The Christmas Coup at WBAI
Conservative takeover at New York Pacifica radio station
Revolutionary Worker #1085, January 7, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
In New York City, WBAI is the radio station where people can get commentary and news you can't get from the mainstream media--like coverage of protests at the Republican and Democratic conventions, updates on the battle to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, news on the struggle against police brutality, against globalization, against the U.S. wars in the Balkans and the Gulf and much more. WBAI is one of five Pacifica community radio stations. People around the country have listened to Pacifica's award-winning program "Democracy Now!", co-produced by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez.
On December 22, this important alternative voice was sabotaged when the Pacifica central board carried out a coup at WBAI. They took over the station, changed the locks on the doors, fired its general manager and two reporters--then banned staff who disagreed with their actions.
WBAI is owned by the Pacifica Foundation. The Pacifica chain of five radio stations (L.A., Berkeley, D.C., New York, and Houston) was founded 50 years ago--the first U.S. radio network supported by listener contributions, not corporate advertising or foundation money. By the late 1990s, Pacifica top management had been filled with conservatives working to end any radical and progressive shows on the five stations. A similar coup was carried out at KPFA in Berkeley and staff and thousands of listeners have protested the Board's moves. (See RW/OR #1015, "The Coup at KPFA")
On November 28, Pacifica Foundation Executive Director Bessie Wash met with WBAI General Manager Valerie Van Isler in what was supposed to be a routine performance evaluation. Instead, Van Isler was notified she would be fired unless she took a job in Pacifica's national office in D.C.. She refused. Van Isler worked at WBAI for 20 years, as general manager for 10. She was told December 31 would be her last day on the job.
Many WBAI staff members had differences with Van Isler's management style and had been trying to get her to leave the station. But they did not want this decision to be made by an ultimatum from the Pacifica board. Some saw the firing of Van Isler as a sign that Pacifica was about to open a "frontal assault on WBAI," and word went out for staff and listeners to organize a security force inside the station beginning January 1 to prevent Van Isler's removal. A community meeting was planned to discuss how to stop the board and an on-air forum about the situation was scheduled for December 23.
Then, on December 22, Pacifica's management carried out a preemptive strike. Security guards were brought in, the locks were changed, and the next morning termination letters were delivered to Bernard White and Sharan Harper, director and producer of WBAI's "Wake Up Call." White and Harper, who had opposed Van Isler's removal, were threatened with arrest for trespassing if they tried to come back to the station.
The Pacifica board appointed WBAI "Talk Back" host Utrice Leid interim station manager. Other WBAI staff were locked out of the building. Anyone who entered had to be on a list approved by the board. Among those locked out were Amy Goodman and national board member Leslie Cagan. A memo from management was read on the air announcing that White, Harper and Van Isler had been fired--and that anyone who allowed them to enter the building or aided them in doing so would be subject to severe disciplinary action.
Eileen Sutton of WBAI News/Pacifica Reporters Against Censorship noted: "Many producers at the station have had serious differences with WBAI local management over the years. But what is happening right now is much more serious and a much graver threat to WBAI than simply an internal personnel or personality problem. All the evidence suggests that Pacifica is exploiting some internal rifts amongst the staff in a power grab that could eviscerate the station and eliminate its base of progressive politics."
The Motive Behind the Coup
The coup at WBAI is part of ongoing attempts to change the whole nature of Pacifica programming. The board claims Pacifica's audience has become "insignificant" and they want a more "diverse" listener base. They have imposed directives to make programming more mainstream--and are considering selling some of the radio frequencies, which could bring in $150 to $200 million.
To keep their moves a secret from listeners a gag rule has been imposed on the staff--banning any discussion of internal problems on the air. Those who don't comply have been fired and arrested. Armed guards locked out staff at KPFA in Berkeley. Reporters have been censored. Amy Goodman was threatened with termination if she didn't submit to board censorship. A Houston producer who participated in a demonstration in support of Goodman and "Democracy Now!" was fired the next day.
