WBAI at the turning point after political infighting
By Paul DeRienzo
When trying to understand the problems and politics of radio station WBAI its most important to define our terms. WBAI, located on the dial at 99.5 FM with studios based on Wall St. in New York City, really doesnt exist. In fact the Pacifica Foundation, a Berkeley-based nonprofit, wholly owns WBAI as part of the largest privately controlled, noncommercial radio network in the United States. Political realities in the day-to-day operations of WBAI often lead tothe misconception among local listeners that the station is its own independent entity. Nothing can be further from the truth. WBAI is currently facing the greatest financial challenges of its 50-year history; therefore, so is Pacifica.
The Pacifica Foundation is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The organization was founded in 1949 by a group of California conscientious objectors led by a wealthy pacifist named Lew Hill. Hill and other C.O.s were sent to labor camps set up by the U.S. government to imprison young men who had won a draft deferment by proving they were bona fide peaceniks. During that time in the camps, Hill and his associates came up with the idea for a postwar radio network to spread their pacifist ideals.
The network began by setting up the first Pacifica radio station, KPFA, the flagship station, located in Berkeley. In 1960 a wealthy iconoclast commercial broadcaster named Louis Schweitzer who had become disillusioned with commercial radio donated WBAI to Pacifica. The foundation had picked up Los Angeles station KPFK the year before. The three continent-spanning radio stations were governed according to a mission set by Hill to further intellectual discourse and understanding among people and a commitment to social justice. Theseideals have, maybe unsurprisingly, sparked controversy and discord throughout Pacificas history. Over the years, two more stations were acquired by Pacifica, WPFW in Washington, D.C., and KPFT in Houston. The five stations make up the Pacifica network, which serves about 500,000 listeners and is financed by about 50,000 paying subscriberswho provide nearly 85 percent of the networks funding.
Thats the back story.
Now the current reality: As usual with the fractious Pacifica community, its hard to get the straight story because some members of the faction youre listening to often fit the facts to their own self-serving version of events. I try not to be one of those persons.
Currently, Im not a member of any faction, but adecade ago I was a reporter for the WBAI Evening News and I opposed a rebellion by some programmers and listeners who believed that Pacificawas going corporate and giving up its traditional radical ideals. In fact, I saw the rebellion, which reached its peak in 2001, as a senseless, fratricidal war that could ultimately destroy the network.
Proponents of that rebellion had various rationales for the ugly infighting, which included threats, break-ins, the use of public-relations firms and, interestingly enough, anti-black attacks aimed at the interim station manager, Utrice Leid. Longtime WBAI news editor Amy Goodman was producer of a Pacifica-sponsored program that she now owns called Democracy Now. Goodman claimed that Pacifica was trying to muzzle free speech, while Pacifica managers maintained the popular daily radio host had crossed the line when she allegedly used Pacificapress credentials to smuggle Green Party candidate Ralph Nader onto the floor of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
A listener group wanted to rewrite the foundation bylaws to shift governance to local station boards, called L.S.B.s, that would be elected by paying listeners, paid staffers and volunteers. Many unpaid programmers and volunteers wanted a union that would represent nonsalaried employees. Pacifica and supporters of the same folks who until recently managed WBAI challenged the unpaid workers union and were later backed up by the National Labor Relations Board. Paid staff had their own representation at WBAI through the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I was WBAIs first AFTRA steward and saw firsthand that the staff often had interests diametrically opposed to the volunteers Pacifica depends on to run most of WBAI and much of their network.
After a 2002 agreement put the dissident factions in control, each station began to elect their own L.S.B.s in convoluted campaigns that could last up to eight months and cost the network upward of $200,000 per election. In the first WBAI election, I was a top vote-getter and served during three tumultuous years as a board member from 2003through 2006. I saw firsthand how quickly WBAI hardened into two mutually antagonistic factions that fought each other without rest for ultimately seven years and are still fighting each other today.
The fights are often couched in provocative and polarizing terms like racism and anti-Semitism or corporatism and corruption that, as in any group of imperfect people, exist to certain degrees. But the real reason for the fighting has more to do with WBAIs role in the New York City radio market. Decades of mismanagement and neglect byPacifica leaders fertilized a culture of anger, conspiracy and mistrust at Pacifica that was topped off by a feeling that there are no rules that anyone is bound to follow. WBAI has often attracted programmers at the end of their careers with nothing left to achieve or to lose.
The reform faction at WBAI led by Green Party activist Mitchell Cohen and millionaire liberal Steve Brown, among others, want to see what they call a democratic WBAI. Former WBAI Program Director Bernard White and NY ACT-UP organizer Bob Lederer lead groups who see WBAI as a crucial information pipeline to followers in a variety of Marxist and other radical groups. For the most part, elections are a means to an end, political control, for the self-styled radical group, which calls itself the Justice and Unity Campaign. While the democratic Pacifica group is less monolithic, they are no less bombastic, often referring to White as a corrupt manager who narrowcast black nationalist viewsfrom dawn to dusk on WBAI. The pro-Bernard White faction, in turn, refers to their political enemies as racist and unwilling to follow black leadership under White and his supporters.
The conflict has bred many disturbing confrontations at L.S.B. meetings, often degenerating into screaming matches and occasional violencebetween members and their supporters. Police have had to be called to quell disturbances at public meetings, with many idealistic Pacifica listeners in attendance leaving the meeting shaking their heads indespair. Meanwhile, listener support of WBAI and throughout Pacifica over the past several years has tanked to the point where WBAI fell behind on its rent. Although Whites advocates blame the high rent at 120 Wall St. and at the Empire State Building transmitter site, critics point to the abysmal ratings often less then a tenth of a percent of the potential audience and a shrinking pool of contributors.
Eventually, Whites opponents gained the upper hand on the WBAI L.S.B. and joined with like-minded folks at other stations to get him suspended and then fired. In a subsequent fund drive with a Pacifica-appointed African-American woman named LaVarn Williams at the helm, WBAI reportedly marked a 40 percent increase in contributions. In the parlance ofPacifica, these changes mean little more than engaging in a new battle.
The former managers removed by Pacifica are planning demonstrations and other activities to regain their control in elections scheduled for this summer. Many longtime L.S.B. members heavily involved in the factionalism are precluded from running again by term limits. Anyone who becomes a member of WBAI in the next few weeks by donating at least $25 or three hours of volunteer service can vote or run.
Some hope that a new board, with new members and new priorities, will take WBAI and Pacifica in a new direction that actually serves the mandate of progressive, democratic and socially active community radio.
DeRienzo is a progressive broadcaster, author and teacher who co-hosts Let Them Talk with Joan Moossy Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 56 on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The radio version of Let Them Talk was heard on WBAI from 1992 until 2002, during which time DeRienzo was also a reporter with the WBAI Evening News.