Monday, June 9, 2008

WPFW: Avoiding the Tough Questions

The youngest of Pacifica Radio’s five sister stations, WPFW, was launched in 1977 as a source of alternative programming in the nation’s capital. But the approach differed from the older stations. Although news and public affairs were part of the mix, most of the airtime was devoted to music. Its mission statement, while acknowledging the overarching purposes of the Pacifica Foundation, reflected this local priority.

“Jazz, a major American art form which grows from the African American experience, will be the major music programming,” it announced. “WPFW will act as archivist, educator, and entertainer on behalf of this under served national culture resource.” Over the years it had become one of the leading jazz stations in the country, along the way adding blues, reggae, hip hop, world music and other forms that reflected the evolving taste of its primarily African American audience.

My guide to the Washington, DC media scene was Sam Husseini, the journalist and activist who had introduced me to the DC Radio Coop during my first week on the job. Sam had chaired the Local Advisory Board for WPFW during the struggle for control of the network. Prior to the National Board’s attempted power grab in 1999, these boards had appointed PNB members. At that point Dave Adelson and others filed a lawsuit alleging illegal bylaws changes and unfair labor practices. The suit was settled in late 2001.

Four year later, Sam wasn’t pleased with the way things were going, either locally or nationally. Bessie Wash, the former WPFW General Manager who had helped stage the infamous “Christmas Coup” as Executive Director, was long gone. But Sam felt that her successor, Dan Coughlin, had appeased local management and let the network drift. Lou Hankins, Wash’s controversial replacement as GM of the DC station, known for not returning phone calls, was also history. But his successor Tony Regusters, a former press secretary for California Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters, had recently been replaced by Ron Pinchback, a former program director who seemed less than eager to rock the boat and just as capable as Hankins of ignoring calls, e-mails and input he didn’t want to receive.

A week earlier, during a staff teleconference, Ron had been cool to the latest national programming initiatives, a daily newscast in Spanish and a series of specials on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. WPFW didn’t have a significant Latino audience, he explained, and accepting funds from an outside group to produce a “town hall” broadcast on Katrina would “set a precedent.” His approach was to avoid outright opposition, but raise enough questions to have the decision postponed – until either his concerns were addressed or it was too late to preempt local programming. “I’ll be blunt,” he would often say, then proceed to be anything but that.

Sam set up appointments with a variety of local progressives. At Plymouth Congregational Church, Greyland Hagler argued for programs that addressed spiritual issues. “We have abdicated this whole area to the Right,” he said. “We have to open the door to spiritual discussion and real dialogue that allows for disagreement. To embrace a larger audience we have to stop talking to ourselves.”

Journalist Adam Shapiro suggested staging “international town halls” on Iraq and labor solidarity, virtual meetings that used new technology and collaborations with colleges to build bridges between communities in very different cultures. Pacifica had the advantage of existing outside the mainstream power structure, he argued, and could become a vehicle for serious examination of underlying economic and cultural conditions.

At the National Press Club we sat down with Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter and until recently host of a WPFW show called “Challenging Corporate Power.” A seasoned journalist who knew how to put Washington’s talking heads on the spot, he was virtually the only Pacifica broadcaster who showed up at White House briefings to ask tough, timely questions.

When Sam chaired the WPFW station board, it had called for precisely that – attending key media events to hold national and local officials accountable. In an essay published several months after my visit, he argued that if Pacifica reporters had regularly attended White House, State Department or Pentagon briefings, they might have exposed the false claims for the Iraq war before the invasion. “Had Pacifica had someone effectively covering Homeland Security issues,” he asked, “could that not have highlighted the vulnerability of the levees in New Orleans before Katrina hit? When progressive forces don't set up the structures necessary to avert disaster, should we really be surprised when it strikes and the flood waters – and death – come?”

Sam wanted Pacifica to go beyond cheap shots about the Bush regime and instead provide information with the potential to change hearts and minds. Harking back Lew Hill’s original vision, he imagined a network that encouraged open discussion, one that invited various advocates to air their differences. “The worst elements of all should be exposed,” he wrote, “the best aspect of each should proliferate. As it is, too often advocates of each of various ‘schools’ undermine each other behind the scenes.” Locally, he envisioned WPFW helping people to organize and providing training for new talent.

Instead, however, Mokhiber’s show had been regularly preempted and ultimately canceled, while the DC Radio Coop, an innovative project attracting and training younger people, was essentially purged for disrupting the complacent station atmosphere. As we sat in the Press Club watching reporters scurry by with their latest finds, the two journalists urged me to make Pacifica a serious player in the DC media circus. But I sensed their pessimism that it would actually happen.

Their analysis was that current programmers, many of them put in place by the “pre-revolution” management, clung fiercely to the on-air “real estate” they’d claimed and worked closely with the current management to resist change. Some local board members were satisfied with the status quo, others knew Pacifica was missing the mark but hesitated to act.

Part Three of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Mixed Messages at WPFW

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