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Congressman Blasts Predators on Pacifica Board
Text of Rep. Major Owens speech in Congress on March 8, 2001

Mr. Speaker, tyrants in control of totalitarian countries like China, Serbia and Iraq consider control of the airwaves an absolute necessity. They ruthlessly enforce censorship of a kind few of us in America can imagine. On last Monday, however, I had the weird and frightening experience of being gagged by a radio station manager in my own home city of New York. It started with a routine request that I call in for a phone interview on a show hosted on Radio Station WBAI by Ken Nash which focuses on union and labor news and features. The name of the show which commences at 2 P.M. was "Building Bridges." As the Ranking Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee I welcome the chance to appear on shows related to working families or unions.

It is important to note that Radio Station, WBAI is a non-profit station which runs primarily on contributions solicited from its mass of diverse listeners. Since last December this station has >experienced considerable turmoil internally and long-term producers and hosts have been fired or locked out of the station. Like many New Yorkers I am concerned about the present and future of this vital outlet for free speech on the radio. Without knowing all of the specific tensions and confrontations within the station I have indicated my interest in working toward the resolution of the problems hampering the continuation of the unique and robust programming at WBAI.

It is important to note that I am presently seeking ways to get more avenues opened for radio free speech in my City. Five low-powered Haitian stations have been shut down. The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking more access to the airways. The bully monopolies of commercial radio provide the continuing roadblocks. My knowledge of the reputation of certain recent appointments to the Board of Pacifica Network, which is the parent non-profit institution responsible for WBAI, leads me to conclude that there is a clear and immediate danger that attempts will be made to sell WBAI to a commercial owner. Such a sale would mean the loss of a vital voice for working families in NYC.

My beliefs and point-of-view are considered heresy by Station Manager Utrice Leid. Without explanation or apology she shut down the microphones and proclaimed that she had to intervene because it was her job to allow only the "truth" over the airwaves. The following is a summary of the statement I would have made had I not been censured and shut off:

The situation at WBAI has implications far beyond this one station. Freedom of speech over the airwaves via radio, broadcast television, and cable television is presently quite limited for the majority of Americans. We have a problem of great magnitude that is not being appropriately addressed. The WBAI arrangement and structure offered one model to be emulated. As a listener supported station with a very diverse set of programs, procedures and guests, WBAI represents the optimum use of radio in the service of ordinary people. When I attended the memorial service for the late Samori Marksman, former WBAI Station Manager, last year in that great hall at St. John's Cathedral, I saw a more diverse assembly than I have seen anywhere in New York City. Folks from all races, religions, income levels and political persuasions were there. There were intellectual snobs who support programs broadcasting esoteric operas mingling with radical, grassroots political activists. Indeed, as a politician, one immediate reaction I experienced as I contemplated all of that diversity with solidarity was a concern that some people in powerful places would perceive WBAI as a threat. The term "power structure" applies to forces that are very real. And I felt that this "power structure" would seek to destroy what the WBAI Community has created.

WBAI represents radio freedom of speech that does not make a profit for anyone. There are those who see profits being made via WBAI and other Pacifica stations. There are others in powerful places who feel that only commercial stations should exist; or if there are public stations, they should be indirectly controlled by corporate grants and benign corporate advertisements.

Some of the persons who have recently been appointed to the Pacifica Board represent such powerful commercial interests. In my opinion, WBAI is an endangered station as long as such business predators are on the Pacifica Board. Persons far removed from the original ideals and philosophy of the founders of the Pacifica chain are not likely to promote the original intent of this very well conceived system.

A basic question which must be tested as soon as possible in the courts is: Who owns a non-profit entity and who has a right to sell non-profit radio stations? Does the original charter or licensing by FCC permit any group of trustees or directors to treat Pacifica and WBAI as if they are commercial entities?

While the Pacifica turmoil is raging, I strongly urge WBAI to seek to preserve its free speech function in New York City by exploring the necessary steps to become independent of Pacifica. As a non-profit entity WBAI should use the university structure as a model. It should elect a Broad of Trustees through a voting process utilizing its contributors and supporters as the voters. The Trustees should be responsible for basic business operations while the producers and staff should be given a role similar to the faculty at a university. Basic freedoms similar to academic freedom and tenure should be conferred upon longstanding producers and long- term paid and unpaid staff participants. I offer this as one model to preserve WBAI as a bastion of radio free speech. We need to broaden the efforts to promote such free speech via radio. New technology that permits small low powered stations to broadcast at low costs has provided new possibilities for greater avenues to radio free speech; however, five Haitian stations have been shut down in my district and been declared to be "pirate stations". There is a great need to test the long accepted rules and regulations of the FCC. Too much of the status quo as reinforced by the 1996 Telecommunications Act borders on the unconstitutional denial of freedom of speech.

There is a larger free speech war to be engaged; however, first we must preserve the solidarity and diversity on the airwaves as represented by WBAI.