WBAI

By Miranda Kennedy

I was with a friend as 1,200 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of months ago for the local radio station, WBAI, which is at 99.5 FM. The marchers were chanting "Whose station? Our station!" and above them, the words "SAVE WBAI" curled into the sky from the back of a plane. As we were swept through the crowd, my friend looked around her, a little baffled. "Is everyone here because a radio station has changed hands?" she asked. "Aren't there bigger battles to fight?"

Some New Yorkers continue to ask that question some seven months after the so-called "Christmas Coup" at the progressive radio station. That is when the executive director of WBAI's parent organization, Pacifica Foundation, changed the locks, fired the station's general manager, its program director, and its union steward, then appointed a new 'interim general manager,' Utrice Leid. Leid dismissed 21 producers and hosts, and banned a long list of former WBAIers from even entering the building. Why this has provoked a self-declared protest 'movement' surely baffles outsiders. But to many of the station's 200,000 loyal listeners, the continuing fight for WBAI is not just about one radio station, or even the national radio network of which it is a part. To them, it is something close to a fight for democracy.

"If we lose the station," says Eileen Sutton, a WBAI reporter banned in December, "the political silence will be deafening."

THE BIRTH OF WBAI

In 1949, a conscientious objector named Lewis Hill wanted an alternative to commercial radio stations, which he felt had all beat a drum to World War II. He started KPFA in Berkeley, California, the first of what would eventually be five radio stations in the Pacifica network. "He wanted a media that is run by journalists and artists and the people who listen, and not by corporations who have nothing to tell and everything to sell," said Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica's Democracy Now! national news program.

Businessman Louis Schweitzer, an idealist like Hill who hoped to use radio to serve social justice and the arts, donated WBAI to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960. With a position in the middle of the FM dial and an antenna on top of the Empire State Building transmitting as far as Connecticut, WBAI is prime radio real estate. But it has never accepted advertising. It always has been, and remains, sponsored by its listeners.

WBAI has always been very different from the standard commercial stations with their single formats and pre-chosen playlists. The programming is not always slick, but, its listeners say, it is something that is available nowhere else on the dial. WBAI made its name by offering a broadcast home for radical politics and cutting-edge culture. It was the kind of place where performance artist Yoko Ono could feel comfortable working (pre-Lennon) as record librarian, a sort of countercultural C-SPAN that delivers spoken word performances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village and Fidel Castro's speech last September at the United Nations. Its reporters have offered dispatches from North Vietnam, East Timor and Nigeria, but they have also provided rigorous reporting on local stories, like the killing of Amadou Diallo. WBAI has always been the place where activists could find the latest on the latest -- the African Diaspora, the student anti-sweatshop movement, the US Navy bombing in Vieques.

THE THREAT TO WBAI

But what its listeners considered unique and invaluable, the management of the network increasingly viewed as unprofessional and stagnant. An article this month on WBAI in The New Republic sums up the attitude of the national board: "the station rarely gauged what its listeners wanted, relying instead on the whims of its producers, happily airing off-the-wall rants and conspiracy theories. In recent years, its donor list dropped to nearly half of what it was in the 1960s, and its listenership stagnated; recent demographic surveys showed its audience to be majority-white and middle-aged." A research paper analyzing its audience for the Pacifica board last year found that "for most Americans, Pacifica simply does not exist. By any objective measure of public service, Pacifica has crossed the line from under-performance to irrelevance."

Pacifica Foundation's Strategic Five Year Plan, adopted in 1997, was a major turning point for the network, convinced that it had to change in order to survive. But, though Pacifica is often criticized (by non-listeners) for being stuck in the 1960s, management insisted it did not want to budge from its founding ideal of creating "radio with vision." Nevertheless, the resulting re-structuring of Pacifica's board and changes to its programming are at the root of the controversy that has engulfed the network.

THE BARRICADES

Dan Coughlin, former news director for Pacifica Network News, believes it is crucial to note that Pacifica's five FM licenses, which were once worthless, are now extremely valuable; the protesters put the value of WBAI at about $100 million. "What is happening at Pacifica today is affecting all major public broadcasters," he says.

When the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its ownership rules in 1996, it made profit all the more accessible in the broadcast industry. So-called public radio felt the effects of this expansion along with everybody else.

"The public system is now fully within the same ideological confines that come naturally to a profit-driven, advertising-supported system," University of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney writes in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy. The difference is that at commercial stations, the advertising is called advertising. At National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting System, it is called corporate underwriting.

Coughlin recalls meetings with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which gives Pacifica about 15 percent of its funding -- where they suggested "toning down" news coverage of the war in Yugoslavia and police brutality.

Those opposed to the changes at WBAI point to a recent broadcast of WBAI's morning show featuring a representative from Sprint, dismissing the health risks of cellphones. They point to the cancellation of the city's only program devoted to labor issues, "Building Bridges" and other programs that were specifically focused on activist issues.

