A Dose of Democracy, Now


Monday, January 14—For the first time in five long months, Amy Goodman turned on the mic this morning and talked to her beloved WBAI fans, as her signature show, Democracy Now!, returned from exile.

For the first time in a year, Juan Gonzalez came back as Goodman’s co-host.

And for the first time in a long time, both sounded jubilant beyond words. “It’s home sweet home,” Goodman told her audience this morning, “and it’s all because of the listeners.”

The change happened in a New York minute this past weekend, as the new interim board of the Pacifica National Network, which owns WBAI (99.5 FM) and a string of other left-leaning nonprofit stations, met in Midtown. The last item on the agenda Saturday was a motion to reverse the Christmas Coup of 2000, when Pacifica officials terminated key staffers in the middle of the night and began moving WBAI toward a less-news, more-jazz format. In a windowless room of the Hotel Trade Council union hall, the board moved to expel station manager Robert Daughtry, reinstate the “fired and banned”—including former manager Valerie Van Isler—and lift the gag rule for on-air discussion of the Pacifica struggle.

For those seeking to save the soul of WBAI, this was total victory. As new chairwoman Leslie Cagan announced the two-thirds majority decision, the standing-room-only crowd burst into cheers, applause, and embrace, chanting “Whose station? Our station” and shouting “We’re going home!”

“We took dramatic action because we believe that the situation at WBAI needed immediate attention,” Cagan later explained. “It will be a long time in sorting out the various issues and concerns, but the action we took was designed to bring back to the station people who haven’t been there for more than a year, and who should be involved in seeking resolutions.”

But for the much larger community of free-speech activists, striking reporters, and exiled employees around the country, the meeting itself marked the beginning of a very happy ending to years of their bitter fight to keep the network listener-run and free from corporate control. Last year, the national campaign resulted in four lawsuits and the resignation of several board members. In exchange for an end to the lawsuits, the old board agreed in December to reconstitute its leadership, clearing the way for those committed to Pacifica’s founding principles of high-quality journalism and social justice.

“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Goodman says. “We’re once again on the road to democratization of our cherished network—the only independent network in the country.”

Democracy Now! had been broadcasting “in exile” since August, when Goodman walked out in protest and Pacifica banned the show. She and her volunteer staff set up a makeshift studio in the attic of a converted firehouse on Lafayette Street, just blocks from the World Trade Center, airing Democracy Now! in Exile on Pacifica’s KPFA in Berkeley, California, which defied the ban. Some 10 Pacifica “Affiliates in Exile” soon joined, and the show played on several other community stations across the country, on the Web, and in a new twist, on public-access TV.

Democracy Now! has really blossomed without the restrictions of heavy-handed management that opposed the program because of its political content,” says Dan Coughlin, a former Pacifica national news director appointed as Pacifica’s interim executive director. “It’s the marriage of community television with community radio for the first time in U.S. media history.”

Goodman and her staff, who were granted back wages by the new interim board, will continue producing at the firehouse because WBAI doesn’t have video capabilities. The dusty, chilly A-frame attic belongs to Downtown Community Television, which donated the space. Each day, the 15 or so bleary-eyed exiles gather at dawn, bundled in layers. Goodman props herself up on a pile of old newspapers, delivering “The War and Peace Report” from behind a long oak dining table into a microphone the size of a grapefruit. Sunlight bounces off the rafters. Goodman’s backdrop is the window to the TV control room, on which strips of white tape form the words “Democracy Now! In Exile.” The staff members mill around, occasionally disappearing down the fire pole.

“They did get me a higher chair,” says Goodman with a laugh. “But it’s always helpful to have the newspapers at your fingertips, and considering the propaganda they contain, they’re better used as a comfortable cushion.”

When the trade center fell, the firehouse’s phone and DSL connections miraculously stayed intact, and a skeleton crew kept broadcasting for eight hours. Goodman was afraid leaving would mean not getting back in, so she and producer Miranda Kennedy slept in the firehouse until Friday, producing the show each day—without once calling Tom Clancy. “We were the closest media outlet to ground zero broadcasting a daily national show,” says Goodman. “It was essential to bring out the voices of people around the world who had experienced terror on their own soil, and to talk about what terrorism is.”

Meanwhile, at WBAI, the politics descended from what Coughlin calls “bizarre spiritualism coupled with right-wing conspiracy theories to anti-Semitism, narrow nationalism, and race baiting.” At one point, activists say, manager Utrice Leid actually forbade any discussion of the attacks, allowing only soothing music and poetry. But at the firehouse, Goodman and company took the show to two hours, producing critical, uncensored analysis. Goodman began saying lower Manhattan is “the first ground zero; Afghanistan is the second.”

Last week, Democracy Now! was ordered back on the Pacifica airwaves by the interim board, but only three of the five stations complied. WKPFK in Los Angeles refused to air it at its normally scheduled time of 9 a.m. (opting instead for 6 a.m.) and WBAI initially refused altogether. Perhaps they regretted that decision on Tuesday, when the show featured Rita Lasar, who lost her brother in the September 11 attacks, meeting face-to-face in the firehouse studio with Masuda Sultan, an Afghan woman who lost 19 members of her extended family to U.S. bombs. The women embraced and wept together as they exchanged sympathy and words of peace, and both called for aid to victims of U.S. bombs. Crews from NBC, CBS, Fox, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg crammed into the attic to capture the moment. “It’s ironic that today the corporate media are covering this important story, while WBAI bans it from the airwaves,” Goodman says. “The real losers from this censorship are the listeners.”

In a phone interview last Friday, Robert Daughtry explained his decision to defy the order as best he could: “WBAI is presently not airing Democracy Now! because I have not received a legal directive to do so. Wait. Strike that. I’m not airing Democracy Now! because I have chosen not to air it. The decision is up to the station manager.”

Resistance like that only confirms Goodman’s sense of Pacifica’s mission. It’s their duty, she says, to “go to where the silence is and say something, even as we’re being silenced ourselves.”

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WBAI = Anti-Free-Speech Radio: ‘Democracy Now!’ Suspended” by Nat Hentoff