WBAI: Beijing Radio, New York

Cutting a Congressman off the Air

The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking more access to the airwaves.
—Brooklyn congressman Major Owens, speaking on the floor of the House, March 8


In Beijing, if anyone on a radio program were to advocate democracy, he or she would not only be pulled off the air, but would also be sent to a labor reeducation camp—or worse.

In 1992, Wang Wanxing, a workingman in the Chinese capital, took a prodemocracy banner to Tiananmen Square and unfurled it. Arrested and diagnosed as a "paranoid psychotic," he was locked into a police hospital for the criminally insane for seven years. Other Chinese dissenters have been sent to labor reeducation camps to cure them of officially diagnosed "political monomania."

In this country, of course, dissenters of all kinds are an integral part of talk radio. But on March 5—a historic date in the history of free speech in this city—a congressman, Brooklyn Democrat Major Owens, was cut off the air by Utrice Leid, interim station manager of WBAI. The station was created 52 years ago as a forum for alternative free speech, much like The Village Voice on the left and the National Review on the right. During the antiwar and civil rights movements, WBAI was essential listening for anyone who wished to discover what The New York Times and the television networks didn't know, or didn't choose to report.

On March 5, Major Owens was speaking, by phone, with the hosts of Building Bridges: Your Community & Labor Report, WBAI's only program of labor news and analysis. In late December, the board of the Pacifica Foundation, the parent of WBAI, had engaged in a midnight takeover of the station. Staffers were fired and banned from the premises, locks were changed, and security guards were put into place. Chinese authorities would not find Utrice Leid's actions unreasonable.

This was part of a continuing attempt by the Pacifica National Board to greatly diminish the left-wing political content of the five Pacifica stations. It has largely succeeded in Houston and the District of Columbia.

On the Building Bridgesprogram, Major Owens, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee for Workforce Protections in the House, was talking about the decidedly antidemocratic events at the station after the "December coup," as dissenters call it. Suddenly, the station's chief censor, Utrice Leid, strode into the master control studio, seized the microphone, said, "Lies have been told," and went to music. Later she permanently canceled the program.

The silenced congressman has not been sent to a labor reeducation camp, but when he began his account in Congress of what happened to him, he said:

"Mr. Speaker, tyrants in control of totalitarian countries like China, Serbia, and Iraq consider control of the airwaves an absolute necessity. They ruthlessly enforce censorship of a kind few of us in America can imagine. Last Monday, however, I had the weird and frightening experience of being gagged by a radio station manager in my own home city of New York."

As he spoke from the House floor, Owens explained he is trying to "get more avenues opened for radio free speech in my city. Five low-powered Haitian stations have been shut down. The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking more access to the airwaves. . . .

"My knowledge of the reputation of certain appointments to the board of Pacifica Network," Owens continued, "leads me to conclude that there is a clear and immediate danger that attempts will be made to sell WBAI to a commercial owner. Persons [on the present Pacifica board] far removed from the original ideals and philosophy of the founders of the Pacifica chain are not likely to promote the original intent" of WBAI and the other Pacifica stations.

What Owens said in Congress was what he was going to say on WBAI. He added this crucial point: "A basic question which must be tested is, Who owns a nonprofit entity, and who has the right to sell nonprofit radio stations?"

Also being tested right now in Alameda County Superior Court of California—in People of the State of California, Carol Spooner, et al.v. Pacifica Foundation—is the legitimacy of the present Pacifica National Board. There are issues about the procedures by which board members were elected and questions about whether the changes they have made in the Pacifica bylaws are legitimate, as well as claims of irregularities in their conduct and governance.

Carol Spooner, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit—which could restore free speech to the Pacifica network—tells me she has filed Major Owens's speech in Congress with the state court in California. (There are also two other lawsuits against the Pacifica Foundation.)

On March 12, Major Owens held a press conference at the office of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys in New York/UAW 2325 to report his silencing by Utrice Leid and his abiding concern that free speech be restored at the station.

I have seen no media coverage of that press conference, and Leid's gagging of Owens was reported—so far as I know—only by David Hinckley, the Daily News' first-rate reporter of radio events, and Peter Goodman in Newsday.

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