December 1, 2000
In a move reminiscent of last year's attack on Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley, the Pacifica Foundation told WBAI-New York's long-time general manager Valerie Van Isler that it is removing her from her position. On Tuesday, November 28, during what was supposed to be a routine evaluation, Pacifica's executive director Bessie Wash informed Van Isler that she was being reassigned to a newly-created position in Washington, D.C. Van Isler, who has been at the helm of WBAI for 10 years, said she wanted to remain at the station, and was told that she would therefore be fired.
Pacifica, a network of community-supported radio stations, has long been torn by charges that its national board is bent on taking the network in a more timid, ratings-driven, commercialized direction. Listeners, as well as staff at some stations, have organized protests against the board's continuing centralization of power.
Van Isler had been told to report to her new position, "executive producer of national programming," in Washington, D.C., in January. Though she had recently brought WBAI into the black, Van Isler had locked horns with Pacifica management over the airing of a speech that Cuba's Fidel Castro delivered in New York on September 8.
According to a station insider, Van Isler was also upbraided by Pacifica management for WBAI's coverage of the Palestinian Right-of-Return March in Washington D.C. on September 23. According to the source, Pacifica management admonished Van Isler after receiving a complaint from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a presidentially-appointed agency that provides funding to the Pacifica Foundation. Van Isler had also clashed with Pacifica officials recently over the network's treatment of Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.
Pacifica plans to replace Van Isler as early as Monday. WBAI management and staff were shocked by the sudden decision, which Pacifica has yet to formally inform them about. Pacifica has not yet named an interim General Manager. [See attached letter from WBAI Management Team to Pacifica Executive Director Besse Wash.]
Pacifica's latest move is reminiscent of the 1999 removal of general manager Nicole Sawaya from Pacifica's KPFA-Berkeley, which led to protests by thousands of listeners and volunteers, the arrest of staff and the closing of the station for several weeks.
The firing of Van Isler follows other attacks on Pacifica staff and
programming, including the transfer of Pacifica news director Dan Coughlin,
who, like Van Isler, was forced out of his position after airing a 30-second
headline about a protest against Pacifica. Pacifica has also recently threatened
to fire Amy Goodman, co-host of the network's flagship national newsmagazine,
Democracy Now!, who recently filed grievances against Pacifica for censorship,
harassment and gender harassment.
To: Bessie Wash, Executive Director, Pacifica Foundation
From: WBAI Management Team
Date: November 30, 2000
Re: Actions proposed against station manager
It has come to the attention of the WBAI management team that Pacifica's executive management is in the process of an attempted removal of the station manager at WBAI. We find it incredible that you would even contemplate such a move because such behavior is a clear contradiction to the document that you authored and circulated throughout the network, Pacifica in the New Millennium: Community Radio with Vision.
In this document you spoke forthrightly about the need to change the culture of Pacifica as it related to personnel. You wrote:
"We intend to improve policies and procedures that assist employees
concerns and receive thoughtful, responsive and fair replies. We also
intend to put into place mechanisms that promote respect and teamwork.
This includes responsiveness, dialogue and better communications."
We saw these proclamations as a necessary and welcome departure from the philosophy and actions of previous administrations and are anxiously awaiting their implementation.
However, the actions you are now proposing are a direct contradiction to what you told us you intended to do. We took you at your word and it appears that you have violated our trust. We believed that we were headed in a new direction and here we are back in 1998 - a time even the most inexperienced observer would agree was a management and fiscal disaster that threatened the very framework of Pacifica. Your proposed actions tend dangerously toward a replication of that awful time.
Another reason we find your proposed actions unconscionable is because they would destroy all of the hard-earned goodwill and positive energy that we have built up with our listenership over the last several months. As a result of what took place in Berkeley, we began to lose membership (and income).
Our listeners began to lose faith in Pacifica. It was the efforts of this management team that promised to repair that damage by renewing the trust that was lost through no fault of our own.
Your non-consultative and ill-advised proposition to immediately install an "interim manager" at WBAI is as untenable as it is procedurally out of order, inasmuch as Valerie van Isler is--and we expect her to remain for the foreseeable future--our station's manager. It is unclear to us whether you have followed personnel guidelines in this matter, as well as in your claim to be opening a "search" for the position. Even if it were your intention to change management at WBAI at this inopportune time, any person sent here under such circumstances would almost certainly be unable to function in an effective manner, given the mistrust, the opposition, the community ill will and the confusion implicit in your proposal.
