A Voice of Protest Rises for Itself <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/23/nyregion/23WBAI.html> By JANNY SCOTT December 23, 2000 he trouble began late last month when the out-of-town brass showed up in the offices of the venerable radio station WBAI in Manhattan for what was assumed to be a routine performance evaluation, then proposed unceremoniously that the general manager take a new job elsewhere that did not then exist. When the general manager declined, she was told that after 20 years at the station, she would be unemployed as of Dec. 31. Most of the staff quickly vowed to fight her firing. Demonstrations and petitions ensued. Now WBAI-FM (99.5), and its parent, the Pacifica Foundation, are on the brink of civil war. At a time of consolidation in the radio industry, WBAI is a defiant exception a throwback to a time when community radio flourished, a holdout against homogenization, on intimate terms with its listeners (who might even want to hear an exclusive five-hour broadcast of a speech by Fidel Castro). Now it is embroiled in what is simply the latest in a series of confrontations between Pacifica, which pioneered listener-sponsored broadcasting in the United States, and staff members at its five stations, which have served for a half-century as what one historian called the voice of the left on the radio. Underlying the conflict are two forces: the foundation's desire to broaden Pacifica's audience and ensure the network's future, and programmers' suspicions that what the foundation really wants is to trade in the old audience and become a slightly more liberal version of National Public Radio. "The national office believes that we represent an outr politics; let's put it that way," said Matthew Finch, the director of arts and cultural programming for WBAI, which gets a small percentage of its $3 million budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "That we are too far out on the fringe and too negative. That is something that I do know has been said in those halls." Kenneth A. Ford, vice chairman of the foundation's board, insisted in an interview that no one on the board had ever suggested giving "a milquetoast appearance" to Pacifica's programming. But he also said, quoting an industry guru he would not name, that Pacifica "had a mission at one time and had a credible voice but now it has gone from being insignificant to irrelevant." "That says we need to change the way we're doing things," Mr. Ford said. "It's bad enough when you're insignificant; but when you're irrelevant, you're nonexistent. You must ask the question: Do we serve just a few people and their interests? Do we serve people who are locked in time in the 60's, or do we try to stay current and expand and grow to bring in new people under the Pacifica umbrella?" Pacifica was conceived in 1946 by a group of conscientious objectors as a network of grass-roots, alternative stations free of corporate control and dedicated to peace. It introduced the Beat Generation to the airwaves, challenged McCarthyism, held on-air debates on the arms race and was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. WBAI, which joined the network in 1960, became one of the first stations in the country to interview a former agent about life in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Matthew Lasar, a historian and author of "Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network" (Temple University Press, 1999). That broadcast, Mr. Lasar said, earned Pacifica its own F.B.I. investigation. Later, WBAI reporters were the first to cover the Vietnam War from North Vietnam. The station was a leader in the free-form radio movement, a spontaneous broadcasting style that became popular in the late 1960's. Yoko Ono was once the station's record librarian, one staff member said. In the station's heyday, Richard Avedon photographed the staff. "If it wasn't for Pacifica's five stations, the left wouldn't have been on the radio," said Mr. Lasar, a visiting assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside and a former reporter for a Pacifica station. "It's really the voice of the left. For many people in the network, the struggle is whether it will continue to be the voice of the left." The foundation owns the licenses to stations in Berkeley, Calif., Los Angeles, Houston, Washington and New York. Dozens of affiliates also take some of Pacifica's national broadcasting its network news and "Democracy Now!," a public- affairs program produced at WBAI that Mr. Lasar said was the most successful venture in alternative-radio history, reaching some 700,000 people a week. In the years since the 60's, the number of WBAI subscribers has declined to 17,500 today from about 30,000. But the station continues to pride itself on serving as an "early- warning system" for what members of its staff witheringly call the corporate media, aggressively covering issues like police brutality and the shortage of affordable housing in New York. In recent weeks, some staff members have wondered what set Pacifica's executives off. Was it that exclusive broadcast of Castro's speech last September at Riverside Church? Or the Saturday afternoon special on a march for the Palestinians in Washington? Or the extraordinary half-hour grilling given President Clinton when he called WBAI on Election Day to get out the vote? On Nov. 28, Bessie M. Wash, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, arrived in New York to meet with Valerie Van Isler, WBAI's general manager, who has told others she expected a performance review. Instead, Ms. Wash offered her a job in the Pacifica national office in Washington with the title of executive producer of national programming. When Ms. Van Isler turned it down, Ms. Wash told her she would be out of a job, according to Bernard White, the WBAI program director. He said he called Ms. Wash the next day to object, then met with her several days later. She agreed to explain her actions on the air the following Tuesday, Mr. White said, but did not appear on time. She finally met with the station's staff that afternoon. At that meeting, it became apparent that some staff members had complained about Ms. Van Isler to Ms. Wash, Mr. White and others said. But, he said, Ms. Wash had never discussed the matter with him or others in the station's management. If Ms. Van Isler was to go, Mr. White and others said, the station, not Pacifica, should have the right to determine when and how. Ms. Van Isler has been general manager for 10 years. "The issue is not whether this is the best general manager this station has ever seen," Mr. Finch, the arts director, said. "It's the process by which they made this move and the timing of it that are alarming." Ms. Van Isler would not discuss her situation, saying only that she had filed a grievance against Pacifica. Ms. Wash did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Instead, the foundation on Dec. 14 issued a four-paragraph announcement of a "reorganization of key positions," stating simply that Ms. Van Isler had been offered the new job "as part of Pacifica's vision to restructure the organization and bring in some new leadership." The statement said Pacifica would begin a search for a new general manager. Meanwhile, most of the staff members are said to have signed a statement refusing to honor Ms. Van Isler's firing or cooperate with a successor. A petition is circulating among listeners. There have been on-air discussions, anguished meetings, plans for a broadcast teach-in and talk of a vigil at the offices at 120 Wall Street if Pacifica tries to move Ms. Van Isler out. At a meeting on Dec. 12, dozens of members of the station's staff, racially diverse but mostly middle- aged, jammed a conference room in the office. In the crush, a table loaded with people collapsed. Various staff members, a dissident Pacifica board member and a lawyer for Ms. Van Isler spoke about their dealings with Pacifica's management and board. "Many of us believe that the intention of Pacifica is to consolidate all the radio stations and then begin to change systematically the programming," Mr. White said at the meeting. He added: "This is not a joke. They are serious about what it is they want to do. We've already seen how at some radio stations they've already done what it is they want to do." In March 1999, Pacifica fired the general manager of KPFA, the Berkeley station, two weeks before its 50th-anniversary celebration. When protests followed, Pacifica warned employees not to discuss the firing on the air. When they did so anyway, one was fired and another was pulled off the air in midsentence. Eventually, Pacifica temporarily shut down the offices. More recently, Amy Goodman, a "Democracy Now!" host, filed grievances against Pacifica's program director alleging harassment and censorship charges Pacifica denied. Among other things, she says Pacifica withdrew her show's credentials to cover the Democratic National Convention after she took Ralph Nader onto the floor of the Republican National Convention to offer commentary. Some WBAI staff members insist they are not opposed to change. The problem, they said, is how the change has come. "Many of us for years have been saying we must adjust to survive," said Sidney Anthony Smith, WBAI's operations director. "The notion that we are 60's fossils who are intransigent to any rational change is simply untrue. But this change must be done humanely and with patience, since these have always been our traditions."
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