A transcription of Ken Nash's WBAI show, Building Bridges, from Monday, December 25

with recently-fired Bernard White and Sharan Harper. Note: Our thanks to listener Kathy Astor for her extraordinary contribution of time transcribing this excellent interview.


KEN NASH (KN): And welcome to Building Bridges, your community and labor report, produced by Mimi Rosenberg and Ken Nash. Mimi's on vacation, but I'm holding the fort. We had scheduled a one-hour preproduced conversation with Harry Belafonte for today's program, but we'll only be playing the first half on the second half of this show and reserve the second half for next week. So we'll be playing that Harry Belafonte special--the first half--at 2:30, and then a week from today, the second half of it. But because of the developments at BAI over this past weekend, we can't be just about business as usual; because what has transpired over the weekend was not business as usual.

What happened this weekend? Well, we'll hear from terminated Program Director and program Morning Show host Bernard White with terminated Morning Show Executive Producer and shop steward Sharan Louise Harper. It was certainly not business as usual. Executive Director of Pacifica Radio Bessie Wash came in in the dead of night Friday night before the Christmas weekend with Utrice Leid and proceeded to change all the locks in the station.

It's not business as usual when the station manager is replaced and Utrice takes the job despite repeated urgings at station meetings that no one be compliant with intervention by the national board in the question of replacement of the station manager. And it's certainly not business as usual when producers were denied access to the station over the weekend; only producers with scheduled approvals were let in initially over the weekend, and only later were producers let in to do their work. I understand a union grievance has been filed on the subject. And finally long-term Producer and Program Director Bernard White and Sharan Louise Harper, the morning show's Executive Producer, were hand-delivered termination notices early Saturday morning and warned not to trespass on the premises of WBAI.

All of this is not business as usual, and we hope that this is not what usual business will become at WBAI. This is a community radio station but the listeners and staff are now onlookers seeing our station being transformed before our eyes. The local advisory board is not listened to; the staff and listeners play no role. Yet these are the constituents of the WBAI community, and if we are to move forward and not backwards, Mimi and I urge listeners and staff to mobilize.

On Wednesday night at 6:30 at Local 32BJ, there'll be a meeting of listeners and, we hope, a lot of staff. That's this Wednesday at 6:30 at Local 32BJ, 101 Sixth Avenue just north of Canal Street. There'll also be daily pickets starting on Monday from 4 to 6 in the afternoon at WBAI; and the hotline numbers to call for more information are 1-800-825-0055 or 718-707-7189.

But now let's welcome back by telephone connection two people who cannot come into the station they have done so much to build, Bernard White and Sharan Louise Harper. We want their part of the story and we'll go to the Harry Belafonte special at 2:30 after we talk with Bernard and Sharan. Are you on the line?

BERNARD WHITE (BW): Yes, I am; thank you for inviting me, Ken.

SHARAN HARPER (SW): Good afternoon, Ken. And good afternoon to the listeners.

KN: Bernard, tell us how you learned of the severance of your connection with WBAI.

BW: Well, it was about 7:00 on Saturday morning--7, 7:05. Someone began to ring my doorbell incessantly. I called out the window to find out who it was, and a young man was out there who said he had a package for me. So I came downstairs; he said, "There's a package for you to sign." It was an envelope. And he told me I had to sign for it. So I said, "Sign what?" So I opened up the envelope and inside were two checks as well as a letter--a letter which stated that I had been terminated and that I was not allowed on the premises. If I came on the premises it would be considered trespassing. And of course the clear implication of that is that I would be arrested.

[The letter also stated] that the two checks I got were my severance pay and that my belongings would be shipped to me. [The letter] didn't state anything about what the reasons were for the termination. So I refused to sign it and I gave it back to him. By the time I got back upstairs he was ringing the doorbell again and I just didn't go back downstairs. However, when I left the building later on in the day, I noticed that the two checks had been slid into the door, but the letter was not.

KN: Who was the letter from?

BW: The letter was from Bessie Wash, written on Pacifica stationery.

KN: Sharan, was your experience pretty much the same as Bernard's?

SH: It was similar to Bernard's. In fact, I was on the phone with Bernard when [his] doorbell rang. My termination came at about 8:45 a.m. I was on the phone with Al Lewis at the time. The doorbell rang, and it was someone asking for Sharon Harper. I responded that there was no Sharon Harper here, and then suddenly he figured out my name was Sharan from somewhere, and he said he had something for me.

