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Towards A Just Communications System: Pacifica Radio and the Never-Ending Battle

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I often hear, as a Pacifica Foundation board member that terrestrial radio in general and Pacifica radio in particular, is irrelevant.

I would make the case that anything that generates as much sound and fury as Pacifica has for the last 20 years cannot possibly be irrelevant.

There is no reason why it should be: 5 radio transmitters on the prime FM band in major media markets and a web of more than a hundred smaller regional affiliated stations - is a big chunk of communications space. No matter which way you slice it. In fact, it is the biggest chunk around with no corporate ownership or underwriting.

No wonder it's a battle ground. What else is there to fill the cavernous space called the public interest? Pacifica Radio is nothing but a teeming froth of different publics that would like their interests served - and right now thank you very much.

Which leads anyone watching this scenario (or caught up in it) to ask the question ; Which publics, which interests, which communities? How do you address the massive inadequacies of a failed communications structure with a few lousy radio stations, and a financially instable and politically-challenged network of public access centers, low-power FM stations, and community newspapers/websites?

Let's start with the necessary disclaimers. Yes, I'm a member of the Pacifica Foundation board. That means I think the organization is necessary and important and you should donate to it. Right now. (Bay Area) - KPFA, (Southern California) - KPFK, (New York metro) - WBAI, (Washington DC metro) - WPFW, (Houston) - KPFT, (everywhere else) - Pacifica). Yes, I am running for re-election to my local station's board (KPFA). Yes, I am running with a slate of candidates called Independents for Community Radio. Yes, I believe KPFA subscribers in the Bay Area should vote for that slate. And maybe most importantly, yes, I believe the end game of the public interest is social and economic justice for all, and we are a long way from that.

So what is the most profound imperative for media in the public interest if the goal is social and economic justice? One could make the argument that it is to replace tweedledum with tweedledee. And I don't mean to sound facetious. Many very serious and learned people would argue that one must map the power structure carefully and infiltrate it to achieve a change in the way things are done. That being on the outside of the velvet chamber where the real decisions are made is essentially self-defeating.

On the other hand, since the limitations of the current political system dictate tweedledum is a Republican and tweedledee is a Democrat, one must recall that Democrat Harry Truman detonated atomic bombs against the civilians of Japan, Democrat John Kennedy started the Southeast Asia conflagrations of the 60's and 70's, and Democrat Barack Obama failed to admit the single payer option to health care reform efforts.

If the problems are essentially structural, which is what every well-intentioned progressive says after their obligatory tenure in Washington, then the public interest as defined as movement towards social and economic justice, is a movement for structural and systemic change. Not the simple business of swapping out the suits at the top.

To change the structure in which we communicate necessarily involves changing how we communicate. We cannot expect Meet the Press to deal effectively with structural and systemic change. It's just not on the agenda. We need a narrative counter to the tweedledum - tweedledee horse race.

Counter-narratives necessarily come from the outside. From those under-represented in the chambers of power and velvet. That is not a minority. Most of us, in the aggregate, are under-represented. There are less women, less low-income people, less non-white voices in the public narrative then there are in the country and in the world. In the aggregate, the counter-narrative is majority minority.

So media in the public interest, media in the interests of social and economic justice, is not media that supports the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic party in the US. Media in the interests of social and economic justice is media that expresses the counter narrative and brings the under-represented to the front and center.

Which brings us back to Pacifica Radio and what all those crazy people (including me) are fighting about. It is just the meaning of media in the public interest. Whether the more pressing imperative is to have an impact on tilting various domestic tweedledum - tweedledee battles back towards the more liberal side of things or to provide a platform for narrative counters to be heard by generating and featuring unheard stories, untold history, under-represented perspectives and ideas that never see the light of day because they represent the kind of systemic change that isn't on the velvet chamber agenda.

If Pacifica Radio is to be a platform for counter narratives, as I believe it must be if the public interest is to be served, then a few things are true. Pacifica radio must maintain an open, democratic structure that discourages gatekeeping and agenda-setting from above. Pacifica radio must actively generate content from and with people under-represented in media. Pacifica radio must embrace ideas and concepts dismissed by the rest of the media as fringe, radical, sectarian (often known later as ahead of their time) and deliver them to their audiences with energy, verve and style. Pacifica radio must be a place where counter narratives to the public agenda are heard and welcomed.

So if you hear people say the Pacifica radio open governance structure is stupid - be wary of them. If you hear people dismissing the radical, the fringe, the sectarian perspectives - be cautious about them. If you hear people insisting that good progressive media can only come from professionalized, trained, well-compensated gatekeepers - be skeptical of them. If you hear people insisting that having an impact on national political battles is the only way to be relevant - be cynical about them. There is far more at stake than that.

So if you happen to be a Pacifica subscriber in the Bay Area, NY or LA, please vote for (respectively) Independents for Community Radio, ACE or The Committee to Save KPFK affiliated candidates. If you aren't a Pacifica subscriber - become one. And hold all your media and communication choices accountable for finding their local counter narratives and bringing them to the forefront.

It is way past time to move from a small selection of poor choices to a large selection of better ones. Media in the public interest can do that, if it isn't hijacked by those who confuse the public interest with replacing tweedledum with tweedledee.