99.5 FM WBAI's "Talk Back"

Bessie Wash, Utrice Leid, & Hugh Hamilton


Utrice Leid:  is charged with governing activities at the five
Pacifica stations, WBAI being one of them. Thank you, Bessie Wash,
for being with us today.

Bessie Wash:  Wouldn't have it any other way.

UL:  Well, a number of people - we just ended a staff meeting at
which much attention was focused on you.

BW:  Oh, really? Positive, I hope.

UL:  Well, not necessarily. It ain't necessarily so.

BW:  Oh

UL:  And the question of the immediate circumstances of the firing
of Valerie Van Isler, of Bernard White, and Sharan Harper. Suppose
we start there. The question is, what led to the firings and why
were they fired.

BW:  Well, I think that it's only fair to them and to the Foundation
not to talk about personnel issues. It was a personnel decision.
There was cause and they were terminated for cause. Outside of that,
I don't think it does anybody any credible good to talk about
anything within that. With that being said, those were not easy
decisions for me. I just had to do what I had to do. Sometimes
that's just the way it is because you know, bottom line is I have to
think about what is in the long term good for the station and as I
look forward my whole feeling is that those decisions had to be made
so I made them.

UL:  Why unilaterally? Why not with the advice and consent of staff,
the input of the community?

BW:  I don't think - I know and I've heard because I've been here
how people were - you don't make - these are not the kind of
decisions in terms of a democracy - you don't go and ask permission
to fire somebody. What you have to do is you have to look at what it
is, what their contribution is or not. And then you have to make a
decision, at least I did. And my raw feeling is, one the one hand,
when I look at what is the long term for the station, I didn't see
the leadership that the station needed to get there. And then when I
looked at for the short term of the station, I didn't think it was
fair to have a situation where it couldn't be successful because it
was being undermined. And then, like I said, these are not things
that one just does, so it was not easy. But it was a decision I
thought had to be made and it was a decision I made.

UL:  The question about the changing of the locks in the middle of the night.

BW:  Mm hm. Four women and a baby.

UL:  Well, that's true.

BW:  Four women and a baby. But, with that being said, what I wanted
to do is we needed to secure the space and I wanted it to be a time
when it was the least destructive to the staff, and to the station
and the operations as possible. And so, I felt when is the time when
the least people is there. There was no conspiracy. Like I said, it
was four women and a baby.

UL:  What is the thing that bothers you most? What have you heard
that you've heard in reaction that is, in your view, the most
inaccurate about the way this thing is being seen? Because you put
the pieces together. We just came out a meeting in which it was
said, "These things must have some kind of common cause, some kind
of common thread. These things don't just happen in a vacuum." The
story we have been told - and, of course, I'm going to ask you to
come back several times

BW:  Mm hm.

UL:  to talk with listeners, if you don't mind.

BW:  Okay.

UL:  Great. And to systematically lay out, to the extent that you
can - because you've just said that some of these are personnel
issues, but I don't want to give you an easy way out.

BW:  Whoa.

UL:  You won't have an easy way out. I want you to be able to come
back and talk, not just to the listeners - I've seen you here
available at staff and I wanted to know about that. One of the
things that was told to us here was that you simply made a
commitment to come to the staff and then arbitrarily canceled it.
And then simply were not available to the staff.

BW:  Utrice, I have been here for what, three or four weeks? Three
or four weeks. The staff was given a phone number at which they
could call me. I met with the staff, okay? So no, I didn't just
arbitrarily - I have been here. I have children at home, okay? I
have been here. Anyone who's wanted to talk to me could talk to me.
They had the phone number to reach me at.

UL:  No one called you?

BW:  No one called. Okay? I was here. I've been at the station. I've
been in town. I have been here. I got a phone call in Washington one
night, Thursday, said people want to talk to me on Friday. I
canceled everything on Friday. I was here on Friday. No one was
here. Okay? I've been here. My daughter was afraid I wouldn't be
home for Christmas. She cried and made me promise that I was coming
Christmas Eve. I have been here. No one called me.

UL:  I'm really having some difficulty understanding this. You've
been here for three weeks you said.

BW:  At least. You know, it may even be four. I have been here since
the last week in November. I have been here. And no one called.

