Airwaves & Liberty

Layoffs in Pacifica, including me
22 October 2008, 3:21 pm
Filed under: Pacifica

It is with some sadness that I write this blog post.  I have been laid off from Pacifica.  Effective last week, the National Programming Coordinator position was eliminated due to budget hardship.

On October 6th, I received a registered letter from Pacifica CFO Lonnie Hicks officially informing me of the Board-approved reduction in force. Lonnie writes in part, “This is a very bad situation for all concerned and I am truly sorry to be the one to bring this bad news.”

I am not, of course, the only person being laid off in this period of hardship for Pacifica.  Four others in National Office alone were laid off, several others saw their hours much reduced, and the network has not hired a new HR Director or Executive Director yet – saving those salary costs, whether intentional or not.  The hardship isn’t just limited to National Office.  WBAI is currently undergoing layoffs, and supposedly layoffs will also be happening at KPFK in the coming weeks.

It’s a period of contraction at Pacifica. I understand that it is necessary at this time.  Although, of course, it’s never fun to be one of those on the cut list.

But beyond the difficulty this brings to my personal situation, the cuts would seem to break up what modest accomplishments I and others had made toward network building, cooperation, and growth. Lacking finances and political will, it was sometimes a struggle to wrangle those changes, but we managed to make some things happen. Stations were talking to each other, were working together, were carrying a bit more of each others’ programming. In spite of tight/no budgets, we were producing an ambitious lineup of high-quality national specials. I feel like we were laying the groundwork for growth.

But now that work ceases, and I have to mourn some.

Pacifica will go on in some fashion. It has survived past crises, and it always goes on.  And I sincerely hope it can rebuild sooner than later.  In this era, when the media landscape itself is changing significantly, I hope Pacifica can find its way forward.

But it seems it won’t include me.  In all likelihood, this is my last blog post here, but I’ll leave the blog up for future reference.

In the meantime, I’m off to go find some work.  All the best.

Nicole Sawaya’s departure letter from Pacifica, September 2008
24 September 2008, 4:39 pm
Filed under: News & Culture, Pacifica

I’m posting Nicole’s letter here in full. Her last day is next Tuesday. ~N
Pacifica logo
September 24, 2008

To: Pacifica National Board, Local Station Boards, All management and staff, Affiliate stations, collaborators, and stakeholders in Pacifica

Fr: Nicole Sawaya, executive director/CEO

On August 3rd I gave notice to the Pacifica Board that I would be leaving. September 30th (end of our fiscal year) will be my last day. Concurrently, I had written myself out of the FY09 budget, as the Foundation is hard-pressed to support two well-paid executives. You lead from the top.

Lew Hill is the founder of Pacifica, now almost a 60 year old non-profit media organization. If I could have a conversation with anyone to explain my departure, it would be with Lew Hill. So, I decided to write him a letter.

Feel free to read it, and to share with others who care about Pacifica. All I ask is that this preface always accompany the letter as it sets the context.

I thank you for the opportunity to serve!



September 23, 2008

Dear Lew Hill,

Greetings. My name is Nicole Sawaya, and currently, I’m the executive director and chief executive of the radio endeavor you started called Pacifica. It’s changed a lot.

You wouldn’t believe what your “killer app”, as some might portray it in 21st century lexicon, has spawned. Now there are 5 stations licensed to Pacifica in densely populated and roiling urban areas – millions of human beings within ear shot, all with easy access to the cheapest and most accessible broadcast mediums on the planet, radio. Yes, the planet. There is an Archive of programming and folios spanning decades – a repository and collection of voices that truly belongs to the people as part of the history of our country and the world. And, there are over a hundred smaller stations scattered through rural and urban settings — cities and towns and ridge tops — affiliated with Pacifica and broadcasting our programming – a network that has been in place for quite awhile.

Beyond that, your notion that the listeners would voluntarily financially support radio, journalism and cultural exchange, created a model for many, many non-commercial educational radio stations to apply. Your vision of public ownership of the airwaves put into practice with the radio license you applied for and grew as the first non-profit community licensee station, gained great traction and has been replicated exponentially.