This management team demands an audience with you regarding actions proposed against our station manager and, therefore, against our station. This meeting should take place as quickly as possible. We are proposing Friday, December 1, 2000, in our conference room. We are sure that you wish to get beyond this precarious moment as much as we do. So, please respond as quickly as possible.
One of the key factors in the strategy that every Program Director (PD) and General Manager (GM) at WBAI has always adopted to keep the big bad meanies of Pacifica out of everybody's collective hairs was and is to match and surpass the fund raising goals of every drive that has happened for the station. Since almost 20% of that money is levied into the Pacifica National Staff's coffer's before it trickles down to the stations it was always felt that a healthy surplus of money would keep them away from actually tinkering with the local programming and more importantly, the composition of the staff in NYC. This was certainly the approach Samori [Marksman, former Program Director who died in 1999] adopted and I have no doubt the same that is now under way in NYC with the department heads, the PD, Bernard White and Valerie Van Isler, the General Manager.
Throughout this decade whenever Pacifica was going to begin to "clean house" in their ruthless and ham fisted fashion they usually began with either the replacement of the GM, followed by the PD and other vulnerable non-union protected positions being eliminated and/or the threat or actual abolishment of the Local Advisory Board (LAB). The latter move was usually held by those who want to play along to get along at any cost as the ultimate weapon that they might invoke to insure compliance. Throughout the past ten years when Pacifica decides to move, they have done so with speed and ruthlessness until they were confronted with a massive local and national upsurge.
Throughout the past five years Pacifica regarded the situation in NYC as a particularly tough nut to crack. After all, their hands were full elsewhere suppressing local resistance and remaking station staff composition in California, Houston and Washington, D.C. In all these cases they pulled out and will pull out the full gamut of tricks that "reformed" reclasse (not declasse) movement people know how to do: turning union busting into actually defending the rights of workers, use identity politics to disguise unabashed self- interest,etc.
Throughout this whole process there have been additional factors at play also which now take on an increasingly ominous tone. Pat Scott [Pacifica Executive Director who initiated the centralization of Pacifica in 1995], the former member of the Communist Party, and Lynn Chadwick, the "vaunted" defender of community radio, cooperated with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in their cave into the 104th Congress when new standards for determining the federal requirements for receiving funds were changed to reinforce the larger CPB recipients with greater audience shares as rated by "Arbitron"
These changed requirements have resulted in the selling of some community radio interests to private interests and the entire question of why not "privatize" all the CPB recipients as a perennial issue that will not go away in the public broadcasting debate in general and in the Pacifica issue in particular. Their de-facto collusion with the "compromiser" elements who caved into the the rightist sentiments of Congress and their constituents was supplemented by the ruthless "radio cleansing" tactics pursued by Pacifica in California, Texas and Washington that created the first large wave of producer-listener resistance throughout the country.
This opposition was also accompanied in NYC by the reaction of producers/staff(paid/unpaid) to what was going on and the first attempts to try to mobilize public opinion and listener awareness. This was manifested in discussion and agitation in Local UE 404, program council, staff and LAB meetings in the summer and fall of 1995. This led to the initial spate of articles in NYC on the Pacifica situation which included articles in New York Magazine, The Village Voice and other venues.
A large meeting was held in October 1995 with over fifty WBAI producers/staff participating where a non-union body, The Producers Alliance,was organized to reach out to the listeners about what was going on. Throughout this time the strictures of the gag rule were respected while every possible means to go around it were being implemented and explored.
One of the first attempts to reach out to the listeners and talk to them about what was going on was done in the winter of 1996 when a teachin was organized and held at the Musician Union Local on the West Side in midtown-Manhattan. Over 150 people attended and another event was organized and held in the fall of 1996 with an even larger number of people. The Pacifica National Board (PNB) board meeting in Manhattan in 1997 was met with a large number of demonstrators and resisters who during the public comment period let Pacifica have it. Throughout all this the desire of the paid staff/unpaid staff to keep the PNB away from tinkering with the station was one issue that everybody completely agreed with. Where everybody parted ways was on the next issue, what and how would the local staff manage its own affairs to keep them away and at arms length distance while placating them with the creation of some sort of strip programming.
