Morning Sedition

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

In the morning, the station's published schedule features short newscasts of wire-service stories at roughly half-hour intervals; after 8:30 a.m., there are only five news bulletins. Jazz fills in most of the rest. "WPFW will act as archivist, educator, and entertainer on behalf of this underserved national cultural resource," reads the WPFW mission statement.

The station's numbers may have gone up, says Husseini, but "only because the other jazz station on the dial was sold to C-SPAN" and no longer plays jazz. The national board's citing of WPFW as an example of successful programming is "stupid and disingenuous."

Listeners and staffers of the Houston station express similar disgust at the changes mandated by the national board. KPFT has switched to a new format called "The Sound of Texas," described mainly as an eclectic blend of acoustic, folk, rock, and tejano. It's a mix that's highly inappropriate for Houston's vastly diverse community, says Edwin Johnston, a volunteer there until the mid 1980s. "It only serves a small segment of white people with deep pockets."

The station has had no news director for years. Over the last decade, several local talk shows and ethnic programs have been axed, the Houston Press reported in 1999. Yet KPFT general manager Garland Ganter disagrees that his station now plays mostly light cowboy music. He says the station offers news and music in roughly the same proportion as before. The audiences once fluctuated from 60,000 to 80,000 a week, he says, and have now grown to 161,000. "We have broadened and added to our traditional listening base," says Ganter. The Pacifica ideal of social and progressive change "isn't a good mission unless we reach a lot more people. We accomplished the mission by having more people listen, whether it is Democracy Now!, blues, folk, or tejano."

With those numbers have come dollars, Ganter says, and they might be used to build up nonexistent local news coverage and maybe even hire a news director. "Now that we have audience growth, we have money."

Fatter numbers haven't necessarily made for happier local boards. Teresa Allen, a member of the KPFT board, says she and other members have recently raised the need for more public affairs programming and getting a news director, though she's not sure how much power the local board really has. "We are getting more money," she say. "But I'm not persuaded that with people giving more money we are fulfilling our mission and fully representing the people's interests."

The verdict is more scathing from Pacifica veterans such as Larry Bensky, host of the weekly two-hour talk show Sunday Salon at the Berkeley station, which fought off a potentially similar onslaught in 1999. He has particular disdain for the way the Washington and Houston stations are using their new music formats to market CDs. "This is nothing but prostitution of the stations' mission," says Bensky, who was bumped off the air during the attempted management takeover. "When you change the format to a jukebox, you become like public TV, an alternative shopping channel on the left. You become a store."

The results so far make plain that the national board's stated goal of expanding the audience is a red herring, say staffers and longtime Pacifica observers. The real objective, they say, is to eviscerate the network by obliterating its political message. Nowhere is that more evident than in the attack on Amy Goodman's popular Democracy Now!, the hard-hitting morning news show that bills itself as the "Exception to the Rulers."

Late last year the national board reportedly summoned Goodman to Washington and asked her to produce softer stories that were not too intellectually demanding. She was also reportedly directed to stop using volunteers and to clear her programs with management in advance. Goodman has filed grievances for harassment and censorship.

"Democracy Now! is without question the most successful venture in the history of alternative broadcasting," says Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. "It's powerful and credible and reaches almost a million people. I don't think any other radio on the left has come as close to reaching as many people with as compelling a message."

And yet the fact that Democracy Now! is a big draw has not prevented management from going after Goodman. Her syndicated show raised nearly $1 million during the pledge drive last fall, not only from listeners but foundations. Goodman, who has continued to speak out on the air and at rallies, knows she faces the prospect of being fired for defying the directors. "The crackdown on Democracy Now! is precisely because it's politically relevant," she says, "not because it's irrelevant."

Pacifica has long earned its biggest kudos when its programs have broken the sound barrier on controversial issues. During the Iran-Contra hearings of 1987, Bensky came up with the idea of a toll-free number for listeners to call during the show and pledge support if they liked what they were hearing. "We boosted the audience for all stations," he recalls. "It showed that there was an audience out there and it was willing to pay."

Listenership and donations always increase dramatically at Pacifica when the United States bombs a country, says Andrea Buffa of the watchdog Media Alliance. This may seem macabre, but it's eloquent proof of the need the network fills. During the Bush war on Iraq, KPFA became the central radio headquarters for people who were critical of the conflict. "Audiences skyrocketed because KPFA stuck to its principles," says Lasar.

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