Greg Guma has been a writer, editor, historian, and progressive manager for over four decades, working throughout the US. His tenure as CEO of Pacifica Radio highlights an eclectic career in media and politics that began in the 1960s. He worked with Bernie Sanders and wrote The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. His second novel, Dons of Time, was released in 2013 by Fomite Press. "Part Sopranos and part X-Files" - Publisher's Weekly; "Well-constructed, action-flooded sci fi set in a realistic historical world" - Kirkus Reviews.
In 1978 Greg exposed an FBi disinformation campaign to promote a terrorist scare. Two years later, he broke the news that the Bureau's agents sometimes posed as Census takers. He continued to produce award-winning stories that raised questions about the intelligence community and military privatization. His seminal essay on perception management appeared in the 2008 Project Censored yearbook. He recently wrote and produced Green Mountain Politics, a multi-platform study of Vermont's history and values.
Greg Guma's books include Bread & Puppet: Stories of Struggle and Faith (1985), The People's Republic (1989), Passport to Freedom (1992, with Garry Davis), Uneasy Empire: Repressions, Globalization and What We Can Do (2002), Spirits of Desire (2005), Big Lies (2011), Progressive Eclipse (2012), and Dons of Time (2013) as well as the 2003 play Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), and scripts for documentaries on Haiti, Guatemala, Vermont and Vietnam.
Here is an excerpt from his memoir:
Portland, April 2006
It should have been a dream come true but I couldn't stop worrying. Smiling nervously at the crowd, hundreds of radio producers, personalities and technical people gathered at the Portland Hilton for the annual meeting of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I beat back the anxiety and began to speak.
"It's good to be with media makers who don't believe that climate change is just a rumor," I told them, "who don't think immigrants coming to the US for a better life should be turned into criminals, and who didn't need over three years to figure out that the administration manipulated public opinion and distorted reality to go to war in the Middle East." It was a sincere sentiment, but also a way to break the ice with a tough and radical audience.
Six months earlier I had been home in Vermont, co-editing a statewide weekly newspaper, writing articles and working with correspondents from around the world. If someone had predicted that I would move to Berkeley and become CEO of a radio network, I would have checked their pupils. Friends don't let friends drive crazy.
For decades I had been embedded in the world of politics and independent media, writing and editing, working on documentaries, attending protests and organizing conferences, getting arrested for good causes and taking part in assorted long-shot campaigns. In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, I had run newspapers and magazines, and helped stage a non-violent revolution that put progressives in charge for three decades. In Vermont and New Mexico I had coordinated social justice groups. In Burlington and Santa Monica I had run community bookstores. Basically, I was a manager and communicator, and, on a good day, a political change agent. I'd even named one of the book businesses Maverick.
But none of that completely prepared me for Pacifica, a multi-million dollar left-wing media network with hundreds of union employees, a thousand volunteers - demanding to be called "unpaid staff," a labyrinthine democratic governance structure, and a storied history of rough internal struggles. I had been Executive Director for three months, and was delivering my first speech to an audience beyond the Pacifica community.
"Although I've been a journalist," I explained over the luncheon clatter, "I also have come to believe that words aren't 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, why I committed civil disobedience in front of the gates at a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights..."
At first they were more enthusiastic about the meal being provided by the network than anything I had to say.
"What have I learned along the way?" I asked the room. "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."
That is precisely why alternative sources are important, despite their battling factions, difficult personalities and frustrating structures, I said. "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."
Now people were starting to pay attention. But what they wanted to hear most was my vision for the country's original listener-sponsored radio network. I had been working on that since my first days on the job. In a nutshell, I explained, my agenda was to get more local voices on the air, to revitalize the network's moribund national programming, to maximize its human and overstretched technical resources, to honor and expand its diversity, and to encourage people to work together with more mutual respect.
As modest as this may sound, it would have been as reasonable to promise peace in the Middle East. But I didn't know that yet. And thus I proceeded confidently to read excerpts from the statement developed more than a half century earlier by Pacifica founder Lew Hill. They were noble ideas - to be an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community, to promote the full distribution of public information, to provide access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium. With each phrase, I offered some examples of how the ideas could be applied in the early years of a new century.
There was something even more important to say, something I wanted to share and very much hoped was true. "Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis," I said. "And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself." At this point the room exploded with cheers and applause. I had struck a chord, appealing to the desperate hope shared by almost everyone there that the battles and negativity of the past decade were over.
From that point onward, they heard most of the plan. In particular, a three point agenda - programming, organizing, and peace. "By programming I mean locally-generated, mission-driven national programming," I said. "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." More applause.
It was time to wind up, so I concluded with this: "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."
Looking back, this was probably the high point of my time in the byzantine world of Planet Pacifica. I had given voice to a vision that resonated with many of its stakeholders. For weeks afterward, staff and Board members and people who worked at affiliate stations, whether they were in the ballroom or read the speech, said they had been inspired.
But it was also the height of delusion. Neither speeches - no matter how popular - nor the best of intentions are enough to change harsh economic and political realities or a culture that has taken root over generations. It is a lesson I had to learn over and over, from New York and Vermont to Berkeley and beyond.