UL:  Why didn't you just come down to the station?

BW:  I have been at the station.

UL:  Realizing that the calls weren't coming through

BW:  Utrice, I've been at the station. I have come up in the
station. I've come. I've sat in the lobby. I have been here. No one
called. Anything anyone has had to say to me or asked me I have not
backed off from; I have answered the question. It's a personnel
decision. You know, we may agree; we may disagree and we may have to
agree to disagree, but it was a personnel decision that I made that
I felt, and I still feel, is a betterment of the future of WBAI. And
bottom line is, when it comes right down to it, at least right now,
that's my responsibility. I looked out, I saw the leadership that
was here and my raw feeling was that leadership was not going to
take the station where it was it needed to go. That was not, again,
easy. It was not easy. For anybody to think that was something I did
on a whim, it's not fair.

UL:  What about a process? This is a legitimate question, some
people say, the question about whether in the actions taken due
process was observed.

BW:  Well, you know, I can always say that I had several
conversations. There were things put in writing. There were things
that needed to be done that weren't done.

UL:  Were the individuals aware that they were in danger, in any
way, of losing their jobs?

BW:  I believe in my heart that Valerie - she had to know - she had
- it was in writing. Now, if you want to ask me about Bernard and
Sharan, I can only say that if you do certain things, one has to
wonder whether it is you enjoy what you're doing. That's as best as
I can say. With Valerie I can tell you there is a paper trail. With
Bernard and Sharan it had to do with the appropriate actions. There
are policies and procedures for a reason. The reason is to prevent
anarchy. Without those you have anarchy. Who is excused from that? I
have 96 full-time employees, 150 in terms of payroll itself. Who is
it that's supposed to be outside of those policies? When you do,
when do you say that this person doesn't have to? All right? That's
all I'm trying to say here. And everybody has a right. And I think -
no, I know that having access to the air is a privilege. It is not
one that somebody should throw away, thrash, or take advantage of.
And they certainly shouldn't use it for their own agenda. This is
all unfortunate. You know, the time of year it is. This whole thing
- I have been here and I've looked at the staff. People are hurting.
So it's not like I take these things lightly. And I don't take this
lightly, but it had to be done.

UL:  Are these decisions irrevocable?

BW:  Which ones?

UL:  Any of them.

BW:  Valerie is no longer the General Manager at WBAI. That will not
be reversed. You as Interim General Manager can make any of the
staffing decisions that you decide to make. But Valerie is no longer
the General Manager at WBAI.

UL:  With regard to the other two, are those decisions irrevocable?

BW:  Staffing decisions and day-to-day operations of the station is
up to the General Manager, not me. I made some decisions I thought
was for the good of the station at the time. So now, it's up to you
as General Manager.

UL:  Well, thank you very much.

BW:  Your welcome. You appreciate that!

UL:  I appreciate the Christmas gift. Yes. Let's talk about the
concern that people have had with WBAI and Pacifica. I keep
insisting that WBAI is Pacifica.

BW:  Hello. WBAI in itself is not a going concern. WBAI does not
have its own federal ID. The Pacifica Foundation owns five licenses,
one of which is WBAI. So WBAI - you know when you think about, you
talk about what Pacifica is and what Pacifica stand for, what it is
we do, it is because of BAI, KPFA, WPFW, KPFK, and KPFT. They're
five different stations in five different markets that serve five
different communities. And they serve it in a very special way.
Because of Pacifica, we have these stations. So when you walk in the
door and say, "It's WBAI," no, it's the Pacifica Foundation's WBAI
and because of the Pacifica Foundation we can have a WBAI. We can
have a "Democracy Now!" We can have a "PNN." And we can have people
like Utrice Leid on the air. That has a special message. That is not
constrictive. You know what I'm trying to say? You know, Warner
Brothers doesn't own us. Kellogg's doesn't own us. It's the
listeners. 80 percent of what we do come from the people that listen
to us every day. And I'm very aware of that. And I'm very much aware
of that same relationship that causes that sort of upset that we
have going on right now. But all I can say is this, if we want to
keep this special station, somebody has to be looking and saying, do
we have what it's gonna take to make sure we're here five years from
now. And right now the person's making that decision is me. It was
not an easy decision. What my overall feeling was is looking at what
we have, looking at what's at hand, that leadership wasn't here.
That's not to say that I did not or do not appreciate the talents of
the staff because I did. I tried very hard to place Valerie within
another place within the Foundation itself. Because of her
commitment, because of her talents. Her journalistic - nobody's
gonna question that, okay? With that being said, was she the person
to lead this station from here to there? I did not see that. I don't
see it. And that is my job. I will stand by that decision. It did
not come from the Board. It came from me.