We don’t exchange The Subscriber radios anymore for pledges, and you wouldn’t recognize how the fundraising marathons have changed – it’s a bit like an on-air shopping experience. But listeners continue to support us voluntarily with their hard earned money, and they’re not necessarily just bound to radios to listen to us.

An aside: When I was (briefly) general manager of your first station, KPFA, there was a Subscriber radio in the office, but it was tucked away and dusty. When I discovered it, soon after taking the job, I was so excited to learn of its history. It completely inspired me as Pacifica was heading to its 50th anniversary. So elegant, so innovative for its time, so smart.

Mr. Hill, what you conceived has had one of the highest impacts in media history. Not just the staunch belief in listener support, but your notions that journalistic enterprises should remain unfettered from any sort of business support in order to maintain credibility; that to help in striving for a more peaceful and just world, radio (or what we now refer to as media) programming should give access to myriad viewpoints and in-depth news, coupled with an exposure to the arts and to cultures and happenings from all over the world; that innovation is vital, have all lived on. You were a pioneer.

Fast forward to today.

Our country is at war. Our government is a death machine abroad and a fear machine at home. Our broadcast media is, in general, mind-numbingly useless, filled with shameless propagandists and completely profit driven. The earth’s climate is changing radically and the gap between rich and poor is larger than the Grand Canyon, with by far the larger group on the poor end. I could go on, but it would take a while.

Your Pacifica is showing signs of stress as well.

Sadly, it is no longer focused on service to the listeners but absorbed with itself and the inhabitants therein. I call it Planet Pacifica, a term I coined during my hiring process. There is an underlying culture of grievance coupled with entitlement, and its governance structure is dysfunctional. The by-laws of the organization have opened it up to tremendous abuse, creating the opportunity for cronyism, factionalism, and faux democracy, with the result of challenging all yet helping nothing. Pacifica has been made so flat, that it is concave – no leadership is possible without an enormous struggle through the inertia that committees and collectives and STV’s (no, not sexually transmitted viruses, but single transferable votes) can engender.

Pacifica calls itself a movement, yet currently it is behaves like a jobs program, a cult, or a social service agency. And oftentimes, the loudest and most obstreperous have the privilege of the microphone. There are endless meetings of committees and “task forces”– mostly on the phone – where people just like to hear themselves talk. Sometimes they get lucrative contracts from their grandstanding. It’s been grueling for someone in my position, someone like me who is not a process person, much less a political gamer. I keep asking: what’s the endgame? Paralysis has set in, coupled with organizational drift.

The programming isn’t attracting many listeners anymore, either. It skews towards the narrow in its editorial stance, leans towards the niche, and change to the programming can’t occur without a fight. The listening audience is small, in other words, the stations have yet to grow into their large signals.
Business practices are oftentimes shoddy and opaque and mirror the culture of our times – lots of self-interest with a focus on individual needs as opposed to performance, affordability, or the common good. And we’ve hit some tough economic times without having the general will to do the hard work necessary in order to ensure sustainability – contracting rather than continually expanding the size of our financial obligations. Basically, resources and airtime have been allocated for internal political purposes at the expense of service to audience, innovation, or the care and feeding of our broadcast physical infrastructure. Some of this has to do with the fact that very few people either on air or off air actually have radio experience, other than being part of Pacifica.

That was not the case with you, nor is it with me.

Conversely, there are many dedicated and smart people working within Pacifica. They may not work at full speed – it is rather “comfortable” especially for those who work unsupervised – but they make a consistent effort to give voice to the voiceless and hold government and power accountable. And those who work without self-interest or giving constant grief to management (a four-letter word in Pacifica) are to be applauded.

The overall media landscape has changed fundamentally. I find it exciting and wanted very much to bring Pacifica into the 21st century. The demographic of our country has changed as well, not to mention all the new generations now active and alert to the world around them. It is, to quote Victor Hugo, the best of times and the worst of times. Apparently, it’s always been like that.

Pacifica could take advantage of technology, both at the front end (content and programming) and the back end (infrastructure and business applications), but that would require the general will of the internal stakeholders, and that general will is not cohesive enough or even amenable to altering the status quo.