One of the best examples of Pacifica's blatant and outrageous censorship is its attacks on Amy Goodman.
"Democracy Now!" is the most widely listened to program on Pacifica. During the Republican and Democratic national conventions millions of people listened to Goodman's program "Break With Convention: Power, Protest and the Presidency," broadcast live from protests at both conventions and picked up by dozens of radio stations around the country. It was the largest audience expansion in Pacifica's history. But some Pacifica board members have ties to the Democratic Party and didn't like Goodman's criticism of the Democrats. At the DNC in L.A., Wash pulled the press credentials from the "Democracy Now!" staff.
Then, at an October 16 meeting with Pacifica's general managers, where differences were supposed to be discussed, Goodman was given an ultimatum. She was ordered to provide a list of topics for "Democracy Now!" in advance, not to accept any speaking engagements without approval from the Pacifica board and to stop using volunteers on the show. Goodman was criticized for her reporting because listeners "don't want to hear graphic details of police brutality before breakfast." She was accused of focusing too much reporting on East Timor, police brutality, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Lori Berenson.
In response, Goodman filed charges against Pacifica management for harassment, gender harassment, censorship and violations of her union contract. In a memo to the board she wrote: "'Democracy Now!' is a hard-hitting grassroots program that is not afraid of tackling controversial issues day after day in the Pacifica tradition. We are not only being censored for our critical coverage of the Democrats as well as the Republicans, but for giving voice to a growing grassroots movement that fundamentally challenges the status quo--people fighting sweatshops, police brutality, prison growth and corporate globalization....We are not NPR. We are not U.S. government media. We are not the corporate media. We are Democracy Now!: The Exception to the Rulers."
On election day, President Clinton called in to Goodman's program to urge people to vote for Democrats. In response, Goodman asked Clinton: "What do you say to people who feel that the two parties are bought by corporations...[who] feel their vote doesn't make a difference?" She followed by asking Clinton about clemency for Leonard Peltier; a moratorium on the death penalty; the U.S. bombing of Vieques; the death of 5,000 children a month in Iraq because of U.S. sanctions; and U.S. support for the illegal occupation of Palestinian land by Israelis. After the interview, Goodman received a call from the White House that she described as "very threatening." And reportedly, the White House also called members of Pacifica's board to complain about Goodman.
There is widespread outrage and struggle against the coup at WBAI and the Pacifica board's plans. Over 1,100 people attended a community meeting in New York on December 27 to strategize on how stop the coup. Hundreds have protested almost daily at WBAI.
After Van Isler was fired, Ms. magazine wrote a letter to the Pacifica Board calling the action part of "a larger plan to de-politicize and silence WBAI" and said, "Over the last year and a half, Pacifica's management has increasingly interfered with programming decisions, engaged in acts of censorship, and made retaliatory personnel moves, disenfranchising listeners and local advisory boards in order to impose its often regressive decisions on the network."
Sharan Harper, interviewed on the phone by WBAI's Ken Nash after she was fired, said: "I think one of the intentions in firing Bernard and me was to have a chilling effect on the rest of the staff. I believe that there are people who are afraid, who feel that they will lose their air time, lose their programs, lose the chance to have issues that are important brought out across the airwaves.... This is about people's freedom. It is about human rights and social justice. It's about the poor. It's about the homeless. It's about the voiceless.... There are people struggling all over the world locally as well as internationally who need these airwaves, who need to have their stories told in a place where large corporations don't control what goes on. The truth needs to be heard. And we have to stand strong and tall to maintain it for our listeners."
For more information call the WBAI hotline at 1-800-825-0055 or 718-707-7189. To protest the coup, call Pacifica Board Executive Director Bessie Wash at 1-888-770-4944, x348, or e-mail her at FALCON1591@AOL.com. For updates on the struggle go to www.savepacifica.net.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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