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From The Catholic Worker, page 3, March-April, 2001

WBAI: Stay Tuned, by Lucia Russett

I first became a listener of WBAI (99.5 FM) almost exactly ten years ago, during the Persian Gulf War. In a sea of look-alike and sound-alike media, all mesmerized by the new killing techniques and content to observe the war as video game, the non-commercial, listener-supported New York radio station stood out as a source of actual news and a consistent voice of protest. The station also served as headquarters for information on anti-war activities. Without WBAI, I would have found it hard not to suspect that "they" were right, or that I was crazy. I am sure WBAI has saved many people's sanity in similar situations.

Now, however, the station is embroiled in a struggle over its future and over the direction of its parent network, the Pacifica Foundation. Just before Christmas, three top staffers were fired from WBAI, office locks were changed and security guards posted to ensure that only designated workers could enter the station. The general manager, Valerie Van Isler, was replaced after 10 years working for WBAI; program director Bernard White and union steward Sharan Harper were also let go. They were told they would be arrested for trespass if they returned to the station.

These overnight changes have brought vehement, ongoing protest from many WBAI listeners and staffers. Most dramatically, morning news show "Democracy Now!" cohost Juan Gonzalez resigned on air on January 31, saying that "the current management situation at Pacifica has become intolerable."

According to Juan Gonzalez, the changes at WBAI are part of a larger attempt by Pacifica's board of directors to overhaul the network -- and water down its political message. Pacifica has been a voice of the left and standard-bearer for free speech since its founding, in 1949, by pacifists and conscientious objectors. Now, however, the network seems to be rethinking its mission, and this is reflected in its very structure.

Until recently, Pacifica national board members were nominated by their station's local advisory board and had a continuing relationship with the local bodies. This relationship has been severed; and proposed changes in the bylaws go even further in this direction. There have been several new appointments to the board in the last two years -- "at-large" seats with no connection to the five stations. Since June, 2000, the Pacifica Foundation has had complete control over the budget. And, another current proposal would make it possible for a group of board members -- not even the full board -- to sell off a station. With alarming speed, the network is moving toward greater centralization and corporatization. The local boards, and the listeners they represent, are being disenfranchised.

All these changes have been made in the name of "relevance" and an increased (more affluent) audience base. What does this sound like? The Houston, TX station, KPFT, and Washington, DC station, WPFW, have both drastically altered their formats and now primarily play music. According to the January 23, 2001 Village Voice, "The only significant public affairs program at either station is 'Democracy Now!', a show produced -- and under fire -- at WBAI."

Amy Goodman, the producer of "Democracy Now!", reported from East Timor during the massacre of 1991, broke the story of Lori Berenson's arrest in Peru, investigated (with Jeremy Scahill) Chevron's human rights abuses in Nigeria (see "New Fire in Niger Delta," Jan-Feb., 1999 CW), and has been a recognized leader in progressive radio for years. Now, she has been ordered to get advance approval of her programs and asked by the board to produce "softer" stories. She has filed grievances for harassment and censorship.

At a recent teach-in hosted by the New York branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Amy described the siege-like atmosphere: "The pressure at WBAI is intense. It is extremely chilling." From one day to the next, staffers do not know who will be banned from entering the station; one morning, Amy arrived to find a lock on the master control. A local advisory meeting held on January 23, which formerly would have been open to all members and listeners, restricted access; nine people who tried to attend were arrested. There is a "gag rule" at the station which makes it near impossible to discuss any recent events at WBAI on the air.

In the spring of 1999, the general manager of Pacifica's Berkeley, CA station, KPFA, was fired in a lockout similar to that at WBAI. However, the public outcry was great -- thousands took to the street -- and the station was eventually returned to local control. This is the hope of protesters who have been organizing and holding vigils outside WBAI's Wall Street offices.

There have also been three lawsuits filed against the national board, challenging its undemocratic structure and pressing for greater local control and listener participation. The suits are filed by a group of listener-sponsors, four stations' local advisory boards and two dissident members of the national board.

For up-to-date information on what's happening at WBAI and Pacifica, and to learn how you can get involved, you can call the listener hotline of Concerned Friends of WBAI at (800) 825-0055, or (718) 707-7189.

WBAI has been a mainstay for us at the Catholic Worker, a constant source of radical news before the soupline. Edward Herman, co-author of Manufacturing Consent, put it starkly in the Village Voice: "Pacifica is the last independent and left-oriented network, and it would be a social and democratic disaster to lose it."

Stay tuned.

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