WBAI = Anti-Free-Speech Radio


We have no room, or we are fast developing intolerance, for individualism. It is self-destructive. So we are working hard at developing a consciousness of collectivism. We are a collective, not a collection of individuals.

—Utrice Leid, WBAI general manager,

National Public Radio, June 21

Listening to the fundraising pitches on listener-supported WBAI on August 24, I hear: “Keep free-speech radio alive. . . . This is the most diverse radio in the land, and maybe in the world.”

Since this station is now managed as if it were an authoritarian state, it can only be described as “free-speech radio” in what George Orwell called newspeak.

On National Public Radio’s June 21 report on WBAI, Rick Karr noted that just before Christmas, General Manager Utrice Leid had “fired the station’s former general manager, the program director, and a producer. Since then, Leid has banned nine volunteer producers and hosts from the station and canceled their shows.”

Since that broadcast, the list of individuals suspended or banned from this collective has grown still further, and now includes such dissenters as Polk Award winner Robert Knight and producers Bob Lederer and Kathy Davis.

But Utrice Leid explains the purifying of the collective as a matter of conquering racism. As NPR’s Rick Karr reported, “Leid says the protesters can’t stand the idea of a black woman running the station.” Or as Leid put it during a pledge drive, “We’re talking here today about the European psychological warfare against Africans.”

But as Karr noted, in the interest of full disclosure, “In fact, the former general manager, whose firing precipitated the protest, is a black woman. The other two staffers who were fired when Leid was put in charge are black, and many of the protest’s leaders are black and Latino.”

For one example, there is Juan Gonzalez, the Daily News columnist and author, who is also a director of the Pacifica Campaign, a persistent national organization that describes itself as “representing listeners and staff fighting to preserve Pacifica’s 50-year tradition of progressive, community-based radio.”

As Cynthia Cotts wrote in the August 14 Voice, the future of the Pacifica radio network, very much including WBAI, “is at stake.” The national board of Pacifica “is appealing to a younger demographic” and is intent on gaining larger audiences for all its stations. Accordingly, “free-speech radio” is now tightly managed from the top, in order to prevent the kind of freewheelingly controversial programming that flourished in the past.

In her answer to Cynthia Cotts (Letters, August 28), Bessie Wash, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation—which runs the five Pacifica stations—wrote seductively of WBAI’s need to adapt “to the challenges of radio in the 21st century.”

But in defending Utrice Leid’s collective management of WBAI, Bessie Wash did not mention the continual suppression of dissent at the station. Nor the expulsion, in an increasing number of cases, of those who question the mantra of “change” when it actually means managed, not free, speech.

On this 21st-century, listener-supported radio, callers who take issue with what is happening to WBAI are often treated with scorn or cut off with the sound of a flushing toilet. Meanwhile, during a pledge drive, I hear paeans from a loyal staff to “this incredible resource, this diversity, that exists nowhere else in the nation.”

Bessie Wash, in her letter to the Voice, also did not mention that the management of national Pacifica Radio, as it strives to doctor its image, has—as reported by Frank Ahrens in the August 21 Washington Post—”hired Westhill Public Affairs, a high-end Washington flack outfit.”

Its clients, continued Ahrens, “include Jesse Jackson, who signed on after his affair was revealed, and former senator Bob Kerrey, whose role in civilian killings in the Vietnam War recently came to light.” These kinds of firms, Ahrens noted, “don’t come cheap . . . so that means the bills will be paid with money that might otherwise go to programming.”

There was more about this image-enhancing effort in Current, “the public telecommunications newspaper,” which is read nationally by producers, reporters, managers, and other workers in public television.

The August 20 issue of Current reports that Pacifica “recently hired Westhill Partners . . . a public relations firm known for a hardball ‘crisis management’ approach. (Tobacco company Brown & Williamson used Westhill to cast aspersions on Jeffrey Wigand, the company’s former employee-turned-whistle-blower.)”

This is further adapting to the 21st century?

Pacifica has suspended that network’s most renowned reporter, WBAI-based Amy Goodman, without pay, along with the staff of her Democracy Now! program. On August 29, when a caller to WBAI asked on the air, “What’s going on with Amy Goodman?” he was told, “We don’t talk about that.” Free-speech radio!