When lack of money prevents work: FSRN ends daily broadcast

Free Speech Radio News, a daily international news program produced for and carried by community radio stations primarily in the United States, aired for the last time on Friday, September 27, 2013.

On March 4, 2013, the FSRN Board of Directors sent layoff notices to staff, and set March 15 as the date for FSRN’s last daily broadcast. An emergency fundraiser extended the program’s life, but there is only so far an organization can go on donations alone.

The organization is not going out of existence but, according to a message it distributed on Sept. 19:

Our Board took this action because as of September 13th, FSRN had $32,000 in the bank. We project that in order to close up shop and meet our financial and legal responsibilities, it will cost $29,000.

FSRN is currently carrying just over $200,000 in accounts receivable. For much of the year, our major funder, Pacifica, has not been able to pay us and its past-due balance to FSRN is about $198,000. . . . Over the years we have made significant cutbacks to respond to a shrinking budget and weathered several financial crises that nearly brought us to the brink of closure.

Our production currently costs about $36,000 per month. Until recently, your dollars supplemented a $25,000 per month contract with our major donor, the Pacifica Foundation. But our current contract is for just $10,000 per month, which is not enough to sustain daily production at current levels.

This was no surprise to me. I had contributed stories to FSRN on and off during my years at KPFA. In fact, when FSRN announced its formation as a weekly newscast in January 2000, I was called on to make a speech urging reporters not to scab for PNN. I had also endured one of their cuts in freelancer pay.

There are both short and long term lessons to be learned from this event. Short-term:

1. Diversity of income sources is key to long–term survival. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! learned this lesson years ago. She privatized the former Pacifica show in the wake of “The Struggles” of 1999–2000 and partnered with non-Pacifica affiliate stations, and satellite radio and TV in order to have broader reach, more editorial independence and to make sure the show did not fall victim to Pacifica’s difficult finances, which have become even more difficult since Democracy Now! gained its independence.

2. FSRN probably should have hired a development director much earlier than it did. FSRN is a reporter-owned and run collective. Reporters care about journalism. They want to pour all their efforts into that. The actual business side of the operation was of little interest to most of the members, which is why relatively few people, including me, wanted to participate in the open conference calls that were held periodically to give rank and file reporters an opportunity to have a voice in the organizational nitty-gritty. Perhaps FSRN would be still be on the air if it had had from the beginning a professional fundraiser devoting full time to making the kinds of contracts FSRN needed to stay viable in the face of a Pacifica financial collapse and a general economic collapse that makes long term survival on listener and small station donations unlikely.

FSRN was formed as an alternative to the Pacifica Network News (PNN) in 2000 by a group of reporters who called themselves Pacifica Reporters Against Censorship. Relations between the two organizations were never harmonious, even though PNN went out of business and FSRN became PNN’s successor by default when it went daily. There was a time when FSRN was negotiating with Pacifica to become a formal part of the network, but Pacifica’s first step in the unification negotiations was to choose as its representative, Verna Avery Brown, a former PNN newscaster whose initial proposal was to layoff all the freelancers and to produce the program herself in Washington, D.C. Though Brown was quickly replaced, Pacifica had tipped its hand; it wanted to re-instate its old guard to produce a program that was cheaper than FSRN. Negotiations eventually fell through.

FSRN was also handicapped by the fact that legally stations can only raise funds on the air for themselves. Members of FSRN could not take to the KPFA airwaves during its KPFA fund drive broadcast to ask for donations directly for FSRN. Thus, the law cuts FSRN off from a major fundraising avenue. A donor could hope that the funds would go to support FSRN, but Pacifica could prioritize its spending as it wished.

Ironically, some reporters believed that union with Pacifica was the key to financial viability. But as we can see now, that would not have been the case, as Pacifica itself is not financially viable. FSRN is working on a business plan but I find it hard to imagine that such a plan would not involve lower payments to fewer freelancers, and a smaller core staff that was already small to begin with, meaning fewer people working under greater pressure, also likely for lower wages—FSRN was never a cash cow for its members—and dependence on larger organizations for basic funding, but at what cost? People with the gold like to make the rules. FSRN would risk losing its vaunted independence, really its raison d’etre, to the desires of the funders.