I have given notice and will be leaving Pacifica shortly. Despite my best intentions and determined and focused efforts, I was continually thwarted to do the job I was hired to do. I did my best to apply my knowledge, expertise, and creativity to Pacifica, and we made some forward progress.

I gave to those responsible for the governance and oversight, plans, clarity, and transparency. They cannot deny knowledge of the state of the network. Whether they act on it, or just call in consultants to tell them what time it is, is another issue. I tried to dispel magical thinking in all arenas and was relentless in my attempts to get some best practices and collaborations in place.

I had some success.

It’s not necessary for me to alliterate those successes. Despite being handed an enfeebled situation and having no resources to work with, I gave it my best shot and worked hard. And despite having to fight for every inch of standing, not to mention authority, I have enjoyed working with those who actually work and accomplish bona fide deliverables of consequence and service.

We stand now on the shoulders of hundreds, if not thousands of those who have contributed internally. And Pacifica is much loved and valued by its listener supporters. Pacifica will carry on, and it has been a challenging opportunity to, albeit briefly, help out.

I hope that all stakeholders remember that Pacifica is a public trust, a veritable weapon of mass information, and keep a big vision in play rather than petty politics.

Thanks for being a bold and brave broadcaster.

With much respect,


KPFT: And back on… for good maybe
22 September 2008, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Pacifica

Howdy y’all,

As of 10:30am central time, Monday, September 22, KPFT returned to the air.
We are currently operating via internet streaming.
We are fully powered at both our studio and transmitter sites.
We have restored phone service and internet service at both sites; though we are experiencing some gltiches with both.
We are transmitting an internet stream at present as we have no STL microwave link from studio to transmitter site.
We are in the process of assessing systems at both locations and plan to resume regular programming on Tuesday morning, September 23 at 8am.
Presently we are broadcasting BBC News via our C-band satellite dish link to Public Radio International.
The Ku-band dish which we use to access Pacifica programming remains disabled.
The STL tower at the station sustained some damage and remains non-functional; at this time this represents our biggest technical challenge to returning to full functionality.

We appreciate all your concern and good thoughts.
Thanks for all you do for the cause.
Staying strong in Houston.


KPFT: On again, off again
22 September 2008, 9:32 am
Filed under: Pacifica

Dear Pacifica Programmers, Board Members and Family:

KPFT has again had to end broadcast operations due to extenuating circumstances related to Hurricane Ike. This will affect all KPFT programming until further notice.

During the storm KPFT’s microwave link to its transmitter suffered damages yet to be assessed. On Friday evening, staff developed a workaround whereby KPFT could link a studio feed to its transmitter via the Internet. Utilizing this solution, KPFT was on the air briefly using a generator at its still dark studios and the recently re-powered transmitter. Midday Saturday, KPFT lost its Internet connectivity at the transmitter site and remains off-air as of this writing.

KPFT expects to have a tower crew on-site this week to repair damages caused by Ike to our microwave link, and return to the air once a connection to our transmitter is established. We hope to get electricity back at our studios this week.

KPFT staff will be working in various capacities this week as we attempt to resume normal operations. Critical operations will be handled by some staff members on-site while other employee functions will be handled by staff off-site.

Thank you for your attention, patience and good wishes during this trying time. Houston and surrounding areas continue to struggle during this time; KPFT’s woes are indicative of the hardships which have befallen our residents and listeners.

Ernesto Aguilar
KPFT Program Director

Tech update from KPFT – trying to get back on air by hook or crook
19 September 2008, 2:25 pm
Filed under: Pacifica

Latest update from Houston, re: getting KPFT back on the air. This message is from KPFT Chief Engineer Steve Brightwell:

In the interest of clarification, let me take a minute to explain the situation at KPFT. First, there is no power at either location, studio or transmitter. Second, and more to the point, there is no way to get program audio to the transmitter site. The microwave tower at Lovett Blvd. has been damaged by a fallen tree. The microwave dish antenna at the top of the damaged tower is also not working properly, either due to water penetration or physical damage. The tree has been removed, but it will take a licensed, insured tower climbing crew to correct those antenna problems. We are expecting a crew within a few days.

The backup plan for a studio connection is of course, the internet, however all of the AT&T circuits at the transmitter site are dead. Most likely, a tree has fallen over a suspended telephone cable somewhere, and multiple-pair telephone cables take a lot longer to splice than power lines.

