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Pacifica Struggle Heats Up

Return WBAI To Its Crusading Days

By LESLIE CAGAN

More than 50 years ago, Lewis Hill convened a group of people concerned about the role of mass media in an era of increasing military and corporate influence. Out of the meeting came the Pacifica Foundation and KPFA in Berkeley, Calif.

When WBAI here in New York City joined Pacifica 41 years ago, it took on the political commitments of its founders: community- based, corporate-free radio supported by listener donations and committed to challenging government and those in power.

Today, WBAI and the Pacifica Foundation are in the throes of a struggle that will determine if those principles will be honored or vanish in the face of corporate interests.

On Dec. 22, the executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, Bessie Wash, arrived at WBAI's offices with a locksmith. She installed an interim general manager, Utrice Leid, who went on the air to announce she was in control of the station. She reassured listeners there would be no program changes.

In fact, what has become known as the Christmas coup was the opening salvo in the step-by-step altering of WBAI. To date, 26 people have been fired, taken off the air, banned from the studios or have removed themselves voluntarily because they refused to participate in the gutting of the station. A climate of intimidation and harassment has been created through on-air name-calling and threats.

The situation at WBAI is just part of a much larger set of problems throughout Pacifica's five stations. The foundation's executive director and the present majority of the national board claim they seek only to broaden the audience.

Everyone involved with Pacifica would like to see our stations reach more people. But to pose the issue as a numbers game is to miss the real challenge: How do we bring Pacifica's cutting-edge programming to new, more diverse audiences? To concentrate on numbers and avoid the content of what we offer is to dilute the very principles Pacifica was built on.

The national board was once made up primarily of representatives appointed by the local advisory boards at each station. Two years ago, that was changed, and the board is now self-selecting and, therefore, less accountable to listeners. Several board members come straight out of the corporate world, bringing approaches that are shaped by the bottom line.

They say those of us on the other side of this struggle cling to old ideas and old ways of working. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our struggle to save WBAI and reclaim Pacifica is based on our belief that the network mission demands a vibrant, constantly changing institution. There is no need to sacrifice our principles as we expand our audience.

We need a renewed commitment to democratic decision-making and programming that brings to the airwaves the voices of those struggling for justice, freedom, equality and peace.

In the face of increasing corporate control over the media and virtually all aspects of sour lives, this is a struggle we simply cannot afford to lose.

Cagan is a dissident member of the Pacifica National Board.

Original Publication Date: 8/30/01