After knowing what Bernard's experience had been earlier in the morning, I put Grandpa on hold and called the chief steward, and I--

KN: You put Grandpa on hold? SH: Yes.

KN: Oh, God!

SH: And so, I was back and forth between the two of them. But I went to the door; he handed me an envelope and he said you have to sign for it. I opened it and inside was a letter and my letter read--along with the signature of Bessie Wash--that I had been terminated, that there were severance checks amounting to two weeks severance pay, and that if I believed I had further compensation coming I had to explain to her why in writing, that my belongings would be sent to me, and that I was not to enter the premises; if I did so it would be considered trespass.

I told him thank you and he said he needed me to sign the letter. I told him I was not going to sign the letter and give it back to him; I needed the letter. And he took the letter from my hand and I handed him back the checks. And he said, well you have to sign it, and I said once again that I would not. He told me I couldn't have the letter. So he offered me the checks and I, like Bernard, said no; and they were placed under my door. I discovered it later.

The interesting thing is that these checks were dated the 20th of December, so this was I guess determined earlier in the week that this was going to be the action taken.

KN: Well, neither one of you...in either one of these cases, neither one of you was informed of the reason why you were being terminated; is that correct?

SH: That's correct.

BW: No, no reason was given.

KN: Why do you suppose they did this?

BW: Why do I suppose it happened? KN: Yeah.

BW: Well, I would imagine that the person who has assumed the position of station manager figures that in order to execute her responsibilities as she sees them, she has to get rid of anybody who might be in opposition to that. You know, there's been a lot of talk about this not being a crisis, and that is not true. The crisis as I saw it and as I stated it--and also stated a possible resolution--was how do we deal with if we all agree that there should be the removal of the station manager; how do we then proceed to do that?

And one of the things that I have contended is that we do not invite Pacifica in to do that; that we do that internally. And I was told on several occasions by Utrice Leid that she didn't care about whether Pacifica came in; that she was primarily interested in just getting rid of the station manager. And I tried to inform her on several occasions that it was paramount that we determine how that happens, because if we don't, once Pacifica sets the precedent of removing somebody from WBAI, they can come back at any point and remove anybody for any reason, and we see that that's exactly what has happened already.

KN: Sharan, what are your thoughts on why this is happening right now?

SH: I have several thoughts, but I would say this: Even though my termination letter was signed by Bessie Wash, I am not the manager at the station. I've had no interaction with Ms. Wash except for the afternoon when she came to visit the staff in early December. I can't imagine how she would even know that I exist, other than by collaboration with someone at the station who would know me, my thoughts--

BW: Or someones.

SH: Or someones, yes. I am a member of the union shop; I am not an at-will employee.

There is a contract rolled over in place. While we have been unable to negotiate a new contract we have for the last few years been rolling over the current contract month to month, with the agreement of the station manager and the chief steward. However, given the pitiless nature of what would happen if Valerie were to leave us on December 31, we tried to get a longer contract to protect workers, and we were able on the 18th to get a rollover of the contract for nine months.

So right now I am employed subject to a contract between Pacifica, WBAI, and UE Local 404. And the parties to the negotiation of the rollover were myself, who was a shop steward, R Paul Martin, and Utrice Leid, who, up until she became the general manager on Friday night, was also a shop steward, and she was a signatory to that agreement.

So my firing is in essence illegal. It's a violation of the contract. It has a provision in there for what's known as progressive discipline, so if there were some offense that I have committed, I certainly have not yet received any discipline for it at all. I've received no warnings; I've received no notice. It's in essence an illegal firing and it's not one that we can say the new administration is ignorant about, inasmuch as the general manager has come from the ranks of the shop committee.

So I have to question why...I think they're going to have to fill in the answers. I know that I have certainly not been a collaborator; I have spoken out at staff meetings against people who I believe there was a sense that they were people who had opened the door to let Pacifica in; and I have on several occasions asked people to identify themselves as such, and to cease the collaboration.

So I suppose this has to do with my position about the need for us to protect the station as a place where free speech is always heard; and to try to protect the integrity of what we held on to for such a long time. I should think that this is what has probably caused my termination--something as horrific as declaring the need for free speech.

KN: So have you filed a grievance on this?

SH: Yes, it has been filed, if I understand it. I have filed a formal request with the union.

KN: Bernard, in terms of the decisions that are going to be made in this station in the next period of time, what do you see as the role of the remaining staff, of the community? How do things get worked out here from now on that you see?

