WBAI is Latest Pacifica Storm

March 1, 2001       Tom Pope      

Recent firings and the questionable barring of some people at WBAI radio in New York City leave the staff once more at odds with the Pacifica Foundation which owns the station.

The firing of the station manager along with a program director and a producer by Pacifica management right before Christmas spawned a series of rallies and teach-in shows to garner listener support. Further, the staff sees board actions as censoring of the popular Democracy Now! show run by host Amy Goodman.

The Pacifica Foundation is the parent of Pacifica Radio Network, comprised of KPFA, KPFK, KPFT, WBAI & WPFW in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., respectively, with nearly 60 affiliates in 27 states. The foundation was established in 1949 as the world’s first listener-sponsored radio.

As Pacifica strives to broaden its audience base, changes to add more arts and culture programming has met with resistance from local staff. Program content at stations, like KPFK, now feature less political content. Meanwhile, KPFT is a country music station and WPFW plays mostly jazz.

That shift is at the heart of a 1991 strategy for national programming by Pacifica that would create a national public radio (NPR)-like programming service. The move also aims to pick up donations from foundations, such as Pew and Ford.

To WBAI staff members at the nonprofit progressive radio station, the action comes on the heels of the foundation’s board locking out the KPFA affiliate in Berkeley during July, 1999. That event was accompanied by arrests of listener demonstrators who supported the local station.

The current crisis is not a lockout, according to Jim Freund, producer at WBAI for 33 years. "Bessie Wash, the board director, gave the keys to a WBAI staff member," he said. "How could it be a lockout?"

December’s crisis erupted when Wash traveled to New York to offer WBAI manager Valerie Van Isler a job at the national level based in Washington, D.C., according to Freund. However, Van Isler refused to turn over the keys indicating she would not leave without force.

"Bessie Wash then ordered the program director, Bernard White, fired because he had declared teach-ins on the air in support of Van Isler, despite programs not being informed of the events," Freund said.

The biggest fears focus on a loss of direction by the Pacifica board to corporate interests. "The language they’re using is more corporate," said R. Paul Martin, WBAI’s union shop steward. "The board has made it clear that they want to use the Arbitrons to decide audience strength, but the Arbitrons are made for commercial stations and are not really useful for non-commercial stations."

Further reasons for concern center on Pacifica hiring firms like the American Consulting Group, a management and labor relations consulting firm, known for tough negotiations with unions. "They made up what was called the ‘Contract From Hell’ and tried to push it down the throats of all five stations," Martin said.

Such comments represent dissident local advisory board (LAB) members who want to control Pacifica’s programming and business decisions, according to Pacifica’s Web site. Pacifica did not return repeated telephone calls seeking a response.

Also from its Web site, Pacifica contends that the LAB members, if successful, would splinter Pacifica into a group of isolated stations and diminish its critical role as a nationally-relevant alternative voice.

Changes in Pacifica’s bylaws clarify that, while LABs may recommend individuals to serve on Pacifica’s national board, it is the board – not the LABs – that have the final responsibility for electing board members.

"The foundation must continue to move forward and stay focused," said board member David Acosta in a posting to the Web site. "The shift toward national programming is a powerful way for Pacifica to move into the 21st century while preserving the local flavor and attention to local issues its audience values."

The audience issue is a red herring to Andrea Buffa, of Media Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog in San Francisco that serves as a research center to support diversity in the media.

"It’s a corporate takeover of a progressive station," she said. "When you attack the most popular national program you have and fire the most popular morning show, that’s not what you do when you try to increase your audience."

As the only progressive radio network in the country, Pacifica fails to have significant board representation tied to the progressive part of society like the American Civil Liberties Union or labor, according to Buffa.

She pointed to Michael Thomas, Pacifica’s treasurer who works for CB Richard Ellis, an international real estate firm and alleged author of an email describing a proposal to sell either KPFA or WBAI. Pacifica board member John Murdoch is a lawyer at a firm that specializes in maintaining a union-free workplace, according to Buffa. Board member Bertram M. Lee has a business history of buying and selling radio and television stations.

