Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Legend That Lost Its Way: How Pacifica Split

In January 1960, Harold Winkler, Pacifica Radio’s president and KPFA station manager, received an unusual phone call from New York. A former political science professor at the University of California, Winkler had resigned in protest over a required loyalty oath for faculty members. He was also independently wealthy. On the other end of the line was Louis Schweitzer, a Russian-born millionaire, radio station owner, and also a president – in his case president of the Peter Schweitzer Division of Kimberly-Clark. He knew about Pacifica and had a radical proposition.
     A few years before, the eccentric radio enthusiast had bought a station for $34,000, subsequently offering New York City the latest music and some intelligent programs. But he found the choice between losing money on quality and making a profit by going more commercial personally frustrating and philosophically untenable. To his dismay, the station’s greatest success had come during a New York newspaper strike. “That was not what I wanted at all,” he told Winkler. “I saw that if the station ever succeeded, it would be a failure."
     So, he asked, did Pacifica want it?
     For a decade, KPFA in Berkeley had been the only listener-sponsored radio station in the country. But after planning for four years and raising $200,000, the Pacifica Foundation had recently launched a second station – KPFK in Los Angeles – an independent operation with its own board, station manager, and local base of supporters. Now, without paying anything, it could own a completely equipped FM station in the Big Apple, smack dab in the middle of the FM dial. It was a no-brainer.
     The station that ultimately became WBAI began lower on the dial in 1941 as WABF, a commercial station, but moved to the 99.5 frequency in 1948. In the early 1950s it was off the air for two years, but came back in 1955 with call letters that reflected the name of its current owner, Broadcast Associates, Inc. By the time Schweitzer made his donation, it was worth about $200,000.
      With KPFK and WBAI, Pacifica expanded from a single station into a network reaching three major metropolitan areas with a potential audience of sixty million people. But along with growth came challenges for which the organization was largely unprepared.
     Driving into New York City in February 2006, on the first leg of my orientation tour as Pacifica Executive Director, I thought about WBAI’s past. It was once one of the most innovative stations in broadcast history, winning awards for its civil rights coverage and helping to define the counterculture. In 1965, it sent the first American reporter, Chris Koch, to cover the war from North Vietnam. Combining resources with the other Pacifica stations, it broadcast live anti-war teach-ins. At a time when even the underground press wasn’t receptive to feminism, it put Nanette Rainone’s groundbreaking show “CR” on the air. When Columbia students seized the campus in 1968, it covered the occupation uninterrupted.
     There was also Bob Fass’s “Radio Unnameable,” a weekend collage of music, poetry and talk, radio’s version of the underground press. Identifying with the counterculture and anti-war movement, Fass took his mike out to demonstrations and invited movement leaders into the studio to discuss their plans. He ran the show like a telephone switchboard, connecting people and getting them involved. He broke the mold and invented something new – freeform radio.
With a transmitter at the Empire State Building, a signal that reached far beyond the city limits and a roster of on-air voices second to none, the station’s influence was profound in its day. But now it was at war with itself. It was like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said programmer Ibrahim Gonzales, “complete with endless debates over the right of return, over who held the rights to a time slot.” As managers and hosts came at one another with lawsuits, purges, and fights over race and ideology, its audience was drifting away.
    In 2005, amidst charges of mismanagement, favoritism, and partisan games, Station Manager Don Rojas had resigned. Business manager Indra Hardat was placed temporarily in charge as the local board searched for a permanent replacement. Nine months later, when I started my cross-country trip, she was still on the job. But the real power was in the hands of Program Director Bernard White.
    Like many key players, Bernard had been with Pacifica for decades, Raised in Harlem, he studied at Queens College and held a variety of jobs, including New York school teacher, before turning to radio journalism in 1978. For several years he shared the mike weekday mornings with Amy Goodman on “Wake Up Call,” then became WBAI’s Interim Program Director in 1999 after the untimely death of Samori Marksman, a beloved and cosmopolitan Pan-Africanist. The following year, in a controversial move, General Manager Valerie Van Isler chose him for permanent PD over Utrice Lead, a flamboyant Trinidad native. By year’s end, however, Bernard was fired, a casualty of Pacifica’s “Christmas Coup.” Central management and the National Board had taken over the station, changed the locks, fired Van Isler, installed Leid as interim GM, and given a list of “banned” employees to the security guards.
     Bernard and two dozen others who were fired during the “hijack” period, as it was labeled by those organizing against the people in charge, returned to WBAI in 2002. But his tenure as program director since then had been stormy. Bernard had solid backing from the Justice and Unity Coalition, the strongest faction on the local board, which considered him a determined anti-racist who put “activist” voices on the air. Amy Goodman thought of him as a comrade and friend. To his opponents, however, he was a Tammany Hall-style demagogue who abused his position, dismissed popular hosts like investigative journalist Robert Knight and health guru Gary Null, commandeered the airwaves to criticize his opponents, and frequently played the “race card” himself. Basically, they blamed him for the station’s listener and financial decline.
     Whatever the reasons, station membership had dropped by 20 percent since the previous year, according to industry and management figures. On-air fund drives ran longer and longer, and brought in less money per day.

Part One of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

  • Next: Facing the Factions
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