is worth enough that a bigger loan could be pulled together securely.

There are other worries. KPFA is solvent, but altogether Pacifica has racked up debt of $8 million. It owes a pension fund and $2.5 million to Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now (she is not trying to collect). It is cash poor and cannot cover its debt. However, it is well off in terms of property.

Its real estate is worth around $10 million, and its signals are worth perhaps $100 million. Selling a building would be tough if a station would have to go off the air. Swapping one of the signals for a lower-powered signal would be a way to raise cash that leaves the network intact, although it might be opposed by some. In addition, an audit necessary to keep KPFA from losing its nonprofit status is not on deadline, and without it the station could lose its broadcasting license.

Emiliano Echeverría is the host of Cuba Canta on KPFA, a monthly show where he showcases Cuban 78s from the early 20th century up to the latest in Cuban timba, son and jazz. He said, “I’ve been at KPFA for 50 years, so I’m a little jaded in the sense that I’ve been through many crises at Pacifica. This is a constant problem.

“As a programmer, we have expectations that the people who are running the station and running the organization are going to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities properly, and to manage and maintain this corporation so that it’ll be healthy, and it’ll thrive, so that programmers don’t have to worry ‘Is my show going to go off the air?’ because the station is going belly up.”

What has leadership at Pacifica been doing, in lieu of managing the situation? According to Withers, “There’s so much infighting right now because you’ve got various factions that are vying for control, and they will do everything they can to keep whichever faction that is ‘in power’ from accomplishing anything by disrupting meetings. If you listen to any of their meetings, you’ll hear constant point of order and other various interruptions…they will spend two hours just trying to set the agenda and then the meeting is over. It’s basically been paralysis.”

Before accepting the loan idea, Pacifica considered filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Peter Franck, an intellectual property attorney in Oakland, who spent 11 years on the Pacifica Board, said the loan would be “a disastrous kicking of the can down the road,” while bankruptcy would “buy them time,” and that “a trustee ought to be appointed to manage their affairs because the current board is split down the middle and has meeting after meeting at which they come to no decisions at all.”

Franck is also concerned that the loan, should it go into default, could lead to the loss of its collateral, KPFK and the Pacifica Archives housed at KPFK. The archives could not be moved to a new facility, as the cost would be prohibitive.

Echeverría is against going into bankruptcy. He doesn’t trust the conservative courts or a trustee to have Pacifica’s interests in mind. He said, “If you’re going to have to get a loan, or anything like that, let it be from people who are basically on your side.”

Bankruptcy and accepting a short-term loan were the two ways seen as ways to buy time. The most effective way for Pacifica to raise cash, which all sides seem to be considering, is a signal “swap.” WBAI, for example, is at 99.5 on the FM dial, which is a prime location for a commercial station. The signal reaches 14 million–15 million people. With some luck, WBAI could trade that to a commercial entity for a lower-power frequency reaching only say, 9 million listeners, and take cash for the difference.

WBAI, cursed with bad managerial judgment when it came to programming, currently has only 6,000 subscribers, so a reduction in signal reach could make a lot of sense. Such a trade could bring in $15 million–$20 million, and all of Pacifica’s debts could be paid. Timing is important. Rushing a sale could bring down the price of a sale.

There’s a delay involved in how Pacifica would decide on a signal swap. Selling Pacifica property, according to Pacifica by-laws, requires the agreement of the Pacifica Board, the boards of all the stations and a vote of all listener subscribers. While a signal swap might wind up looking good to most of the people concerned, the Pacifica decision-making process is lengthy and expensive (a necessary vote of all subscribers could cost $200,000). Waiting on the process might work out, however, as it could take that long to find the right buyer for the signal.

A market-wide factor is also taking place that could bring down the value of signals. Commercial radio is becoming less viable. Corporations such as Clear Channel bought up stations with a vengeance in the 2000s, creating giant conglomerates. Clear Channel, now iHeart Radio, is facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy with $15 billion in debt. It might choose to close or unload a lot of stations.

But then one needs to consider the qualities of Pacifica and KPFA that cannot be measured in dollars. Ben Fong-Torres, who writes the Radio Waves column for the San Francisco Chronicle, was quoted as saying that KPFA “has been a consistent progressive voice and bulletin board for just short of 70 years. Although it’s never gotten sizable ratings, it’s got a passionate audience. The program hosts have given us as close to free-form radio as we can get in terrestrial radio.”

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Peter Maiden is a staff photographer for the Community Alliance newspaper. He studied media at UC Berkeley. Contact him at maidenfoto1@gmail.com.