At the studio, KPFT has three separate internet service providers, AT&T (dead), Comcast (also dead), and a DSL circuit which has for years been donated at no charge to KPFT by Netstar Communications. Of course, it’s the only one working!

The second backup plan was to use the tower site at KTRU. Their tower is on the northeast of Houston – an area hardest hit – and also without power or telephone circuits as of last check. KTRU is operating on the Rice University campus with a low power transmitter, but they’re not getting out much further than the campus itself.

While it is possible for KPFT to get 50 watts on the air and operate a minimal daytime schedule with a portable generator (which we don’t yet have), it will require a massive expense of manpower and gasoline, only to serve a small neighborhood in Northwest Houston, with the overwhelming majority of regular listeners being left out. A portable generator at the transmitter will have to be continually monitored and re-fueled. Also for security, the portable generator will have to be removed at the end of each day and delivered again the next morning. This is the reason we will not take the studio’s 15kW generator out to the tower. It’s too large and heavy to move in and out everyday. We will not allow volunteers to stay at the tower site after dark, and the neither the generator nor its’ fuel are allowed inside the transmitter building.

We are currently investigating the possibility of using a laptop with a wireless internet access card to pick-up an audio stream at the tower site. If this is successful, then we can power-up the studio with its’ generator, and attempt to connect with a wireless laptop at the tower.

General Manager, Duane Bradley, along with Studio Engineer, Laura Slavin, are today going to the tower site to test this plan. We should know more soon.

KPFT Update, Sept 17th: still awaiting power, answers after Ike
17 September 2008, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Pacifica

Just received from Duane Bradley at KPFT:
KPFT building
Greetings all hither and thither,

I have made it downtown to Discovery Green Park, where there is power and free wi-fi!

We were supposed to host a concert here on Thursday evening; it has just been cancelled due to HPD “strongly” suggesting the lack of any security and the fact that over 3000 evacuees are staying across the street at the GRB does not make for a good mix. Some of the folks sheltered here are getting a bit frazzled….but then, who’s not. If you’ve had to leave your home and everything behind, well… say no more.

The station has been aired out and awaits power. Steve has informed me a tower crew will be out probably tomorrow to check on the STL dish and to assess the tension on the guy wires on the tower. They may need to be replaced after the stretching they received thanks to Ike.

We hope to have power restored at the station in the next day or so; still dark on day 5 at the station, the transmitter and many of our homes. Staff have been contacted daily and all are busy dealing with family, self and neighbors. I greatly appreciate all your kind thoughts and patience with us during these trying times..

Thanks to Nicole for getting my daily telephonic updates to her transmitted out to y’all. Know we all appreciate you being there for us and for each other.

I hope to be able to communicate to you from the KPFT studios soon!

Stay strong with us,

Latest from KPFT in Houston after Hurricane Ike
16 September 2008, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Pacifica

KPFT logoI just got the following update from Pacifica Executive Director Nicole Sawaya, following her conversation with KPFT General Manager Duane Bradley:

Just got off the phone with our KPFT GM, Duane. Despite sounding fatigued and a little rattled, here’s the latest from Duane:

— Power to KPFT may be restored today.

— Hired a professional tree trimming crew to de-limb dangerous branches and most importantly, to free up the STL/Guide wire that had a downed limb on it. Relieved the pressure on the wire.

— Staff is fine. So far, most in the KPFT community are checking in OK.

— Steve and Duane fired up the generator to check the station operations — all OK.

— C-Band satellite is working, so once they’re back on, KPFT can broadcast DN! off of PRSS and the BBC.

— Until a thorough check list has been gone through (so that nothing blows up just to get back on air), won’t be giving a specific time to go back on air. Should everything clear, then low power until full power.

— Transmitter site another story: apparently, the site has been broken into. Perimeter fence was cut, oil taken and scrap metal, even some 2-way phones from ATT. Locks were drilled out. Duane and Steve are worried about copper theft.

— This is the longest time KPFT has been off the air since the second bombing in 1970/1971.

It could have been far worse. We are lucky to have the steady hand of Duane and Steve. Praise the goddess no one was hurt!