By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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By Jon Campbell
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With all these lessons for the future from its its own past, Pacifica's headlong rush to mediocrity in the undistinguished center both baffles and saddens its supporters. For Pacifica to be abandoning its mission is "not only poor politics but rotten strategy," says Laura Flanders, a former WBAI producer and ex-cohost of FAIR's media analysis program, CounterSpin, which was first censored and then taken off WPFW recently. "If it's a question of wooing audiences through high-value production and international coverage, NPR will always do it better. Pacifica's stock-in-trade has always been bringing people reality radio."
The board's notion of the transcendent importance of audience size is wholly antithetical to the Pacifica mission, say several media analysts and staffers. "I object strongly to the idea that you must increase audience per se," says Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent. "Pacifica's purpose is not an audience; its purpose is a local dissident missionto give local audiences a certain degree of participation and to allow dissident opinion to flourish."
The bottom line for founder Lewis Hill was not building an audience, but saying what had to be said, says Lasar. In 1958, KPFA broadcast the country's first gay rights documentary, produced by the Mattachine Society. In the 1970s, after the wars in Israel, WBAI and KPFA were among the first radio stations to broadcast voices from the Palestine Liberation Organization. "Any audience rating specialist would have told them not to do it, but they did it anyway," Lasar says. While consultants have a role in showing Pacifica how to do its job better, he says he is "very suspicious of taking the use of audience ratings too far. Because the job of Pacifica has been to say things other people would not dare say on the radio."
At WBAI, that tradition continues. On Election Eve, it was the only radio station to grab Bill Clinton by the coattails when he called in to make an election pitch. Democracy Now!host Goodman grilled the president for a good half hour on topics he hears little about: the corporate domination of politics, the U.S. bombing of Vieques, the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iraqi children, and clemency for Leonard Peltier.
WBAI also has a very strong participatory black audience, unlike public radio and community radio stations, which tend to have mostly white audiences, says Lasar.
In an environment of globalization and corporate hegemony in the media, Pacifica supporters envision a radio network that would be part of and grow with the mushrooming alternative news sources, starting with the online Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org), which has received some 2 million hits since the 1999 riots in Seattle. Clearly, issues of social justice can still command a vibrant, engaged audience. "It saddens me that instead of being at the heart of this social change, Pacifica has been embroiled in an internecine fight," says former WBAI producer Flanders.
The volunteers and listeners of WBAI are not going quietly. They're holding vigils outside the Wall Street studio, and strategy meetings have drawn up to 1500 people. New Yorkers who care about WBAI are trying to mount the same kind of pressure that saved Berkeley's KPFA. They face long odds, with an increasingly corporatized board and a station manager many see as a wedge between staff and directors. However badly things are going now, "it is still very important to fight," says Herman. "Pacifica is the last independent and left-oriented network, and it would be a social and democratic disaster to lose it."
Click HERE For a schedule of WBAI protests.