BW: Well, you know, this was a decision that about 98 percent of the staff --and I have always maintained that staff at WBAI is both those people who are paid as well as the unpaid workers--the overwhelming majority--way up in the 90s--have said on several occasions when we have been assembled that however we resolve this, we did not want Pacifica to be the final one to make the decision, that we wanted to make it internally. And that was violated.

A handful of people, a cabal of individuals, got together and decided that they would speak for everyone, without consultation from anyone. They did not talk to the community; they did not abide by the wishes of the majority of the staff. They made this determination that they would, in collaboration with Bessie Wash, that they would come in.

That night when she came in to change all of the locks, Utrice Leid and many of the folks who were involved were there with her. If this was such a good idea and the staff went for it, why couldn't it have been done during the day? Anyway, I think that the staff has to, since they've already spoken out and said that this isn't what they wanted, that they have to tell the listeners that this is not what they wanted; that they did not want to in any way collaborate with Pacifica in doing this; that it should be an internal thing; that we can devise our own mechanisms for resolving this kind of issue.

So I would hope that the staff would continue to follow the policy that they said they were going to follow, a policy of noncollaboration with anyone who would be appointed by Pacifica. Because this is not a staff appointee. At the end there might have been a few individuals who said, you know, you should take the job; but the staff did not say that. And I would expect for them to stand up for what they said they were going to do, and not collaborate.

Secondly, I think the community....You know, we've done--I know I've done--a lot of work with the community; Wake-Up Call has done a lot of work with the community; and I think I know that the community....One of the things that unites the WBAI community is that they have a feeling for when things are not right. And I'm sure that as they begin to hear more of the information about what has gone on, they'll understand that this was not the right way to do that; and I'm sure that they will respond intelligently--it's an extremely intelligent audience.

There's a meeting that's going to take place at 101 Sixth Avenue on Wednesday at 6:30. I imagine that there will be many, many people out there. I think that these folks have overplayed their hand; that they didn't recognize--or don't recognize--that the listeners understand that once you give Pacifica...let them set this precedent; that in the short term, yes, the folks that are there might wind up getting a lot from Pacifica but in the long term, Pacifica has other designs. And you can see those designs as they have manifested themselves in three of the five radio stations that make up the Pacifica Foundation.

So I think that the people in the community have to come and show their outrage, have to come and find out some more information about what's going on; that this is a crisis; that all is not lost, that folks can come together again to apply pressure to make sure that WBAI can make its own decision, have its own autonomy and that they decide that they want--whomever they want--to be station manager, or even program director; that they have the right to make that determination.

SH: You know, if I can say--

KN: Sharan, before you say that, I'd just like to invite... We have time for about two or three calls from the community, 209-2900, area code 21--hold on for a second...okay, right now we can't take any listener phone calls; I'm sorry about that; there'll be another time for that. So let's keep this conversation going, and there'll be another time for taking community phone calls. Sharan, I'm sorry, I cut you off.

SH: Yes, what I was going to say, in answer to a previous question, I think one of the intentions in firing Bernard and me was to have a chilling effect on the rest of the staff. I believe that, you know, there are people who are afraid, who feel that they will lose their air time, lose their programs, lose the chance to have issues that are important brought out across the airwaves.

But I don't think that this is any different from any other place where there is repression. You see things change gradually; and I think that it's up to the listeners and the staff to demand free speech; to demand that there be ability to bring the issues of human rights and social justice and to maintain it at the same level. I mean, our listeners are not stupid, and they don't have to be told what to think. They have ears and they can hear. So they will be able to tell whether or not there is a diminishing of the type of reporting... They don't have to go by anything that we say; they will be able to tell by the actions that are taking place. And I would charge the listeners and the members of the staff to be a monitor; to monitor our airwaves, and see if you're hearing the same level of Mumia coverage; if you're able to hear about Palestinian issues; if we know what's happening in Cuba; if we can hear many of the human rights and social justice issues articulated; police brutality issues; if we can hear speech against government policies; if we can have guests that we won't hear on other airwaves. So I think it's really incumbent upon all of us to demand that free speech continue.

It's really not about whether Bernard or I have jobs or not because jobs come and go. In terms of a program, I carry my program with me wherever I go--whether it's in radio, whether it's in a school; wherever I am. So on that level there won't be any loss for me, but in terms of what it means to the public; in terms of the changes that we have seen in legislature; you know, we've seen new voices being legislated out of ability to start up in radio; we've just seen that Congress has just about decimated any ability for microradio to abound in this country; and we are pretty much along with our sister station in the Bay Area the last stand.

