Friday, June 6, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Facing Factions at WBAI

In private interviews at WBAI during my first visit to the station as Pacifica’s Executive Director, I heard a litany of staff complaints. People spoke of capricious programming choices, management by crisis, antique equipment, a “sick building” on Wall Street still full of 9/11 pollutants, and a toxic social atmosphere of fear and intimidation that was destroying a once great station. Interim General Manager Indra Hardat placed most of the blame on Program Director Bernard White’s shoulders, mentioning low staff morale, poor coordination during fund drives, lack of consultation on major decisions, and loss of listeners due to diminished arts programming.

In our very first meeting Indra used words like cronyism, favoritism, and vindictiveness. But the charges weren’t just directed at Bernard. Other staff members, she suggested, could be involved in misuse of resources, and the station was being billed for legal services without her approval. I’d read angry e-mails and heard unsettling rumors, yet the description was still somewhat shocking, especially coming from a station manager.

When I finally sat down with Bernard, he didn’t deny that the environment was toxic. But the real problem, he said, was a campaign to “lighten the station,” in other words a racially-motivated, millionaire-funded vendetta directed at Black leaders like him. He didn’t mention Local Station Board Member Steve Brown by name but the implication was obvious.

Sure, fundraising was a problem, he admitted, but he attributed it mainly to the natural “ebb and flow” of radio, along with trash talking by his political opponents that tended to scare away potential contributors. If allowed to do his job without interference, Bernard expressed confidence that he could get the station back on track. Unfortunately, his defensive stance and vague responses left me with little idea how he operated or what he planned to do. According to the staff, he didn’t even hold regular meetings.

An encounter that night at a union hall with about 15 key members of the Justice and Unity Coalition was considerably more revealing. Actually, it was more like a training session with a class of two. I’d brought along my old high school buddy Jack, who had run a community radio station on Long Island, to observe the dynamics.

Phase one, complete with graphics, was the JUC’s version of anti-racist education as summarized by Sheila Hamanaka, a listener-member from Rockland. “How do we judge Pacifica?” she asked rhetorically. “By what comes out of the radio. Based on that, control of airtime at Pacifica resembles a reservation system. Out of 87 shows, only 16 are hosted by Blacks. Latinos host six hours, and Asians only one.” Since “airtime is power” and “radio is an organizing tool,” she argued, “the question of who has power over the program grid is important.”

She was leading up to a key question: “Does Pacifica have an anti-racist position?” But rather than answer directly, she argued that “if a program isn’t explicitly anti-racist, then racism is the default setting.” Finally, she provided a description of what the network was supposed to be. “The Al Jazeera of North America,” she said.

For the next 90 minutes, following a disciplined agenda, the rest of my “trainers” provided their own perspectives, arguments and theories. The messages were remarkably consistent and deeply angry, filled with a stridency born of suspicion and fear. Although Local Board Chair Vajra Kilgour called the network a “beacon of truth in a wasteland of lies,” the real focus was their grievances – over union contract violations, lack of respect for “unpaid staff,” and the insults of opponents who suffered from what one person called “the real AIDs – acquired imperialist dependency syndrome.”

At the start, I’d explained that we would have to wrap up after two hours. In fairness to other local supporters, I had to leave enough time for a second meeting the same night. Yet the group opted to spend all but the last ten minutes laying out their agenda, and expressed little curiosity about my reaction. It seemed strange at the time. In retrospect, however, I realized that there was a message in this apparent disinterest.

The JUC had discipline and a vision and didn’t much care what I thought. They also had considerable influence, not only at WBAI but throughout the network. At a time when the Pacifica community could agree on little, this determined coalition knew exactly what it wanted and, using organizational rules that put a premium on “grassroots” participation, was ready to do whatever it took to win.

When I met some of their political rivals later the same night at National Board Member Patty Heffley’s apartment, the contrast was striking. This gathering was essentially a social event, complete with potluck dishes, drinks and multiple animated conversations. There was no agenda or specific expectation. Instead, after giving me time to settle and sample the spread, various people inquired about my background, opinions and plans. Legendary host Bob Fass listened closely from the sidelines and award-winning journalist Robert Knight, who had been fired by Bernard in 2004, expressed eagerness to get back on the air. Several local board members were there, including Steve Brown and Carolyn Birden, who chaired the national board’s Elections Committee. She urged me to focus on cleaning up the process.

The group, then known as List-Prog, was predominantly white but included some people of color. The JUC occasionally came up, but the main focus was how to dig WBAI out of its financial hole. The station had been missing its fundraising goals for at least two years, a situation most blamed on narrow and irresponsibly polemical programming. Though List-Prog clearly leaned left, the critique was more pragmatic than ideological.

What they shared with their rivals, however, was a deep distrust that sometimes veered into paranoia. While the JUC viewed this loose association as racist and retrograde, the basic message from List-Prog was that JUC used underhanded tactics – including physical intimidation – to maintain its grip on the station while providing cover for Bernard White. Many considered him corrupt if not crooked.

By the time we returned home it was almost midnight. We’d been immersed in WBAI’s pain and problems for almost 14 hours. Jack was startled by the intensity of the conversations, and felt the staff and board members we had met ranged from dedicated and competent to fanatic and mentally unhinged. Confiding that he probably would never have accepted such a job, he joked, “They’re not paying you nearly enough.”

Part Two of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next week: WPFW – Tough Questions & Mixed Message

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