Turmoil is nothing new for WBAI. "I came to WBAI during a similar crisis in 1977," said Leonard Lopate, of the New York & Company show of WNYC, also a nonprofit and part of the National Public Radio network. Lopate worked at WBAI for eight years.

"Pacifica has been going through this for nearly 20 years now, and every once in a while it flares up when a new board sees a drop in audience," he said.

However, Lopate sees the concerns from people who want to offer news beyond mainstream. "I’m glad they cover more stories than the commercial station, and I wish NPR would play it a little less safe at times," he said.

Lopate doesn’t share concerns about a Pacifica sellout. "That is unlikely because people who work for Pacifica on the local level are anti-establishment," he said. "On the other hand, I would not want WBAI to become a slightly-to-the-left version of NPR."

The shift doesn’t mean catering to corporate interests, according to Lopate. "Everything I did at WBAI is happening at NPR," he said. "I discovered I could do the same show here as long as I did it in terms of a devil’s advocate instead of just an advocate. WBAI often chases away as many people as it brings by sounding so didactic."

Staff reaction to Pacifica focuses on a believed censorship concerning topics such as East Timor, as discussed on Amy Goodman’s show. Yet the corporate level of NPR doesn’t prevent Lopate from dealing with the news. "I had Amy Goodman on my show so I don’t know what corporate pressures mean. My boss has said the show is an opinion show and there is no reason to tell Leonard to change."

Pacifica stations have always been about making a difference, according to union leader Martin. "I’m sure that some nonprofits could profit from becoming more corporate, but Pacifica is supposed to mean something – we shouldn’t take this lazy way towards getting more listeners by watering down what we do."

Producer Freund sees no general trend increasing the degree of corporatization. "Pacifica is capable of messing things up, but a certain amount of corporatization has already been there," he said. "Some of the charges of buying and selling radio stations happened in the 1960s and the 1970s."

The fact that a person comes from a corporation doesn’t strike Freund as being negative. "That’s guilt by association," he said. "Our studios on 62nd Street were built (donated) by one of New York’s construction companies and the president was on our board, so I don’t think that means the people are bad."

The audience issue is very real to Freund. "We have half the subscribers we had 20 years ago, and we are the strongest of the Pacifica stations," he said. "Today we have 17,000 subscribers, while we had 34,000 in 1980 – these are hard cold numbers."

The problem with the station just could be the narrow casting the foundation worries about. WBAI’s golden days offered a programming of 70 percent arts, 20 percent public affairs with 10 percent news.

"Now we are around 80 percent public affairs, and for the last 20 years the policy has been if you are doing arts you are not taking care of business," Freund said.

Major changes by Pacifica could help as long as they don’t take over too much air time, he warned. Currently, changes appear to affect five hours a day with some shows becoming national, like Democracy Now!

"No one is talking about 24 hours of changes," Freund said. "Most people are objecting to more arts and science programming."

Could Pacifica have handled the changes better? For a sector that prides itself on being open-minded and inclusive, the management of a progressive station strikes out as repressive as their opponents, according to Freund.

"Pacifica took a person off the air in mid-sentence," he said. "In the past we took someone off after being told he had a couple of shows left – he ranted and raved and then it was over with."

The lack of a tone of cooperation filters down to the staff. Guards at WBAI are deemed by the staff as repressive, but Freud welcomes the security. His feelings were echoed by Lopate. "Politics at WBAI is always shocking – producers are volunteers, but people are constantly jealous of others," he said. "The tone comes off as didactic – the show you are about to hear is one of the most important shows you will ever hear – it makes people turn the channel off."

Recent turmoil can be blamed at both sides. "I don’t trust Pacifica – I was in the forefront of the 1977 crisis, but they were trying to sell the station then and this is not the case today," Freud said. "What happened in the 1970s was a revolution and what’s going on now is a civil war."

Freund still keeps a wary eye on how the foundation will proceed. "Pacifica wants the station to become more fundable, and I hope that funding is going to be through listener sponsorship and not through grants – if they are going after government money, then it would be against Pacifica’s heritage."

 

Tom Pope is a New York City-based journalist who writes about management issues.