The Wild and Wacky World of Pacifica Radio

I read this article in the LA Weekly with a growing sense of wonderment. As weird and bizarre as things are getting at the Los Angeles headquarters of Pacifica Radio, a very small public radio network with 4 other outlets across the country, it promises to become even more surreal in the near future.

The gist of the story is hard to believe. The former/current executive director of the network, Summer Reese, was fired by the board, but refused to recognize their authority. When the board padlocked the doors to the station's offices, Reese, along with a dozen or so supporters, including her mother, used bolt cutters to break the lock and enter the building. They are now "occupying" the premises, promising to stay until...whenever.

When is "whenever"? Presumably when Reese gets to remain where she is and get paid for it.

The "storied history" of Pacifica, as LA Weekly puts it, sounds like the station has been managed by a combination of escapees from an insane asylum and terribly precocious, evil little children:

Ian Masters, host of Background Briefing, a smart if rather sedate, hourlong public affairs show on KPFK, has been publicly calling for an end to this experiment in democracy, which sees board members elected by both listeners and staff members two out of every three years.

"We're no longer a radio network, we're a sad political glee club," Masters says. "We desperately need adult supervision."

Voters don't seem to have any clue who they're voting for, and turnout is low. Last year's elections were called off due to lack of funding. Termed-out and retiring board members were replaced by the runner-up candidates in the most previous vote, leading, rather perversely, to the board majority flipping to the minority, the removal of Summer Reese and Reese's subsequent sit-in.

The national board is dominated by two factions: the new majority, which Masters calls the "Radio Havana crowd," and the new minority, which Masters dubs the "conspiracy and quackery crowd" — the latter group in 2010 approved a motion calling for all KPFK programs to question the "official story" of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While board members have so far declined to say why they fired Reese, members of the various groups have made wild claims about one another.

Reese accuses her enemies of plotting to cover up financial malfeasance and even embezzlement. Reese's opponents accuse her of incompetence and scheming to turn over control of the organization to Gary Null, an alternative-medicine guru and longtime Pacifica host, who sells his own vitamins and nutritional supplements during pledge drives — for which he takes a healthy cut, according to several board members and managers who spoke to the Weekly.

Reese also has been castigated for some of her fringe beliefs — her résumé includes stints working for the lawyer of Sirhan Sirhan, and for a man named Peymon Mottahedeh, a non-lawyer who nevertheless founded the Freedom Law School, which claims to help clients avoid taxes.

Reese admits to having no Social Security number, saying she is legally exempt because of a "religious objection." When asked her religion, she says only that she's a Christian; when asked whether she pays income taxes, she says only, "I don't think that's relevant to the article."

All of this has obviously upset the delicate sensibilities of liberals, who bemoan the potential loss of a left wing voice in an "homogenized broadcast media landscape" as LA Weekly puts it.

The recent internal strife at Pacifica underlines a depressing truth for liberals, for whom the radio network is — or at least was — an important voice in an increasingly homogenized broadcast media landscape.

"If this goes under, anyone to the left of NPR will have nowhere to go," Masters says.

Anyone to the left of NPR has fallen off the earth so we don't have to worry about them. Still, it would be a shame if Pacifica was forced to fold its tent. Just think of all the unintended entertainment we'd miss -- certainly a far sight funnier than what they put out over the air.