Thursday, May 28, 2009

WBAI’s Delicate Condition

In the midst of a national economic decline, the original listener-supported radio network has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun last year and reporting on recent developments. To read previous installments, see Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part Two of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

During the March 2006 meeting of the Pacifica National Board, held just two months after I became ED, a report from WBAI put the network’s problems in high relief. As Indra Hardat, the station’s Interim General Manager, and Program Director Bernard White took their places at opposite ends of the board’s large horseshoe the seating itself underlined the distance between them. I’d asked them to attend and explain what was happening. The idea was to get the divisions crippling the station out into the open.

Hardat had been interim GM for almost a year. She talked about “team spirit” and connections being made, but the station was still running in the red. The problems, she claimed, were lack of cooperation from the local board and poor communication with White. What WBAI needed, in her opinion, was “more women of color in programming” and a “sane and equitable work environment.”

Then she dropped a bombshell. “I am surprised that incidents of violence are being downplayed,” she said, “because it’s real, it’s happening. I have been the victim of verbal abuse more than three times in the last month or so.”

The room was stony silent. To understand the “conditions I have been forced to work under,” she went on, “We need to have some background. There are certain producers, LSB members and staff who never wanted me to be the IGM and have never hesitated to show it. And that’s a fact.”

She talked about Valerie Van Isler, the former GM who had originally put Bernard White in charge of programming – before both of them were fired in 2000. “She was attacked on a weekly basis by different members of the staff, and she took it quietly,” Indra recalled. “Folks, I’m not going to take it quietly. I’m not going to swallow it. Because I’m a woman, and a woman of color, I’m not going to take abuse.”

Van Isler had been “demonized” but she wasn’t the enemy, Indra claimed. “She was just trying to be objective and not belong to any of the camps. I’m the independent party. I do not believe in any factions or anything like that.” This was starting to sound a bit disingenuous. “We need dialogue with the programming department, and maybe mediation. But so far, on any kind of programming changes or preemptions, I’ve not been informed or included.” The excuse was that she wasn’t “qualified” in radio or programming, she added. “But I think it’s because I’m a woman.”

Bernard was prepared for the attack. Disarming yet stern he offered a starkly different portrait. Pacifica was “suffering from post-traumatic coup syndrome,” he said. The primary players who had hijacked the organization were gone, but “many of their supporters are still around and are involved in a well-funded, public campaign to destabilize WBAI.” Here lay the real threat to the station’s solvency.

He didn’t name Steve Brown, but the words left little doubt. The conspiracy’s “chief architect, financier and spokesman” was using “venomous poison pen e-mails” and “fabrications” to undermine trust with the listeners. And without trust, he predicted, the station would die. The fact that the attack focused on him was significant, he claimed, but his real concern was what it was doing to the station.

So, there it was: a serious conflict of perceptions, style and priorities between the station’s two top managers, and beneath the surface an ongoing struggle that dated back years. The comments that followed revealed still more.

For Lisa Davis, a new board member from New York, the real problem was racist remarks and charges of “corruption” leveled at Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks. “I’ll be all night telling you about that,” Indra shot back, referring to her suspicions about the CFO, “and I would probably be fired for that.” Don White, a mild-mannered, veteran activist from Los Angeles, was concerned about the whole culture at the station and whether the GM was really in charge. “Is there a kind of culture that could be threatening to people entering the building?” he asked.

No, it was safe at the station, the two managers insisted. Violence was down since the bad old days. But discussions about programming were minimal and strained. “The only time I’ve talked with her,” Bernard said, “is when she talked with me about what I should do.” Making it plain that he wasn’t taking orders he quickly returned to Steve Brown’s critical e-mails.

Another new board member, WPFW’s Acie Byrd, asked what they could do to improve the situation. Indra’s solution, to the financial crunch at least, was more music and arts programming. Bernard was skeptical about that and thought the station needed more attention to race, like an anti-racism workshop the board had been through the day before.

Indra wouldn’t budge from charges of “verbal abuse” and gender discrimination; Bernard professed a willingness to cooperate – despite the attacks. “Hey, I’m not perfect,” he sighed. “But you have to work with what you have.”

PNB Chair Dave Adelson tried to push past the stalemate. Looking at Bernard, he said, “People are motivated to defend you. But I don’t see Indra representing a faction, and some of the ‘he-she’ disputes are about a challenge to you. You getting along is the only way to de-escalate this war.”

“We need a united front,” Indra agreed.

“I’ve said we should sit down and talk,” Bernard answered.

“But you won’t talk. You walk away,” she shot back.

In the end, the combatants at least agreed to mediation, and I was ordered to investigate Indra’s charges. But there were no obvious solutions to the underlying problems – declining ratings, financial failure, and a racially-charged, divisive atmosphere.

Next: Uncovering Fault Lines

Previous: Rethinking the Experiment

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