Many are concerned that WBAI will go the way of Pacifica's Houston and Washington stations, which have become mostly music stations--- country-western and jazz, respectively. Pacifica boasts that the format change at these stations has vastly increased listenership. But the question becomes, what kind of listenership does Pacifica in fact want to build?

"Community radio has nothing to do with Arbitron ratings, or with how many people are listening--unless the station cannot support itself or grow," says Deena Kolberg, who sits on the coordinating committee of the Concerned Friends of WBAI, which listeners formed shortly before the "Christmas coup" at the station. "But WBAI was making more money than its goals." According to WBAI figures, she says, the fall 2000 fundraising drive raised more than one million dollars, some $200,000 more than what it had expected.

The protesters also suggest that "audience-building" and "professionalizing" are WBAI management's code words for neutering its political edge, and eventually selling one or all of the stations. Juan Gonzalez, the Daily News columnist who founded the Pacifica Campaign to oust the national board, says the troubles at the New York station began with a "hijacking" of the board: "This group does not respect free speech. It does not represent labor or civil rights."

Gonzalez says members like John Murdock, brought on the board last year, are at odds with Pacifica's mission: Murdock is a senior associate at the law firm Epstein Becker & Green which, according to its web site, specializes in "maintaining a union-free workplace." Since Gonzalez launched the campaign in february, five members of the national board have resigned. (Neither Pacifica national nor WBAI management returned calls for comment.)

Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash has claimed on WBAI's airwaves that the staff changeover was fully within its rights--- presenting the continuing turmoil at WBAI as a self-destructive struggle led by a small number of discontents. But Bob Lederer, producer of the WBAI show Health Action, says that the removals from the station have violated either written Pacifica policies or the union contract. In the months since December, he adds, "the purge of dissident, leftist voices at the station has escalated, programming has shifted rightward, the rights of workers have been violated, and listeners have been subjected to race-, violence-, and left-baiting." Most of the producers barred from the station have been outspoken against new management, either on the air or off, or their shows reflect more politically radical views.

Furthermore, shortly after the staff changeover, when members of the local listener advisory board tried to enter the station to hold their monthly meeting---as they have done at WBAI for over twenty years---Leid informed them that non-producers were no longer allowed inside the studio. When the members of the board and their supporters said they would not leave unless they were allowed in to the WBAI studios, nine were arrested. Leid said she could not let them in because discontented listeners have physically threatened the station. This month, a surveillance system was installed inside the station.

GAGGING AND SPLINTERING

Roughly a month after the take-over, Leid imposed a gag rule, which restricted on-air staff from discussing "internal station matters." When Representative Major Owens took the situation at WBAI to the floor of the United States Congress in March, he went so far as to compare the gagging of speech at the station to totalitarian control of the airwaves in countries like Serbia and Iraq. How did the gag rule affect Owens? Several days beforehand, Owens, who had been invited to speak on the show Building Bridges, was pulled off the air by Leid just as he began talking. Leid then took the air for the hour-long slot allotted to the show, proclaiming that because Owens was going to talk about internal matters, she had to intervene because she could only allow the "truth" over the airwaves. The show, as I said, has been killed, and both hosts of the show have now been banned. Many WBAI listeners were outraged, because the silencing of Owens was clear to anyone who had tuned in that hour. But the gag rule on internal matters is not new: although it is inconsistently enforced, it has long had a policy against airing its "dirty laundry" outside of individual station manager's regular listener reports to the listeners. Yet many critics now say that management is now using the gag rule as a tool of censorship.

It is important to see that the assault on community radio is not limited to WBAI. In his speech to Congress, Owens pointed out that New York is fast losing its community radio stations--the Federal Communications Commission shut down five low-powered Haitian stations in New York, labeling them pirates. WBAI cannot fill that void but it helps to, by airing news and issues of Haitian -- and other -- communities. Americans are barraged by information options, and we spend more time with media than ever before, but how much choice in content do we have? In recent months, we have watched AOL and Time Warner create the largest merger in history, and Viacom and CBS create the third largest media conglomerate in the world. Despite the proliferation of communication technologies, there is no daily, progressive, news source---aside from WBAI, that is.

One of the most noticeable effects of the management changes at WBAI has been splintering communities who used to work together, on the air and in the real world. For a community radio station that works for social change, this is a sad development. Accusations of racism and destructive behavior are regularly hurled at those opposed to the new management, on the air and off. Gonzalez says that Pacifica "claims it wants to diversify its audience, but the only common denominator seems to be a rush for an upscale audience." Despite efforts to muddy the waters, he says the issue is quite simple: stop the corporate clique, and give the station back to the community.

Some may revel in describing this controversy as "the left eating itself." But although WBAI appears for the moment deeply divided, mobilized listeners say they will fight for a way to preserve a radio station that offers sounds and voices and issues that would otherwise go unheard.

Links

Miranda Kennedy was trained as a radio reporter at WBAI, and still occasionally files for the evening news. She is a journalist living in Brooklyn.

###

Check out the Feature Archives!