Less work by fewer workers who are working longer and harder, and who, in many cases, must take less money for the work they are doing. Sound familiar? We are seeing this throughout journalism, indeed throughout the economy. This is not progressive, which is what FSRN considered itself to be.

Still, 13 years is a decent run. Maybe it is too much to expect real progressivism to thrive within a cutthroat capitalist society. That is why there is, in my opinion, only one long term solution to the twin problems of producing and distributing goods and services: Demonetization. If the world could learn to run its affairs without the intermediation of money, we would never again hear: “We can’t do that because we can’t afford it.” Everything from repairing our national infrastructure to doing investigative journalism would be undertaken on an “as-needed” basis.

Right-wingers claim that a large segment of the American population would rather be dependent on government “hand outs” than to have a job, but FSRN is an example of what the truth really is: There is work to be done, in this case, journalism. There are willing workers available, both on-the-ground reporters and technical people who work behind the scenes. But the work is not being done anymore because there is not the money to furnish the jobs to do the work.

We must come to realize that work and jobs are not the same thing. And in a money/jobs economy, we can’t always depend on volunteers. It is one thing to spend a few hours a week delivering hot meals to shut ins, reading to children at the library, or operating the local rape crisis hotline. It is another thing entirely to be a volunteer reporter, especially in a place that is thought of as a necessary alternative to the well-funded mainstream and right-wing media. I once overheard an activist who had been critical of KPFA News and who took up the challenge to join the news writing class herself. As she went out on assignment, she said, “I didn’t realize it was this hard.” She did not stay long.

In a money/jobs economy, the people of FSRN had to be paid so that they could, in turn, pay for everything from their personal survival needs to the equipment for their work, to the time it takes them to do a hard job. Having to look for another job to pay the bills cuts into a reporter’s efficiency. I know. Several times, I answered the phone at KPFA News and heard a certain young reporter apologize for not being able to come in. She worked as an on-call hostess at a restaurant and if she worked a certain number of hours a month, she qualified for health insurance for herself and her husband. They had just called. She didn’t stick around with us long either.

In order to make work available to all on a non-exploitative basis, we must change our values. A successfully demonetized economy cannot operate on the same values that underlie capitalism and state socialism, competition and inequality. (State socialism is also dependent on money and jobs and thus shares many of the same problems as capitalism. In it, the state operates as a violent enforcer of the status quo. It also has an elite, in this case, made up of party bureaucrats rather than an aristocracy of birth.) As the Christians say, one cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the call for more jobs amounts to.

A demonetized society would recognize that all kinds of work is necessary at some time or another and that all workers have certain basic needs that have to be met regardless of whether the worker is picking vegetables, covering stories, teaching first graders the alphabet or throwing a baseball at 95 mph.

A demonetized society would also recognize that productivity and consumption should be adjuncts to life, not humanity’s ultimate achievement. We all need some work in our lives to deepen our individual human experience and to provide our society with goods and services. We do not need to work tirelessly to make someone else rich.

There is so much more to consider. In order to understand how to reform our economic practices, we need to jettison certain ways of thinking about the need for jobs and the value of work. We must ponder questions such as “Why must we pay to live on the planet we’re born on?” and “Why must we earn a living? Aren’t we already living?” We must also refuse the answers “Because that’s the way it is” and “Because the world doesn’t owe you a living.” Those aren’t really answers. They’re just memes.

There is more to life than existing to pay bills. There is more to work than having a job in the formal economy. There are other ways to organize a society than around paid labor. Hmm . . . sounds like the makings of a great documentary for a revived FSRN.

Kellia Ramares-Watson was a reporter for both Pacifica radio station KPFA-FM Berkeley and FSRN. She is writing a book on demonetization. Her website is Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney [at] gmail.com.

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