|Cutting a Congressman off the Air | WBAI:
Beijing Radio, New York|
by Nat Hentoff
for The Village Voice | April 4, 2001
"The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking
more access to the airwaves"--Brooklyn congressman Major Owens,
speaking on the floor of the House, March 8.
In Beijing, if anyone on a radio program were to advocate
democracy, he or she would not only be pulled off the air, but would
also be sent to a labor reeducation camp or worse.
In 1992, Wang Wanxing, a workingman in the Chinese capital, took
a prodemocracy banner to Tiananmen Square and unfurled it. Arrested
and diagnosed as a "paranoid psychotic," he was locked into a police
hospital for the criminally insane for seven years. Other Chinese
dissenters have been sent to labor reeducation camps to cure them of
officially diagnosed "political monomania."
In this country, of course, dissenters of all kinds are an
integral part of talk radio. But on March 5, a historic date in the
history of free speech in this city, a congressman, Brooklyn
Democrat Major Owens, was cut off the air by Utrice Leid, interim
station manager of WBAI. The station was created 52 years ago as a
forum for alternative free speech, much like The Village Voice on
the left and the National Review on the right. During the antiwar
and civil rights movements, WBAI was essential listening for anyone
who wished to discover what The New York Times and the television
networks didn't know, or didn't choose to report.
On March 5, Major Owens was speaking, by phone, with the hosts of
Building Bridges: Your Community & Labor Report, WBAI's only
program of labor news and analysis. In late December, the board of
the Pacifica Foundation, the parent of WBAI, had engaged in a
midnight takeover of the station. Staffers were fired and banned
from the premises, locks were changed, and security guards were put
into place. Chinese authorities would not find Utrice Leid's actions
This was part of a continuing attempt by the Pacifica National
Board to greatly diminish the left-wing political content of the
five Pacifica stations. It has largely succeeded in Houston and the
District of Columbia.
On the Building Bridges program, Major Owens, the ranking
Democrat on the Subcommittee for Workforce Protections in the House,
was talking about the decidedly antidemocratic events at the station
after the "December coup," as dissenters call it. Suddenly, the
station's chief censor, Utrice Leid, strode into the master control
studio, seized the microphone, said, "Lies have been told," and went
to music. Later she permanently canceled the program.
The silenced congressman has not been sent to a labor reeducation
camp, but when he began his account in Congress of what happened to
him, he said:
"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. 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."
As he spoke from the House floor, Owens explained he is trying 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
airwaves. . . .
"My knowledge of the reputation of certain appointments to the
board of Pacifica Network," Owens continued, "leads me to conclude
that there is a clear and immediate danger that attempts will be
made to sell WBAI to a commercial owner. Persons [on the present
Pacifica board] far removed from the original ideals and philosophy
of the founders of the Pacifica chain are not likely to promote the
original intent" of WBAI and the other Pacifica stations.
What Owens said in Congress was what he was going to say on WBAI.
He added this crucial point: "A basic question which must be tested
is, Who owns a nonprofit entity, and who has the right to sell
nonprofit radio stations?"
Also being tested right now in Alameda County Superior Court of
California in People of the State of California, Carol Spooner, et
al. v. Pacifica Foundation is the legitimacy of the present Pacifica
National Board. There are issues about the procedures by which board
members were elected and questions about whether the changes they
have made in the Pacifica bylaws are legitimate, as well as claims
of irregularities in their conduct and governance.
Carol Spooner, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit which could
restore free speech to the Pacifica network tells me she has filed
Major Owens's speech in Congress with the state court in California.
(There are also two other lawsuits against the Pacifica Foundation.)
On March 12, Major Owens held a press conference at the office of
the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys in New York/UAW 2325 to
report his silencing by Utrice Leid and his abiding concern that
free speech be restored at the station. I have seen no media
coverage of that press conference, and Leid's gagging of Owens was
reported so far as I know only by David Hinckley, the Daily News'
first-rate reporter of radio events, and Peter Goodman in Newsday.
Major Owens's congressional speech was televised on C-SPAN, but I
do not believe any New York stations mentioned it, probably because
of the longstanding disinclination of radio and television stations
to criticize each other.
But interestingly, at WBAI itself, there are staff members who
keep doing their jobs, even though they know Utrice Leid has fired
dissenters. Bob Fass who has brought me many hours of wit and unique
perception, broadcast Major Owens's speech in Congress on his night
show on WBAI. News staffer Andrea Sears ran part of it, and later an
account of Owens's press conference on the WBAI evening news of
The next fundraising marathon on WBAI is likely to be in May.
Listeners will then decide whether WBAI is worth supporting under
its present management. Meanwhile, there is a call for a national
boycott, a request that listeners not pledge money to Pacifica
stations. I greatly respected Lewis Hill, who created Pacifica; if
he were still around, he might be picketing the place.
At one point, it was announced on WBAI that Major Owens was not
cut off, that he had hung up. They do that sort of spin control
better in China.