UL:  Well, you anticipated my next question. It has to do with the
concerns of the National Board. Many people have been saying that
the National Board as an entity has been exhibiting traits that
concern them, that the National Board wishes to push Pacifica, and
the Foundation, and all of its satellite stations into an
ideological space that is contrary to the vision of Lew Hill. You
are new to this job, incidentally, I should mention.

BW:  Yes.

UL:  You're new.

BW:  But not to the Foundation.

UL:  But not to the Foundation because you were General Manager of
WPFW in Washington DC for I think five years or so.

BW:  Mm hm.

UL:  So you know well the entity and you're a colleague of Valerie
Van Isler's. This is especially interesting because of this
relationship that you have. But is it your sense that there is a
shift indeed in terms of the guidance emanating from the national
level that is now having a ripple effect throughout the system.

BW:  I gotta tell you that the Board of Directors of Pacifica is a
governance board. It's not an operating board. Day-to-day operations
of the Foundation is left up to the Director.

UL:  That's you.

BW:  That's right. With that being said, absolutely not. I don't see
that in the strategic plan and if you look at the operating plan
that I put out for the next five years, you won't see it there
either. The programming for each of the stations is up to the
general managers. And the general managers' management team. First
off, if we were realistic here, if all I had to do was concentrate
on programming of five stations, I wouldn't have time to do my job.
I mean, it's not realistic. The programming of the stations is up to
the general managers and their management team. Primarily it's gonna
be the general manager and the program director. It's certainly not
me. And when you consider that we have five stations and five
markets that are unique and distinct, okay, the programming at WBAI
would not necessarily work in Washington. The programming in
Washington wouldn't work in Texas. The programming in Texas wouldn't
work in LA. Because you have a different community that's looking
for something different. And that's what makes Pacifica special and
different. I keep hearing things like "NPR-ish, NPR-ish " NPR does
not own one radio station. Pacifica is the only kind - we are it. We
are the only public entity that owns five radio stations. That's
five major markets and we allow those five stations to program
themselves to their own communities. They're not flooded with a
bunch of "Pacifica" programming. They're not.

UL:  I want to turn to a theme that I struck earlier about the need
to turn inward at this time. And I have to ask you this frankly. Is
it your sense that WBAI as an entity

BW:  WBAI is not an entity. I just have to make that clear. WBAI is
a station. Go ahead.

UL:  You're talking radio lingo. I'm talking in your basic, basic
collective noun here. WBAI as an entity has missed - no, let me
re-phrase the question. How do you assess this notion of
self-governance with within WBAI? How does it look to you as an
executive director? How do we appear in your eyes? Do we appear as a
station that knows what we're doing? Do we appear as - I'm taking
into consideration how this so-called "crisis" developed. What is it
from your eyes that has happened here? What has brought us to this
point, from your point of view?

