Another Call for Action

Edward S. Herman


One of the most crushing series of blows to the U.S. left, and to democracy in this country, has been the gradual transformation of the five station Pacifica Radio network from locally-based and left-oriented stations into centrally controlled, mainstream institutions. Before 1990, all five stations in the network were locally oriented, locally managed with strong inputs from local audiences and employees, and both highly political and progressive. During the 1990s, however, three of the stations--Houston, Washington and Los Angeles--were pushed into the mainstream by the Pacifica management, with only KPFA in Berkeley and WBAI in New York City remaining as holdovers of the earlier tradition.

On December 26, however, the Washington management seized control of WBAI, removing the long-time manager Valerie Van Isler, firing Program Director Bernard White and producer Sharan Harper without notice, changing the locks on the doors in the middle of the night, and installing a new manager from within the WBAI staff secretly primed for her new job. Only people on an approved list, which did not include Pacifica Foundation board member Leslie Cagan, were admitted to the station on December 27. There has been nothing democratic about any actions of the Pacifica management for many years, and with one of its board members a member of a law firm with a specialty in union-busting, the management has long mastered the art of using every trick in that trade.

It will be recalled that the Pacifica management had tried to remake KPFA in Berkeley several years ago, locking out the employees, firing many, bringing in security forces and strikebreakers, but meeting such resistance, with 10,000 protesters in the streets, and getting such negative publicity that the management had to retreat. The stalemate resulted in a tacit settlement that gave KPFA and WBAI temporary autonomy and led to the appointment of several new representatives of the audiences and stations to the Pacifica board.

But this settlement was only temporary, and the new board members quickly discovered that they were not listened to and were kept outside any decision-making process, sometimes by illegal actions (and two of the dissident board members have an ongoing suit against the board based on these illegalities). That the central management was on the march again, and that a takeover of WBAI might be in the works, was suggested by the sustained attack on Amy Goodman and her Democracy Now! program that escalated this past September and October. Goodman has long been harassed by the Pacifica top management for her lack of sympathy with Clinton and general failure to stick with the approved media agenda. She was brought to Washington in September and told quite clearly that her focus on East Timor, capital punishment, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Lori Berenson (etc.) was excessive. Former board chair Mary Frances Berry called her "troublesome," and said that she had "embarrassed" the network, possibly meaning Berry herself and her friends and colleagues in the Democratic Party. In October Goodman was once again brought to Washington and directly threatened with termination unless she refrained from using volunteers and cleared her programs in advance in Washington (among other demands). She immediately filed a grievance with the union for harassment and censorship.

A problem for the Pacifica elite is that Goodman's show heavily outdraws their regular news programs, and most other Pacifica programs as well. This makes it awkward for them as they claim to be reforming Pacifica in the interest of enlarging audience size, which they have been trying to do by substituting popular music for politics (and softening any politics that remains). But Goodman's show and its successes in drawing audiences suggests that critical politics can be quite popular if done well. That she is regarded negatively by the Pacifica brass reflects political bias and a determination to defang and depoliticize the network in accord with the biases of the top management and their constituency. The constituency of the "old Pacifica" was the local audiences and employees and volunteers; the constituency of the "new Pacifica" of Bessie Wash and Mary Frances Berry is Washington power brokers, officials of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Democratic Party.

Even the New York Times notes that the Pacifica Foundation was initially based on "a lack of corporate control and its dedication to peace," and represented "grass roots, alternative broadcasting" (Jayson Blair, "Pacifica Foundation Locks WBAI Station Manager Out of Office," Dec, 28, 2000). The "new Pacifica" has changed course, and has abandoned both its grass roots base and alternative broadcasting. Its attack on Amy Goodman and the current takeover of WBAI are a part of this de-democratization and political neutering. This process has resulted from the capture of the Pacifica Foundation by a small group of liberal technocrats and Democratic Party-linked officials, who have added to their controlling board membership businesspeople in the real estate, construction, and corporate law fields to support them in their remaking of Pacifica. They have moved Pacifica's headquarters from Berkeley to Washington DC, in keeping with the shift in their constituency from audiences and employees to Washington power brokers.

We are dealing here with a kind of coup d'etat, and a systematic destruction of a major left institution in the wake of that coup. Given the importance of the media in hegemonic processes, and in contesting those processes, what is happening to Pacifica, and now WBAI, should be first order business for the left. This was our only radio network, and it is being destroyed! It is a horrifying fact that a chunk of the left actually signed Saul Landau's letter in 1999 which defended the Pacifica management and urged the left to stop its "Pacifica bashing," with "Pacifica" identified with the management group that was destroying the old Pacifica and picking off left journalists and stations one by one. Some of the signers are people trying, for example, to contest corporate globalization, a subject on which Amy Goodman and the old WBAI would give their contesting position extensive and friendly coverage, but which the emerging "new Pacifica" will ignore or treat perfunctorily. (The "new Pacifica" Washington station WPFW, formerly run by current Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash, has been notoriously uninterested in protests against not only the dominant political party conventions, but those against the World Bank and IMF.) The lack of left solidarity involved in signing the Landau letter is equalled only by the sheer short-sightedness and stupidity of helping destroy a media institution that was a natural ally, if not part of the left itself.

The battle over Pacifica and WBAI is not over. There are mounting protests against the WBAI takeover, and there are at least three legal suits in process against the Pacifica Foundation control group. I would urge people to get into action now. This is important! It was encouraging to see the New York Times finally come up with an article on December 28 putting the WBAI takeover in a negative light for both tactics and implied violation of organizational purpose. This is the time to move into action with letters, phone calls, picketing, and contributions to the funding of legal responses to illegitimate authority. Information on the issues and names and actions under way can be obtained from these key sites:

Hotline: 800-825-0055 to volunteer
718-707-7189 for e-mail and updates

Local WBAI sites: WBAI union WBAI listeners

Sites: general info and background