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
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.
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
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
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.