BW:  You said the "crisis." I come in here and I hear that there's a
crisis. I have made a change in management, a change in leadership.
In terms of self-governance, it is up to the general manager to
manage the station, good, bad, or indifferent, whether we're a
public radio station, whether we're a commercial radio station,
whether we're anything. There has to be management. Somebody's gotta
be running it. The "crisis." I think that it is tragic - you know,
I'm saying and I'm sitting here and I know that I'm the person that
came in and had to do these terminations - that something like this
has to happen at this time of year. This wasn't flippant. And good,
bad, or indifferent, a lot of people at WBAI have been calling for
this change in management. My mother said something to me when I was
young. I'll never forget it. She said, "Be careful what you pray
for." I took a look and I said, "Okay, this is the five-year
operational plan I have for the Foundation." And I am looking at
every manager that I have out there to see if they are the
individuals that will take it. I'm talking about things like paying
people a living wage, giving people decent benefits, being able to
have radio that people can listen to, that won't irritate their
ears, trying to make sure that people have a decent work
environment. And when they walk into the building - hello! - they're
glad to be there. And I had to look at all these things and I had to
say, okay, do I have the management in place at the stations and the
other two units which I have, which is Production and Program
Development, was it in place? And when I looked at this one it
wasn't in place. Just because we're Pacifica, it doesn't mean when
you come to work you can't enjoy being there. I have a problem with
that. So when I looked at that, I saw it was not there. It wasn't
easy. You know, I've worked with Valerie for five years,
peer-to-peer. You don't walk into a room and sit down with
peer-to-peer and say, "This is not gonna work."

UL:  I want to talk about the fact that you - by the way, it's 4:29
p.m. and almost to the half-hour. I almost you. What's your name

Hugh Hamilton:  Yes, my name is Hugh Hamilton and this is a
fascinating discussion, particularly for me because coming into this
process at this juncture, and listening to what's happening has
given me a perspective which I didn't have before, so please be my

BW:  I guess we are!

UL:  I am your guest. I'm Utrice Leid and you're listening to "Talk
Back" on WBAI, 99.5 FM in New York. It appears I have to eat some of
my words. This was supposed to be my farewell program, but I have
managed to persuade Bessie Wash, who is the Executive Director of
the Pacifica Foundation and who has responsibility for the running
of all five of the Pacifica stations to be available for some time
yet, to make herself available to the listeners, which she has
agreed to do, which she is eager to do, and is also available to
staff. I really am stunned to know that you have been in New York
for some three to four weeks. We, on staff, have heard otherwise. We
did not know that you were available. We were not told that you were
ready to meet. We, in fact, had no idea that you were accessible at
all. That's unfortunate because I think we missed a very important
opportunity to begin a dialogue. I am the new Interim [General
Manager] and I understand that and I understand that I am at at-will
employee. I could be fired by five o'clock.

BW:  So could I.

UL:  You could be fired by five o'clock too. But I must say that I
had made it plain to you when we talked about my assuming this role
that I had a list of  "demands" - I would say concerns, to be
polite. They were demands, let's face it. They were demands. And the
demands were primarily about those things which you have expressed.
We have gone here four years without a negotiated contract. My first
demand was a negotiated contract. You've agreed to that.

BW:  I insist on that.

UL:  You insist on it. We talked about a resolution of outstanding
labor grievances and there are many that unfortunately another
Christmas gift that I have inherited. That was demand number two we
would work to resolve all outstanding labor grievances. You've
agreed to that.

BW:  Mm hm.

UL:  We've talked about the need to adequately staff this station.
We have not adequately staffed this station. You have agreed to that.

BW:  Mm hm.

UL:  I've talked about the need to really pay people what they're
supposed to be paid so they don't have to take second, third, and
fourth jobs simply to put a roof over their heads.

BW:  Mm hm. We've agreed to try to negotiate a living wage. With
that being said - only reason I want to make sure because one of the
things I think there is a problem here is there's a problem of trust
and so I want to make it very clear that I don't make promises that
I can't keep. We need to pay our staff a living wage. We need to
look at what a living wage is and we need to look at what the budget
can carry. And it may be that we have to roll into a living wage,
but it is certainly far and above what people are being paid right
now. This is ridiculous.

UL:  Well, you've agreed to that.

BW:  Yes.

UL:  And we need also to realistically adjust a budget, to come up
with a realistic budget that reflects equipment needs, training
needs, and reinvestment in upgrade of the physical plant.

BW:  Absolutely.

UL:  And you've agreed to that.

BW:  That's right.

UL:  Those were my demands.

BW:  There you go. Your demands, please note, are all in. That's
what I'm trying to say when I talk about the leadership at the
station. Those are all things that are in the five-year operating
plan. They're all there. I'm just saying that when you talk about
demands and what's needed at WBAI, it's there. All I need to do is
have leadership in place that absolutely wants to do those kind of
things. Make sure people have a living wage. Make sure there's
equipment. Make sure that the environment's conducive to somebody
coming in here and wanting to do work. Simple things like the lights
come on when you walk in here. So those things are there. You
absolutely did demand them and I absolutely did agree to them, but
they're also absolutely things that I think is quality of work that
I would've wanted and I do want.

