Can WBAI Be Saved?

Democracy Now at Pacifica Radio

Before WBAI became part of Pacifica Radio network, it was located at the Hotel Pierre and the owner was Louis Schweitzer, a rather eccentric man of considerable means. Gunther Schuller and I had a weekly jazz program on WBAI then; and one night, between sets at the Village Gate, Schweitzer told me that he was going to donate WBAI to Pacifica Radio.

He wanted to hear classical music more often, and he felt that this city needed a station with network resources, which would provide news and analysis that the mainstream media didn't have the knowledge or the courage to air. Schweitzer was a liberal in the old sense of the word—he believed that democracy requires a wide diversity of ideas.

For many years, WBAI and Pacifica adhered to the principles of both Schweitzer and the network's founder, Lewis Hill, a nonsectarian pacifist. The best concise description of the programming, both in New York and on the four other affiliates around the country, was Frank Ahrens's in The Washington Post: "valuable journalism, mixed with some wild-eyed zealotry."

Through the years, I've been interviewed on the Pacifica network's news programs—now much less independent under the present national board—and I have freely criticized "political correctness" on the left, including at Pacifica and WBAI. I also had some very lively exchanges with congressional supporters of Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings.

But as the national board began to include corporate-style members who had little in common with the visions of Lewis Hill and Louis Schweitzer, pressure started to build to attract more mainstream listeners, who might be turned off by the occasional "wild-eyed zealotry" and the frequently penetrating reporting on local, national, and world affairs.

Of particular value is Amy Goodman's network program, Democracy NOW!, which originates at WBAI and covers the universe—as George Seldes and I.F. Stone might have done as broadcasters. Pressure has also been mounting on Goodman to be more circumspect—but she resists.

In July 1999, at Pacifica affiliate KPFA in Berkeley, California—which Lewis Hill hoped would be a national model for listener-sponsored, community-based radio—the clash between the current board and Hill's dream turned into a nightmare.

Considering KPFA too "radical"—and therefore a less valuable property if the national board wanted to sell it—the board fired the station manager, locked out protesting staffers, and imposed a gag rule to prevent listeners from knowing what was going on. One commentator who broke the rule was dragged out of the KPFA newsroom in mid-sentence by security personnel. (See the updated Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, by Matthew Lasar, Temple University Press.)

It is that style of management that WBAI's interim general manager, Utrice Leid, has perpetrated on dissenting staffers. She has fired and banned an increasing number of them, and as I reported last week, she cut Congressman Major Owens off the air as he was recalling the original intent of WBAI and Pacifica. Leid has tried, with some success, to impose a gag rule on the remaining members of the staff, but some keep on keeping faith with the listeners.

In March of this year, the Pacifica National Board met in Houston. Also insistently present were some 200 protesting listeners and staff members of the five Pacifica stations. According to the ad hoc National Organizing Committee—composed of dissenters who want to save the network from further pollution of its founding principles—"in the most dramatic protest, on March 4, nearly the entire audience turned their backs to the board, chanted, 'Resign now' and 'Democracy now' for 20 minutes, and then walked out, forcing a recess.

"Later that day, about 100 activists from the five Pacifica station areas forged the foundation for a nationally coordinated movement to save Pacifica."

A press release from this National Organizing Committee focused on what it describes as "key board members who are affiliated with corporate interests, including John Murdock, an HMO attorney with the union-busting firm of Epstein Becker & Green." Murdock is head of the board's governance committee. Also on the national board is Michael Palmer, "a broker with the commercial real estate firm of CB Richard Ellis; Ken Ford, a manager with the National Association of Home Builders; and Bertram Lee, the former Denver Nuggets owner who buys and sells TV and radio stations."

It may not be likely that these high-level players in the corporate world would understand why, some years ago, Amy Goodman literally risked her life to break the story of the slaughtering of independence fighters in East Timor by Indonesian troops. Nor would they perhaps understand the importance of Amy Goodman's interview earlier this year with Bill Clinton, during which he was hit with the hardest series of questions he has ever faced from the press. The questions had nothing to do with his sex life.

In Houston, after first closing its Saturday meeting to the public, the Pacifica board then did let the sunshine in, and, as reported by the National Organizing Committee:

"Protesters packed the room, festooned with placards denouncing the board, and delivered demands for board members' resignations." On Friday and Saturday evenings, speakers at teach-ins were Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News columnist and cofounder of the Campaign Against the Corporate Takeover of Pacifica.

The National Organizing Committee reports that a national steering committee is being established, "composed of elected representatives of the Free Pacifica listeners groups across the country"—including New York. There may be national actions against the board in conjunction with May Day, and a boycott of contributions to Pacifica stations is being urged. A committee is being set up to help local activists rescue Pacifica stations where they are.

If you want to join this retrieval of democracy on the air, the Pacifica Campaign is at 51 MacDougal Street, Box No. 80, New York, NY 10012. The Web site is www.pacificacampaign.org, and the phone number for information about actions being planned is 1-800-797-6229. It also takes messages.

In 1999, when the firings and gag rule took place at KPFA, some 10,000 supporters of free speech demonstrated in Berkeley, cops were called, and there were many arrests. In the history of American radio, no station had ever had so many fervent listeners. Let's see what happens elsewhere.

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