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Backstage article on AFTRA/WBAI

East August 29, 2001

AFTRA Fears Danger at WBAI

By Roger Armbrust

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has alerted its members to the union's "strong concern for the members' safety" in production of a radio talk show at WBAI studios in lower Manhattan.

Kim Roberts, AFTRA's associate national executive director, told Back Stage on Monday that AFTRA had "filed a formal grievance pursuant to the contract grievance procedure" with Pacifica Radio network, producer of the radio talk show "Democracy Now!" While the formal procedure involves going through Pacifica, AFTRA's primary concern is with WBAI employees, who Roberts indicated had been involved in altercations with AFTRA members?the talk-show host and producer?working on "Democracy Now!" The problems occurred on two dates, Aug. 10 and Aug. 13. One of those altercations involved WBAI's general manager, Roberts said. She did not name the host, producer or general manager. WBAI is a Pacifica station.

AFTRA placed a statement on its Web site last week revealing that the union had learned of the problem on Aug. 13 when "AFTRA members employed on 'Democracy Now!' [said] that they could not continue to report to work at the WBAI studios because they were afraid for their physical safety." AFTRA contacted Pacifica management in an attempt to resolve the situation. "Pacifica agreed to take affirmative steps to address the concerns raised by AFTRA, including the issuance to all personnel--management and nonmanagement, paid and unpaid--of a clear statement affirming that Pacifica commits to maintaining a workplace that is safe, secure, and free of discrimination, harassment, intimidation or physical altercation," AFTRA's statement said.

"Based upon Pacifica's representations and written assurances of the steps that would be taken to guarantee worker safety," the statement added, "AFTRA directed the 'Democracy Now!' staff to report to work in order to fulfill AFTRA's contractual obligations under the no-strike clause of the collective bargaining agreement."

However, dissatisfied that Pacifica had followed through on its promises due to further occurrences at WBAI, the union has, according to its statement, "notified Pacifica that it is no longer satisfied that the WBAI studios are a safe and appropriate working environment" for the "Democracy Now!" employees.

Roberts said that AFTRA was continuing to investigate the matter. She said on Monday she wasn't sure whether the program was continuing to be produced.

Continuing Saga
Little other information is coming out of AFTRA or Pacifica about the situation. But the friction involving "Democracy Now!," Pacifica and WBAI seems to have begun in October of last year. According to an Oct. 19, 2000 report on the Web site of FAIR, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a leaked Oct. 18 memo from Amy Goodman, "Democracy Now!" 's host, to Pacifica's board of directors stated the network had presented Goodman with a new set of "rules." The report said those rules "drastically curtail her freedom to decide what stories to cover and how, and even attempt to restrict her free speech rights."

The FAIR report traced original censorship problems at Pacifica back to March 1999 when "Pacifica fired Nicole Sawaya, station manager of Berkeley station KPFA; a few days later, veteran reporter Larry Bensky was also fired from KPFA for discussing on-air concerns about the network's autocratic management. In the wake of the firings, as many as 2,000 listeners took to the streets of Berkeley to protest the actions of Pacifica's management and demand greater accountability to the community."

Up To Date
Another FAIR report for Aug. 14 of this year stated that the current Pacifica-"Democracy Now!" crisis began on Aug. 2 "when Pacifica's director of national programming, Steve Yasko, ordered Goodman to stop ending the show with the sign-off she has used since last year's 'Christmas Coup' firings at WBAI: 'From the embattled studios of WBAI, from studios of the banned and the fired, from the studios of our listeners, I'm Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of 'Democracy Now!' "

According to the report, shortly after Yasko's order, Utrice Leid, WBAI's interim general manager ordered the "Democracy Now!" staff "out of the station's main studio, forcing them to produce the technically complex, live program from a poorly equipped sub-studio.

"On Aug. 10, according to the listeners' group Pacifica Campaign," the report said, "Leid's harassment of Goodman escalated and became physical." Goodman reportedly found two WBAI staffers going through "personal possessions" of Bernard White, WBAI's program director who had been fired. When the two employees refused Goodman's request to stop, Goodman began photographing them.

Leid then arrived on the scene and allegedly took the camera away from Goodman and went into an adjacent office. Goodman demanded her camera back. Leid reportedly shoved Goodman away and went into her own office. Goodman remained outside the office until Leid finally gave the camera back. The Aug. 14 FAIR report stated, "Pacifica Radio is precious because for most of its 50-year history, it has been one of the progressive community's most vital and vibrant resources, a listener-sponsored free speech radio network. Recently, however, a self-selected board majority has put that tradition at risk by disempowering listeners and local station workers and watering down the network's tradition of critical, independent programming."

Pacifica has a page on its Web site dedicated to "setting the record straight." It refers to as "fiction" charges of censorship, hailing its "long tradition of free speech and its tireless promotion of open and independent dialogue. "Pacifica merely enforces universal journalistic and organizational standards," the statement continues. "Because radio is a unilateral medium, with a programmer speaking 'at' the listeners with no rebuttal, Pacifica does not permit individual programmers to divert airtime to agitate about their personal positions on internal management and personnel matters. This is standard practice in virtually all journalistic organizations. "This practice is of even greater importance in highly politicized stations such as the Pacifica outlets. The so-called 'dirty laundry rule' was adopted by Pacifica very early in its history, and currently, there's a strong consensus of support for this policy among Pacifica staff and volunteers. Allowing `dirty laundry' attacks would not only open the door to factionalism but also raise serious legal liability issues for Pacifica. All current and former employees have a right to privacy and confidentiality in personnel matters and Pacifica is responsible for whatever is said on our airwaves."

Pacifica's site also provides an Aug. 24 press release announcing its agreement with AFTRA, which includes investigating a complaint filed by Goodman. But the release was published evidently before AFTRA decided to file its own grievance.

The network also issued an Aug. 24 release stating that a California superior court judge on Aug. 23 "affirmed the position of the Pacifica Foundation that 'Democracy Now!' host Amy Goodman and her staff have voluntarily walked off the job, and refused to order Pacifica to broadcast new editions of the show." Goodman and staff's decision to walk evidently is what led AFTRA's ordering them back to work to fulfill contract obligations until the union became concerned for their safety.

Pacifica's Web site refers to "Democracy Now!" as a national program. Back Stage called the network's national programming office in Washington, D.C., but only received a recording with no message space available, and also left a message for Leid at WBAI Tuesday afternoon, but hadn't received a call back by press time Tuesday evening. Pacifica Radio is affiliated with the Pacifica Foundation, which has a national office in Washington, D.C.