Return WBAI To Its Crusading
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
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
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