UL:  Well, it seems to me we have some work to do, Bessie Wash.

BW:  Yes, we do.

UL:  So, take some No-Doze because we are going to start this
process early. I want to say something and I don't mean to sound
solicitous at all. We have to turn the corner on this - I sense an
atmosphere of cannibalism within our system, some of it quite
justified, I might add because the actions of previous Executive
Directors were just utterly unacceptable in particular situations.
And I refer to the California situation. That was not you.

BW:  That's right.

UL:  I think you would appreciate the fact that that was ugly. It
was avoidable, and in my view, it was just unprincipled and illegal.
That should not have happened. That situation does not obtain here
and the circumstances are quite different. But under your watch and
under my watch, I would like us to agree to that we have an
identifiable common aim and objective. You will work your butt off
to do what you've got to do. I certainly will work my butt off to do
what it is I have to do. And this is what it is necessary and it is,
in fact, a very encouraging sign. It's a long over-due and
encouraging sign from the leadership level, at which you exist and
from this leadership level at which I now exist. We as workers here
and I'm talking to you as a former shop steward. We have had just
incessant wars over basic things. And we have had this nature of
eating ourselves because it built up such frustration. Our anger was
directed at an intransigent management here, which in turn blamed
something else or someone else for the fact that movement couldn't
be made in critical areas. You're saying to me and you've said to me
that - which was the reason that I accepted the position - that
you've made these commitments, and I've made myself committed to
these things because they are the top priorities, in my view, apart
from the fact that we have to work internally to reconstitute the
tenor of the atmosphere here in which we live and work, much of it
contributed by the tensions of having to work under adverse
conditions. I hope I'm sending a message to all concerned that with
my stepping up to the plate, my tour of duty at the helm, that that
has changed. And we will get to a new way of operating, hoping that
we will get to the maturity, the professionalism, and trust among
ourselves to do what we have to do. But the pressure's also on you.
The pressure's on you and I know as a Brooklyn girl you're gonna

BW:  As "a little colored girl."

UL:  As "a little colored girl from Brooklyn," you're gonna deliver.
And I want to thank you for just even giving the signal of
accessibility. That's the first thing. We never had that signal
before, of accessibility of an executive director. Your willingness
to listen. Again, we may or may not agree.

BW:  That's right. And we may agree to disagree.

UL:  Sure, but

BW:  And we'll do that.

UL:  We want to listen to what it is our concerns are because, in
effect, we have a job to do. So that is encouraging. The fact that
you posed absolutely no resistance at all to the things I've asked
for as the top items on my list to even consider doing this at all,
that was extremely encouraging. The fact that you are here, that you
are making yourself available, that is encouraging. And I am hoping
that we can continue in this mode, and in the ensuing days you will
be available again to the listeners. I'm sure that other programs
may want to invite you on. I don't know what your schedule is like,
but I'm hoping that you will be available. But I will also say in
fairness. I have not liked the tone of meetings that I myself have
attended, so I've kept my attendance at meetings slightly down
because I like rational environments. I like reasoned environments.
And for whatever reason, they've been hard to come by lately.

BW:  I think that's unfortunate because I've felt coming here today
that people are in real pain. I hope, genuinely hope that people
will see that I am not here to interfere with the operation. I am
not here to interfere with the programming.

UL:  Well, I ain't gonna allow it. I'm speaking to you as the
Interim General Manager. It will not be allowed under my watch.

BW:  I do know that there's a sense of real pain in the staff. I
recognize that. Change is hard. I think it's hard any place, and far
be it that change is not hard here at WBAI. All I can say is that I
can't apologize for what has happened in the past in concerns of the
relationship between the leadership and the Foundation itself and
the station. I can only say that, again, this leadership is not here
to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the station, but to
ensure that the leadership that is in place will be able to take the
station where it needs to go, to ensure that there's an adequate
place. When people come into a place of work, they need to enjoy
being there. If you don't enjoy being here, especially for the
salaries we pay you at Pacifica - hello! - you have to at least
minimum enjoy coming into the office and that's my only goal: to
ensure that the staff has leadership that will make sure that when
they come into work they can enjoy being here, they have what they
need to do their jobs, and we're listenable. Meaning that we've got
what we need to do great radio.