Pacifica has ordered all the PD's to construct a variant of strip programming after their attempts to cram national programming down the throats of all the stations was thwarted. Samori did lead that attack and part of the compromise was the creation of two national shows at that time, Democracy Now and the Julianne Malveaux show. The later show folded up whereas the former show has continued to this day to be probably the most popular show in the history of the Pacifica network. But , Pacifica had not retreated from its desire to create and carry out "their vision" of what the network should look like. These documents were embodied in the Strategic Vision documents.
The most striking feature of all these documents is that underlying their seeming commonsense approach, i.e who does not want a larger audience and better produced radio at Pacifica, was the raw power factors that were unspoken but have become increasingly evident since 1998. All the prices of radio stations have escalated since the 1980 FCC chairman appointed by Reagan began the "deregulation drive" of commercial and non-commercial broadcasting. When the equal time provision was eliminated in the eighties, the full power of satellite and digital technology unleashed, all the broadcast stations became "hot-properties" in the general "merger mania" of the period. The onset of the Federal telecommunications Act of 1996 that some have cited as the primary factor driving the market driven strategy of the present day Pacifica crisis is a marked trend on a continuum that started in Chairman Fowler in 1980.
This was also accelerated when the CPB market leader, PBS and NPR, took serious financial hits in the early eighties. NPR nearly went belly up in 1983-86 and was forced as a result of this crisis to adopt market driven strategies for gaining revenue and increasing market share ever since. It was after this that the issue of "poll" driven arbitron programming came into the picture. The other issue with PBS, always an enemy of the Republican party (if there had been no Watergate Nixon intended to kill CPB,PBS,the NEH and NEA in his next term) , was forced to adopt corporate image enhancement advertising in order to pay for itself. The oft repeated critique of the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour as the "Oil Newshour" or the brilliant tactics of Mobil Oil's PR czar of this time(funding for Masterpiece Theater or bringing in BBC dramas after Congress pulled the funding away from the incipient effort of WGBH to create a similar unit ,one of his ideas) , Herbert Schmertz,is an example of the increased invasion of corporate funding into a increasingly poverty stricken public TV, radio and of course community broadcasting.
To me, these "objective" factors have always undergirded the environment
that Pacifica has been maneuvering within in recent years. The adoption
of a clear cut union-busting strategy, designed to clear any legal obstacles
away from impeding complete dominance of the airwaves LOCALLY has always
been a adjunct to their wider strategy of dominating assets worth hundreds
of millions of dollars. None of what we have seen would be happening if
this was not their viewpoint towards the tens of thousands of local listeners
in each signal area who listen to Pacifica programming as an alternative
to the mainstream. Ironically, the tidal wave of corporatization of the
media has been accompanied by a rebellious upsurge through phenomena like
pirate radio or the indymedia centers (see http://www.indymedia.org). But
change in the composition in the National Board over the past several years to an increasingly overt corporate presence has signaled the end of the attitude of the national leadership towards the listeners as anything but pliable commodities that can be relied upon to continually pledge their precious dollars to their efforts because they feel they have no choice but to preserve the "precious jewel" of the Pacifica stations that they have.
Pacifica began their local union busting strategy in New York in 1996-1997 (see R.Paul Martin's website http://www.glib.com/union.html). This policy was implemented throughout the Pacifica system. In California at KPFA it led to a situation where the Union at that station decided to change affiliations from UE, shift to another Union, and abandon the un- paid staff to their fate.
In NYC, while deliberate divide and conquer tactics were implemented by Pacifica in 1996- 1997(having separate meetings with paid staff where unpaid staff were deliberately excluded and where major efforts by some paid staff to break away were luckily thwarted) the resistance by unpaid and paid staff against this effort was one. This union effort was considered so egregious that even NPR stations reported what was going. In NYC, WNYC radio's show "ON THE LINE" host, Brian Lehrer, was persuaded to do a portion of his show on this topic. (see http://www.glib.com/wnyc7-16.html for a complete transcript).
The fact that he did it all was due to his personal relationship with several producers/staff active in the Producers Alliance. It had nothing to do with the efforts of others.
