Morning Sedition

WBAI Fights Management’s Move to Turn the Station into NPR Lite

The troubles that have rocked Pacifica Radio's WBAI in recent weeks have outraged many but surprised few. This is only the latest bout in the long power struggle that has riven the nation's oldest and only independent radio network.

At the heart of the crisis, say workers and supporters of the New York City station, is the steady transformation of the 50-year-old Pacifica network from locally based and left-oriented outlets into centrally controlled, mainstream institutions (see Cotts). The nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, which holds the broadcast licenses for WBAI and four other listener-sponsored stations, has been systematically reining them in, one by one, for the last four years. The day after Christmas, WBAI (99.5 FM) learned it would be next, when management fired three top staffers, temporarily banned several others from entering the station, brought in security guards, and changed the locks. "WBAI has always been the bête noire of Pacifica," says one longtime producer. "It's too black or too red or too green."

If there is a grand vision behind management's bumbling moves, there's precious little evidence of it. The board did draw up a hefty five-year strategic plan in 1997, but the document is widely seen by insiders as a meandering muddle caught between competing goals of increasing audience share and fulfilling the original mission to be a dissident, progressive voice. "This document is so broad and general as to be almost innocuous," says Ralph Engelman, a member of Pacifica's national board from 1973 to 1979 and author of Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. He says the Pacifica leadership appears to have relied more on the work of consultant David Giovannoni, whom he describes as "a numbers guru who applies the methodology of commercial radio to public radio." Engelman says the consultant set the stage for sweeping change, not least because the kind of data he produces is so often used to attract corporate underwriters, who in turn demand that stations create content that will increase listenership.

see also: Where and How to Join the Revolt

In a February 2000 memo to the board, Giovannoni wrote: "By any objective measure of public service, Pacifica has crossed the line from 'underperformance' to 'irrelevance.' " He added that numbers are "important, because significant radio programming without a significant listening audience is not a significant public service."

But rather than trying to build audiences by increasing national programming—one way of reading Giovannoni's recommendation—the board has taken a sledgehammer and scythe to the few such shows that already exist, with disastrous results: protest in the street, mutiny on its own airwaves, bad press from mainstream media. When management tried a similar takeover in the summer of 1999 at Berkeley's KPFA, the oldest station in the network, it sparked a public uproar and was forced to back down, restoring the station to local control.

For the uninitiated, trying to sort fact from spin in the long-running Pacifica battles is rather like trying to unravel a murky family feud in which the elders don't deign to come to the table. In the past, squabbles within Pacifica have always been between progressive visions, says Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog in New York. "What's different now is that there is one group that has no interest in radio, community, or progressive politics."

As damning as Rendall's rhetoric is, practically no one in Pacifica's management will respond to it. Neither the board's executive director, the publicist, nor the national program director would return phone calls. Utrice Leid, the WBAI station manager appointed to replace the fired Valerie Van Isler, also ignored requests for comment.

The silence has not gone unnoticed. "The people on the board have no vision and have never been able to provide a compelling explanation for their actions," says Rob Robinson, one of six dissidents on the 18-member national board and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the directors. "It's like getting into a car with someone who's drunk. It doesn't matter where they're going—you just have to get them away from the wheel before they crash it."

John Murdock, a corporate lawyer on the Pacifica national board, would not comment on the events at WBAI or programming changes in the network. But he denies that Pacifica's mission is being altered. "What we're looking to do is improve our vehicle of communication," he says. Simply increasing audience has no value unless "we improve the way we deliver our message so that more people will listen to what our historic mission is."

Such assertions of quality over content fly in the face of the complete makeover of Washington's WPFW and Houston's KPFT, stations the Pacifica board holds up as new models of success. Both outfits, which now primarily play music, have ceased in any significant way to be recognizable as Pacifica radio. Gone are the bilingual shows, the in-depth, off-beat reporting, the unpredictable interviews.

The only significant public affairs program at either station is Democracy Now!, a show produced—and under fire—at WBAI. Though in the nation's capital, WPFW has virtually no locally produced news. "It has become extraordinarily irrelevant," says Sam Husseini, chair of the station's local advisory board. For news on recent protests against the death penalty, the World Bank, or IMF, one turned to C-SPAN or even CNN, but not to WPFW, he says.

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