UL:  Well, are you open to some questions? We've got a little bit of
time. I know you'll be here just to do questions another day, but
how is your schedule?

BW:  As long as you need me, I'm here.

UL:  All right. 212/209-2900 is the number to call. I'm Utrice Leid.
You're listening to WBAI 99.5 FM. The program is "Talk Back." And my
guest, my host, who says

Hugh Hamilton:  Be my guest.

UL:  How do you like this?

BW:  She's your guest.

UL:  I'm here to introduce you as the person who will fill in for me
as the host of - and here I am being ill-mannered.

HH:  Well, I came here this afternoon entirely prepared to let you
have your way with me.

Utrice and Bessie together:  Ohhh

UL:  Really? I hope you're not joking just programmatically. You've
heard it here: I can have my way with him.

HH:  And I'm enjoying this thoroughly. Yes, indeed.

BW:  So what are you enjoying about this?

HH:  Well, for one thing, it's really a great thing to listen to two
smart women talk to each other about issues that are not necessarily
limited to gender-specific considerations. I really like that. As a
Black person, I find that there are many times, many situations when
you see two Black people talking or two women talking, or two
Caribbean people talking, there's an expectation that what they're
discussing is not something transcendental, but something that is
limited to that unique aspect of their identity. And here you are
talking about very broad philosophical issues pertaining to
broadcasting, and radio, and media, and the role of radio in
society. And also making very important decisions that will effect
the lives of people like me, little people like me.

UL:  Oh, sure.

HH:  This is great. And also the level of discussion is very
encouraging. I have never been a part of this process and so much of
this is new to me. And quite frankly I'm encouraged by the tone and
direction in which I hear the conversation tending, so I'd like to
give listeners an opportunity to participate in that as well. So,
there you go Utrice.

UL:  Thank you. 212/209-2900. Hello, you're on the air with Bessie Wash.

Caller 1: Yes, good evening, Utrice.

UL: Hello.

C1:  And your guest. Utrice, first of all, I must congratulate you
on your movements within the station. Now, there were some
insinuations made, some negative insinuations about a "coup" and all
of that stuff. Now, I just want to say this: you've had a track
record of being an honorable and a decent woman in this community
for a very, very long time. I respect your judgment. You have my
whole trust and commitment. One of the things I believe is we really
don't trust in our leadership. Because you are one person within our
community that I have no doubt in as far as decency, truth, and
justice. Now, there has been a thing about Amy [Goodman, host of
"Democracy Now!"] There's only one thing I'd like to ask you. Not to
have Amy censored and to never have the free will to do what she
wants to do because "Democracy Now!" has been an excellent program.
That's all I'm asking of you. And now you have my full support. And
Brother, you?

HH:  Yes, Sir.

C1:  You remember the first time you tried to sit in for Utrice?

HH:  I remember the last time, yes.

C1:  I don't know why you'd want to do that because no one can fill
her shoes, Brother.

HH:  Well, I recognize that. I mentioned that the last time and I
mention it again. And as a matter of fact I don't propose to do that
at all.

C1:  But you have my support. You have a tough road ahead of you.

HH:  Well, I thank you very much and I hope that you keep listening.

C1:  Bessie Wash, thank you for coming.

BW:  Bye-bye, now.

UL:  Hello, you're on the air. This is "Talk Back" on WBAI.

Caller 2:  Hi, Utrice. I'll turn my radio down.

UL:  Thank you.

C2:  My name is Malcolm from Long Island.

UL:  Thank you, Malcolm.

M:  Quick question. What happened? I tuned in about 15 minutes late
and it sounds like you're leaving the show. Hugh is coming on. Are
these good things, bad things, should we be concerned?

BW:  Well, I think that it's a good thing for WBAI.

M:  I'm like, man, look what happened in 15 minutes!

end transcript