It was during this time, when the fight for maintaining a union was underway that would include the unpaid staff and the business manager, Sybil Wong , were underway, that Valerie Van Isler acted as a morose and zealous hatchet person for Pacifica. She deliberately targeted Sybil Wong as did the PNB because they knew that Sybil was playing a crucial role in holding all the different folks together (who some by now openly despised each other) against a wider goal...the defeat of the Pacifica National Board and the defense of community broadcasting.
Valerie participated in endless meetings with the local union leadership where she never once reneged on her implementation of Pacifica directives to break the union. I have engaged in several union organizing drives in my day and I defy anybody who will say that such PRAXIS as getting behind enfeebling a local union has any PROGRESSIVE imprimatur to it. Valerie also participated in the heavy-handed firing of Bill Wells, Sheldon Walden, the elimination of the Crafts Fair Staff, and driving Sybil Wong from her position as business manager (in my mind,the best candidate for GM right now) .
Throughout this period she has maintained her defense of Pacifica. Two years ago there were several staff meetings that expressed outloud the feelings of many about what should happen to her...i,e quit. In saying these things about what has gone on, I separate Valerie the general manager from Valerie the human being. Nobody like to see anybody fired or capriciously maltreated. This is why the resistance and anger to Amy's threatened censorship has been so widespread. Amy's role in this entire struggle in the past was dubious at best but the issue of defending against the wider malevolence of the PNB took precedence in her case. What is disturbing about this latest tactic by the PNB is that , to quote one local station sage, "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know". Given the probable choice Pacifica would make, Valerie Van Issler, wharts and all, is preferable than Garland Ganter or Mark Schubb or their clone like being armed with full power to engage in "radio cleansing". But, after all the style and impact of how Valerie has run the station and allowed the shenanigans of certain individuals to basically run amuck is precisely the troubling issue of what type of station culture is manifested that Norman Kelley's piece in THE NEW YORK PRESS raised all the hackels about.
That type of "culture" remains and is part of the problem, not separate from the PNB problem, but integral to it. Some former producers and some present producers will not shed crocodile tears for Valerie. Being asked to rally around Valerie at this time should finally be an opportunity to really get all the hitherto untalked about issues in NYC out in the open. Yes, I certainly feel that her sacking is probably the prelude to a similar razzia in NYC equal to KPFA last year. But, Valerie is no Nicole Sawaya.
She has treated in a mean spirited fashion too many inside and outside WBAI to warrant that type of approach to her demise. She NEVER,REPEAT NEVER has manifested any desire to reach out to those who have been the unfair recipients of her decisions. Hence, just like the issue of Amy's self-centeredness raised similar debate over the past few months, sao does this issue have to be argued and a consensus agreed upon(or at least settled).
Today, ON REPORT TO THE LISTENER, Bernard White, referred to this action by Pacifica as a "grenade". His very position is due to his relationship to Valerie since it is no secret that the committee formed to recommend a PD replacement wanted Utrice Leid and Laura Flanders ahead of him. Obviously, his sinecure is threatened by these developments. But, it does seem to me that while I fully intend to be explicit and on-point on these issues since I personally see his five years of "quiet" acquiesce to the PNB as part of the wider problem of how some of the staff have reacted to these developments(after all, he is not the first or the last Pacifica producer who has placed job security before political principle) in all this it is clear that the PNB would not be taking such a dramatic step at this time unless they wanted to fulfill their wider aims. It musty be assumed that they are coming in with not "a grenade" but several loaded automatic weapons with precision guided bullets of removal prepared at the staff at WBAI. The resistance to the action of removing Valerie has to be seen in as wide a possible picture by the entire listening community of WBAI, Pacifica and especially the progressive political forces in the United States. As I have made perfectly clear, Valerie was a loyal KAPO of Pacifica throughout this entire affair. In attacking their action of removing her, my support of her would be that the station (the microphones ) and the importance of local control of programming are what is important, not whether I think a walking example of the Captain in the CAINE MUTINY played by Humphrey Bogart is what I will be willing spend hours of effort organizing around is critical.
We have been predicting this move by Pacifica for years and now it has finally arrived. It must be completely opposed.This may be the prelude to the corporatization of WBAI.
The Chickens have come home to Roost