A year ago, I was working as co-editor of Vermont Guardian, a statewide weekly newspaper I helped to launch in 2004, writing articles and working with journalists from across the state and around the world. If someone had predicted then that I would become Executive Director of Pacifica Radio, I would not have believed it.
For more than 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of writing for and editing alternative publications, developing scripts for political documentaries, organizing conferences and protests, coordinating non-profit organizations that work for peace and social justice, and running bookstores that have provided a community base for progressive campaigns.
And although I’ve been a journalist, I also have come to believe that words are not always enough. That’s why I went to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras with other members of Witness for Peace during the Contra war, committed civil disobedience in front of the gates of a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and, more recently, spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights.
What have I learned along the way?
On the one hand, that corporate media’s handling of the news has become increasingly unreliable over the years. In fact, mainstream journalists find it difficult, if not dangerous, to cover stories that do not fit neatly into what is known as the "Washington Consensus." Meanwhile, corporations have developed sophisticated strategies to promote the stories they want to see, and prevent others from being aired or published. The result is perception management, a highly effective form of social engineering
On the other, small, accessible, and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the "knowledge" monopoly of elites. And radio is one of the most accessible vehicles for alternative viewpoints. It’s intimate, production can be inexpensive, and can reach people through hundreds of outlets around the country and sometimes the world. And at community-run stations there is certainly more diversity and programmatic pluralism than almost anywhere else in media.
I’ve also learned that the best guarantee that information will be used on behalf of humanity is to work for its free flow. That isn’t to say "more" is always "better." And it surely isn’t about that illusive thing – objectivity. But repressive regimes and secretive institutions are normally the first to oppose broad access to information. After all, information is power. So, we’ve got to be open, accurate, and fair.
The instant communication offered by radio clearly opens up possibilities for social change. Like Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, modern information technology creates at least the possibility of widespread information literacy. It might even help spur a shift in values from uniformity to diversity, from centralization to local democracy, and from organizational hierarchy to cooperative problem-solving units.
But this will depend largely on the growth of a social movement that promotes self-management of information.
We have only begun to experience the Information Age. Even bigger changes lie ahead, some dangerous, some challenging, some with liberating potential. Those who become "literate" can help harness new technology to extend freedom and meet the needs of the planet and humanity.
So, what is my vision for the future of Pacifica?
getting more local voices out – more talent, more news and more issues
helping to revitalize national programming
maximizing the organization’s human and technical resources
honoring and expanding its diversity, and
encouraging members of the community to work together with mutual respect.
Basically, the idea is to help reaffirm and realize the organization’s mission. One part of that mission is to be "an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community." An important way to do that, I believe, is to develop working partnerships with more independent and community-based media groups, and to provide useful training and technical support.
Another is to encourage progressive organizations to apply for new non-commercial licenses that will be available soon. Within the next nine months or so, for the first time in many years the FCC will open an opportunity for new non-commercial radio stations. The applicants have no filing fee, but a sophisticated engineering analysis is required. Pacifica, the NFCB, Prometheus Radio, Common Frequency, and Station Resource Group have funded a study to find the open spots in the U.S. This is a new opportunity for community radio, so think about your friends and relatives in all the places where community radio needs to be.
Another aspect of the mission is to "promote the full distribution of public information." To do that effectively, I think we must engage more of the talent and ideas that come from affiliate stations.
And still another is "access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium." This, I think, points toward a strategy that incorporates more than just radio broadcasters, bringing in some of the resources that progressive print, TV, websites, and film have to offer.
As My friend David Barsamian says, "Radio provides a means of intellectual self-defense and a vehicle for connecting with others." I would add that, at its best, it conveys energy, vitality, and a commitment to improving communities. And that’s precisely what I hope Pacifica will do in the time ahead.
Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis, I’m happy to say. And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself. I can’t promise to transform such a large and complex institution, and it would be a mistake to think that any one person could. But I do have some plans. In fact, I have a three point plan that I can summarize in one simple phrase.
Pacifica has got to POP. In photography and other media, when something pops it stands out, it is clear and vivid. In this case POP stands for three things: Programming, Organizing, and Peace.
By programming I mean locally-generated, mission driven national programming. By organizing I mean better internal organization to make full use of resources and talent. And by peace I mean a process of reconciliation. It’s time to bury the hatchets and move on.
At the March meeting of the Pacifica National Board in Los Angeles, I said that one of my goals is to unleash the tremendous potential both within and surrounding Pacifica – in other words, to build stronger ties with the larger independent media movement of which Pacifica is a part — and move forward together.
There’s more to the mission, of course, and much more to say. But for now, please consider this:
The tasks facing independent media in the months and years ahead are crucial. With the Bush administration in free fall and the Right in disarray, it’s time to seize the moment. The question is how. My suggestion is that we work together, set aside our minor differences and squabbles – we can get back to them later – and project responsible advocacy, real news and informed opinion. While doing that, however, we should also celebrate our differences rather than allow them to divide us; after all, isn’t respect for diversity one of the things that distinguishes us from the forces that have used fear of those who are different to undermine freedom?
Our job, as I see it, is to bring a sharp critique and a progressive vision to millions of radio listeners, to wake up the airwaves and shake up the world. It is an opportunity we should not miss, and a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.
Radio can be a central medium for social action and creative engagement. That’s certainly been so in other parts of the world. The key, I think, is to provide a convincing counterpoint to the commercialism and menu of info-tainment and disinformation people are force fed each day.
Let me end with this thought: The survival of a free society depends ultimately on the actions of self-governing people. But people cannot manage their society, or their own lives, if they lack the sense of dignity that comes from exercising the right of self-expression. No government can guarantee democracy. No business can manufacture it. And the media can’t sell it.
But what we must do is keep the door open. If we simply do that, the vast potential of humanity will take care of the rest, and the promise of a self-governing society may yet be kept.
Greg Guma is the former editor of Toward Freedom, the co-founder of Vermont Guardian and the current executive director of the Pacifica Foundation. He gave these remarks at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference on April 21 in Portland, OR.