WBAI: Stay Tuned, by Lucia
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
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
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
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
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."
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