This is about people's freedom; it is about human rights and social justice. It's about the poor; it's about the homeless; it's about the voiceless. And if we don't demand that they keep this station at the same level, I cannot say what it would mean.

BW: And it's also about access. As you know, Ken, on Wake-Up Call, one of the things that we have provided for community groups is almost instant access. People would call me up in the middle of the night with something important and they would wind up getting on the program the next day. And I daresay that there's no other program that has provided the kind of access that Wake-Up Call does.

Now I'm not saying that because I'm not there, that can't happen; but I don't think that that philosophy is there anymore. You know, both Sharan and me, as well as Janice K. Bryant and Amy Goodman, were able to be flexible enough or open enough or had the philosophy that, you know, these airwaves actually do belong to the people in our community. So almost instantaneously, if something would arise, we would provide them with access. And I'm sure that if you look through the day, that that doesn't happen to the degree that it happens on Wake-Up Call. And I don't think that that will continue to be the case.

SH: And let's not forget Errol Maitland, who put his life on the line to bring listeners the story of what was happening at the Dorismond funeral.

BW: It's all part of Wake-Up Call.

SH: Yeah.

KN: Well, if you think to maybe two or three months from now, what do you think may be changed at WBAI? What direction do you think is going to be coming and who's to be determining that direction?

BW: Well, I think that what... I, Ken, you know I hate to be pessimistic, but I got a feeling that we have entered a slippery slope here where the listeners are going to feel betrayed once they begin to hear what's going to happen, and once they recognize, once they get a lot of the information; and, they'll probably not support the station to the degree that it has been supported.

At that point, Pacifica will have to make another move. Either there will be an infusion of cash from who knows where; or there'll be a justification for a reorganization--a further reorganization--of WBAI. These are the kinds of things that I was trying to hold off by talking to some of those same members that were a part of this cabal, to come up with some alternative to inviting Pacifica in. But I think it was their own selfish desire for revenge that colored their reasoning, and although they've been able to present themselves as being objective and being friendly, I think that the listeners will hear stories unfold that will show that that is not the case.

So I think that in the coming months there will be a greater presence of Pacifica at WBAI because WBAI won't be able to meet the kind of responsibilities that we've been able to. Because as you know, the deficit has been eradicated. We came in with a balance budget; we now have a $70,000 surplus. It didn't just happen; that was done with careful planning. Even in the opposition there were some members of the group who even boycotted a lot of the fundraisers that we had, and we still were able to make it. So, you know, I don't think the kind of planning, the kind of understanding of WBAI's history, of the philosophy of Lou Hill, although there'll be a lot of lip service paid to it, I don't think that they will be able to carry it out, because they've got to--you've got to be able to understand the history in order to be able to move forward, and I don't think they have that history right now.

KN: Sharan, we've got about three minutes before we start the Harry Belafonte special, and they're yours.

SH: They're mine? I don't know if I need three minutes [laughter]. You know, I would...I don't have an idea, you know, I don't have a crystal ball. I have hopes. And I do have hopes that those within who still have a little insight will fight for free speech, and the principles on which this radio station was founded.

I hope that there could be some way with the demand from the listeners, the demand from producers inside, that we can maintain the level that we had of access to the community, in which we treat community issues with the same importance that we treat international issues. I remember when I came here, I asked one question. I was new; I said I know there's only one struggle in the world, and it has different faces and different facets, but there's really only one struggle against injustice and oppression, and I needed to know how to present it. And that's really true.

There are people struggling all over the world locally as well as internationally who need these airwaves; who need to have their stories told in a place where large corporations don't control what goes on. The truth needs to be heard. And we have to stand strong and tall to maintain it for our listeners.

BW: One final thing, Ken. You know, I think it...that people...folks are really using Samori Marksman's name in a real nasty kind of way, I think; that they're using his name to give credence and meaning to what it is that they're doing and I think that...we really have to really watch that. As I said at his funeral, people will begin to invoke his name to give credence and value to what they're doing. If they're doing what they're doing, just do it; don't try and muddy up the name of Samori Marksman, because he was against this; he was firmly against Pacifica coming in to WBAI.

KN: Well, I do want to remind people that there will be a meeting of concerned listeners and staff at Local 32BJ. That's at 101 Sixth Avenue, and that's going to be Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. That's a few blocks north of Canal Street. There'll be vigils between 4 and 6 p.m. daily at the station, 120 Wall Street; and the hotline numbers to call for more information are 800-825-0055, or 718-707-7189. I want to thank my guests, Sharan Louise Harper and Bernard White, for being with us and we hope that they will continue to be with us.