Brooklyn Congressman Slams WBAI on Capitol Hill


NEW YORK CITY, March 13—The beleaguered supporters of WBAI (99.5-FM) got a boost yesterday in their fight against the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, which in recent months has booted veteran staff members, banned several volunteers from the station, and censored shows.

Monday, Brooklyn congressman Major R. Owens, City Council member Kathryn E. Freed, and Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel joined several ousted WBAI staffers at a morning press conference in a show of support. The three spoke at the offices of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, denouncing the pattern of censorship at the independent radio station. Owens said he hopes to “draw attention to this issue and to help WBAI regain its broadcast independence, creativity, and diversity.”

Owens has good reasons for getting involved. On March 5, the veteran congressman was caught off guard while a call-in guest on Building Bridges, a labor show co-hosted by Ken Nash. As part of a general discussion of labor issues, Owens began to talk about the long-running battle between management and staff at WBAI. That’s when he says interim station manager Utrice Leid came in and shut the program down.

In a speech Thursday from the floor of the House of Representatives, Owens blasted WBAI, saying that “without explanation and apology, (Leid) shut down the microphones and claimed that she had to intervene.

“I had the weird and frightening experience of being gagged by a radio station manager in my own home city of New York.”

Since December, the Pacifica Foundation has taken a series of anti-labor actions at WBAI, which include the firing of the station manager in a “Christmas Coup,” the imposition of a gag rule, and the limiting of access to the station’s studios on Wall Street.

Nash, whose program was canceled, told the Voice that he is “in total limbo” about whether he will be back on the air. He says that when he asked Leid, she answered, “`I don’t know.’”

Owens says he will meet with Pacifica Foundation executive director Bessie M. Wash on Wednesday to “discuss amongst other things, some possible ways to bring this episode to a successful conclusion for all concerned.”

Calls to Leid for comment were not returned.