The troubles that have rocked Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in recent weeks have outraged many but surprised few. This is only the latest bout in the long power struggle that has riven the nation’s oldest and only independent radio network.
At the heart of the crisis, say workers and supporters of the New York City station, is the steady transformation of the 50-year-old Pacifica network from locally based and left-oriented outlets into centrally controlled, mainstream institutions (see Cotts). The nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, which holds the broadcast licenses for WBAI and four other listener-sponsored stations, has been systematically reining them in, one by one, for the last four years. The day after Christmas, WBAI (99.5 FM) learned it would be next, when management fired three top staffers, temporarily banned several others from entering the station, brought in security guards, and changed the locks. “WBAI has always been the bête noire of Pacifica,” says one longtime producer. “It’s too black or too red or too green.”
If there is a grand vision behind management’s bumbling moves, there’s precious little evidence of it. The board did draw up a hefty five-year strategic plan in 1997, but the document is widely seen by insiders as a meandering muddle caught between competing goals of increasing audience share and fulfilling the original mission to be a dissident, progressive voice. “This document is so broad and general as to be almost innocuous,” says Ralph Engelman, a member of Pacifica’s national board from 1973 to 1979 and author of Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. He says the Pacifica leadership appears to have relied more on the work of consultant David Giovannoni, whom he describes as “a numbers guru who applies the methodology of commercial radio to public radio.” Engelman says the consultant set the stage for sweeping change, not least because the kind of data he produces is so often used to attract corporate underwriters, who in turn demand that stations create content that will increase listenership.
See also: Where and How to Join the Revolt
In a February 2000 memo to the board, Giovannoni wrote: “By any objective measure of public service, Pacifica has crossed the line from ‘underperformance’ to ‘irrelevance.’ ” He added that numbers are “important, because significant radio programming without a significant listening audience is not a significant public service.”
But rather than trying to build audiences by increasing national programming — one way of reading Giovannoni’s recommendation — the board has taken a sledgehammer and scythe to the few such shows that already exist, with disastrous results: protest in the street, mutiny on its own airwaves, bad press from mainstream media. When management tried a similar takeover in the summer of 1999 at Berkeley’s KPFA, the oldest station in the network, it sparked a public uproar and was forced to back down, restoring the station to local control.
For the uninitiated, trying to sort fact from spin in the long-running Pacifica battles is rather like trying to unravel a murky family feud in which the elders don’t deign to come to the table. In the past, squabbles within Pacifica have always been between progressive visions, says Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog in New York. “What’s different now is that there is one group that has no interest in radio, community, or progressive politics.”
As damning as Rendall’s rhetoric is, practically no one in Pacifica’s management will respond to it. Neither the board’s executive director, the publicist, nor the national program director would return phone calls. Utrice Leid, the WBAI station manager appointed to replace the fired Valerie Van Isler, also ignored requests for comment.
The silence has not gone unnoticed. “The people on the board have no vision and have never been able to provide a compelling explanation for their actions,” says Rob Robinson, one of six dissidents on the 18-member national board and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the directors. “It’s like getting into a car with someone who’s drunk. It doesn’t matter where they’re going — you just have to get them away from the wheel before they crash it.”
John Murdock, a corporate lawyer on the Pacifica national board, would not comment on the events at WBAI or programming changes in the network. But he denies that Pacifica’s mission is being altered. “What we’re looking to do is improve our vehicle of communication,” he says. Simply increasing audience has no value unless “we improve the way we deliver our message so that more people will listen to what our historic mission is.”
Such assertions of quality over content fly in the face of the complete makeover of Washington’s WPFW and Houston’s KPFT, stations the Pacifica board holds up as new models of success. Both outfits, which now primarily play music, have ceased in any significant way to be recognizable as Pacifica radio. Gone are the bilingual shows, the in-depth, off-beat reporting, the unpredictable interviews.
The only significant public affairs program at either station is Democracy Now!, a show produced — and under fire — at WBAI. Though in the nation’s capital, WPFW has virtually no locally produced news. “It has become extraordinarily irrelevant,” says Sam Husseini, chair of the station’s local advisory board. For news on recent protests against the death penalty, the World Bank, or IMF, one turned to C-SPAN or even CNN, but not to WPFW, he says.
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.
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 mission — to 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, 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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2001