WBAI's Death by Democracy

Warring activists cause a legendary public radio station to implode

To make ends meet, the station has come to rely on revenue from increasingly bizarre, and in some cases even dangerous, pledge drive gifts. In June, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—the organization that provides about 15 percent of the station's funding—wrote a pair of reports questioning the ethics of some gifts, including Double Helix water, which purports to cure both cancer and autism.

To trace the decline, you have to go back at least 15 years, to 1998. That was the year the station moved to a fancy new building on Wall Street, where its new neighbors were other progressive-minded nonprofits like the Center for the Urban Future and the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

The decision was handed down from the Pacifica Foundation, which holds the broadcast licenses for WBAI and its sister stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Pacifica was on a kick to professionalize its scrappy stations, and WBAI's old office on Eighth Avenue was "a rathole by the time the station left there," as one longtime producer put it.

General manager Berthold Reimers says, “I don’t answer my phone because I have so many crazy people calling me.”
Caleb Ferguson
General manager Berthold Reimers says, “I don’t answer my phone because I have so many crazy people calling me.”
News Editor Andrea Sears started 
as a volunteer at WBAI in 1987.
Caleb Ferguson
News Editor Andrea Sears started as a volunteer at WBAI in 1987.

Listeners like Mitchel Cohen fretted over the move: "We were afraid they were trying to sell the station, or bourgeois-ify the station. Corporatize it, I guess."

Their fears were not entirely misplaced. By the time WBAI left Wall Street last January, the rent had ballooned to an untenable $40,000 a month. It was just one in a long series of ill-advised steps.

Even as Amy Goodman was grilling Clinton, creating one of the most emblematic moments in the station's history, WBAI was defending itself from Pacifica's increasingly aggressive attempts to tighten its grip on both the station and its biggest star.

Goodman is best known as the host of Democracy NOW!, Pacifica's iconic news program. In an open letter addressed to Pacifica's board of directors a few weeks before her Clinton interview, Goodman wrote that executives were urging her to soften the coverage, saying listeners didn't want to hear the details of police brutality before their morning coffee.

"Instead of congratulations and kudos for our many accomplishments, Pacifica has clamped down and threatens me at every turn with dismissal!" Democracy NOW!, Goodman added, was "being censored for our critical coverage of the Democrats as well as the Republicans."

The testy exchange with Clinton couldn't have helped matters. That month, WBAI's general manager was canned. A few weeks later, over Christmas weekend, a new GM installed by Pacifica snuck into the station at night and changed the locks. The program director and his top producer were fired via courier the next morning.

Security cameras were installed, and guards were stationed at the door with a list of the names of producers and employees who were no longer welcome. A gag order banned those still allowed on air from discussing the station's issues.

So much for free speech radio.

But the folks at Pacifica would find out quickly that they had overplayed their hand. Listeners and producers revolted. A rally two weeks after the firings drew 500 people to WBAI's office, where they chanted and held signs reading "Despotism Won't Fly at WBAI."

More rallies followed outside both Pacifica's Washington, D.C., headquarters and the law firm representing the network. Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy NOW!, resigned in protest; Goodman was later suspended.

For almost a year, protests, demonstrations, and rallies rocked the station, before a newly elected board of directors was forced to restore Democracy NOW!, which had been broadcast "in exile" from a fire station in Lower Manhattan during the strife.

The turmoil did have one upside: A collection of Pacifica listeners, activists, and producers joined together to change the way the network operated. Listeners and staff would now be elected to a series of boards that governed the Pacifica Network.

"We're once again on the road to democratization of our cherished network—the only independent network in the country," Goodman told the Voice back then.

But those changes, says Patty Heffley, a listener turned board member, led to "the democratic state that has become a nightmare today."

It seemed a fine concept in theory, allowing listeners to dictate their experience. But in reality it placed the station's destiny in the hands of people who knew little of radio or management. Worse, committees were piled one atop another, creating a bureaucracy so vast and chaotic that only a Soviet apparatchik would approve.

Today, about 2,200 people are directly involved in the voting process, according to Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. "You basically have an organization that is drowning in governance."

The system bred a vicious factionalism that has made it virtually impossible to get anything done for more than a decade. The boards have fractured into splinter groups like the Justice and Unity Caucus, the Independent Party, and Listeners and Staff for Progressive Elections.

Epic power struggles for station control raged for years, while day-to-day operations ground to a halt. A succession of general managers and program directors were installed and quickly deposed. It wasn't unusual for fistfights to break out at board meetings. Countless lawsuits were filed, then summarily dismissed. All the while, the station floundered. Lasar, who was present when the bylaws were created, now calls the whole exercise "a disastrous experiment in democratization."

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