[sixties-l] A Voice of Protest Rises for Itself

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 12/30/00

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    A Voice of Protest Rises for Itself
    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 
    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 
    "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 
    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 
    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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