Pacifica Radio's second chance

by Matthew Lasar, Lasar Letter

The Pacifica National Board has hired Nicole Sawaya as Executive Director of the Pacifica Foundation, LLFCC has learned. Pacifica owns the licenses for five listener supported radio stations in Berkeley, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston.

This is great news, LLFCC thinks. It signifies that a critical mass of people at Pacifica have grown weary of chaos and drift.

In case you have forgotten, Nicole Sawaya served as General Manager of Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley in 1999. A proud Lebanese-American, Sawaya was quite popular with both listeners and staff. She offered professionalism and openness in equal proportions—that is, until the networks' then executive boss Lynn Chadwick summarily tanked her in late March of that year.

Chadwick and her allies had a unique talent for pouring gasoline on matches. When KPFA staffers protested Sawaya's firing over the station's airwaves, they fired them too, and threatened everyone else with dismissal as well. This led to demonstrations, marches, the works. So Chadwick hired guards to occupy the station, then made a truly merry mess by shutting KPFA down.

Nicole Sawaya (far left on front table) speaking at a California
State Assembly hearing on Pacifica during the KPFA crisis of
1999. Seated next to her is Sherry Gendelman, then chair of
KPFA's Local Advisory Board. Photo by Susan Druding;
link and credit.

Meanwhile members of the Pacifica National Board did their part by deliberating over whether to sell KPFA. A march of 10,000 station supporters finally forced the Bad Guys to back off. But ill feelings over the fiasco and long festering differences over the direction the network had taken led to a protracted slugfest throughout Pacificana.

For two years it seemed like the whole American Left got involved in the party. Everybody had something to say about what critics charged was the "corporatization" of Pacifica: Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, FAIR, The Nation magazine, Robert McChesney, Laura Flanders, Jim Hightower, Norman Solomon, Michael Moore. Good grief . . . who didn't sign a petition or jump on the flatbed truck PA system for this one?

Finally, the Pacifica board, which had turned itself into a self-appointing body just before the KPFA crisis, asked for peace. In December of 2001 its embattled survivors agreed to bless the democratization of the organization.

Pacifica reconstructed itself, embarking on what may be the most ambitious experiment in democracy in the history of U.S. broadcasting. At all five Pacifica stations, listener-subscribers and staff now elect their local boards. These delegates, in turn, appoint members to the Pacifica National Board.

And what did the American Left's outspoken avatars of media democracy do as this experiment began? They walked away.

The Bush Sucks book writers? gone; the progressive syndicated columnists? see ya; the public interest foundation honchos? lots-of-luck; the media analysts? bye; the famous filmmakers? oops, gotta go.

At a time when Pacifica urgently needed a large influx of competent, well placed people who had not been part of the battles of the previous decade (and in some instances the previous quarter-century), the influential voices who could have helped to recruit that new generation fell silent.

Without going into painful details, the results have not been very attractive so far.

Let us be fair and find some good reasons why the progressive Left's principals suddenly went MIA on Pacifica. The Great Pacifica War had been quite nasty, and plenty of fences needed mending. The podcast/blogosphere beckoned. The horrors of Bush II had just begun.

But it is time for the "another world is possible" crowd to ask itself the obvious question: do we want Pacifica radio or not? If Pacifica mattered in 1999, why doesn't it matter in 2007? Do we want this experiment to fail, proving that, in fact, another world is not possible?

LLFCC knows Nicole Sawaya quite well, as a colleague and a friend. She has what it takes to turn Pacifica around: years managing three grassroots public radio stations, experience with mainstream public broadcasting, effective advocacy for rural radio listeners, dedicated work with new media, and, most importantly, a first class temperament.

But Sawaya can't do this alone. She will need an environment of good will—a substantial core of people who want her to succeed and will come to her defense. At Pacifica, that does not happen by accident.

This is Pacifica radio's second chance, folks. It is time for leadership to take notice.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey