This interview of Pacifica Board member Leslie Cagan occurred took place on Community Radio Station WPKN located in Bridgeport, CT. The program was Counterspin and the interview conducted by the news and public affairs director Scott Harris The interview begins after some initial introductory comments.

We are right now happy to have Leslie Cagan, a long time peace and justice activist, who's joined us before on other issues. She now serves on the board of the Pacifica foundation in Washington DC, and Leslie is here to shed some light on recent events at WBAI and Pacifica radio. Thanks for joining us Leslie.
LESLIE CAGAN Thanks for having me on the air. I think its very important that people who are in the listening radius of WBAI really know what's happening as well as people all around the country. This is a very important struggle that very much at its core has to do with democracy inside Pacifica radio, democracy inside our member stations and therefore the ability of our producers and our communities to really engage in the struggle for democracy in the country at large. So I think that it is fitting that we follow your segment about the demonstrations in Washington, and I certainly hope that people are going to Washington to protest the (I think of it as the coronation and not the) inauguration of George W Bush.
SCOTT HARRIS (Notes a problem with background noise in the connection)

I'm sorry , you just actually got me at the end of a community meeting here where we're trying to figure out how to build support for the right of this station not only to exist but to exist on the principle of community control -- that is the community of listeners, producers, and the people on the local advisory board.

So this meeting is just breaking up and people are trying to be quiet. You've got the action right here on your radio.

Radio verité ... that's fine.

Leslie, maybe we can start with a description of what occurred on December 22nd. Again its been sort of labelled the "Christmas coup" where the general manager, Valerie Van Isler, was on notice that she might loose her job if she didn't take another position in Washington D C offered to her by the Pacifica board. But on the evening of the 22nd of December, I guess around midnight, the locks were changed and notice was sent out to Bernard White , program director, and Sharan Harper.

Maybe you could just describe those events and the import of them.

Right, you've got most of it right. The end of November -- I think it was November 28th -- Valerie Van Isler, who had been the station manager for ten years -- was basically given notice by Bessie Wash, who is the executive director of the Pacifica foundation. Bessie Wash essentially told Valerie that if she did not take a job in Washington, a job, by the way, that does not yet exist (that according to Bessie was going to be created for Valerie), if she did not decide within two days to leave her life here in New York, leave her job -- not only had she been the station manager in New York for ten years, she'd work at the station for ten years earlier than that. So for twenty years she's been working at WBAI. and in two days she was told she had to make a decision about leaving all that and going to Washington, and if she didn't take this non- existent job she would be terminated.

And Valery very quickly said, "No, I don't want to move to Washington, I'm very happy here in New York, the station is doing well. Listenership is up. Income is up. Finally, after many years, the debt has been erased and there's a surplus." She didn't want to leave.

So she was given notice that her last day was be December 31st. On December 22nd, about a week and a half before that dead-line, as you said it was about 11:30 at night, Bessie Wash, came to the station with a locksmith and with two or three other people, including Utrice Leid, who was a programmer at the station and who hosted an afternoon program at WBAI. Basically they changed not only the front door locks to access into the station, but also a number of the internal locks to people's private offices and about one or one thirty that evening went on the air and announced that Utrice Leid had been installed as the interim general manager at WBAI and Valery was now out.

At seven o'clock the next morning, that's the morning of Saturday December 23rd (this is two days before Christmas, in the middle of Channukah and Kwaanza holiday season) at seven o'clock in the morning on the 23rd , Bernard White, who's been the program director at BAI, and again a long term employee at the station, had a knock on his door and was shown a letter signed by Bessie Wash (again the executive director of Pacifica) that he was being fired effective immediately. On top of that, that he could not go back to the station and if he attempted to go back to the station he ran the risk of being arrested.

And about half an hour or forty five minutes, Sharan Harper, who is the producer of the morning show, "Wake-up Call", had the exact same thing. Somebody knocked on her door, showed her a letter , etcetera.

Sharan happens to be one of the shop stewards at BAI and so on Tuesday, the next business day after that, December 26th, a grievance was immediately filed for in terms of her firing.

Since then, three or four people have been banned from the station, there's been a kind of subtle change in what you hear on the air waves. Certainly, the morning show has a very different character than it use to ... And what we're nervous about is that the general kind of intimidation that these actions had, the kind of intimidating affect that these had, are going to be carried over into intimidating people overtly or covertly into changing the character of the programming.

And there's a great deal at risk here, whether or not WBAI, and in fact the Pacifica network - - the five stations around the country that make up the Pacifica network -- will remain true to the historic mission, the decades long role that Pacifica has played in terms of being a place where the voices that you don't hear in other media outlets, get heard. Will it be a home refuge, if you will, for free speech in the fullest sense of that word.

And that's what's at stake here, is what the future, not only of a few people's jobs (and that's a very important fight in and of itself) but the very future of independent, non-corporate controlled media in this country, . Is there a future for that.

Leslie, maybe you can comment on the links between the crisis that you're discussing now at WBAI and what took place a year ago at Pacifica station in Berkeley, California, KPFA , where a similar crisis in terms of a management change, brought a lock-down of the station with security guards and eventually protests by activists listeners that numbered in the tens of thousands in the streets of Berkeley.

Yes, it was a very similar situation. Some of the details are different but the thrust of it, the overall thrust was the same. A year and a half ago in Berkeley, a very popular station manager, popular with producers, paid staff and unpaid staff, as well as the listeners, was summarily fired. And its interesting to note that there was a different person in the job of the executive director at that position; so that we're really talking about a pattern above and beyond any individual player, but a whole direction that the present leadership -- and I use that word with great hesitation , as leadership -- the present leadership of the board is trying to move the network in.

She was summarily fired. When people objected and protested and talked about it on the air they were told they no longer had their shows. In fact one very long standing producer and broadcasters at Berkeley, as he was discussing the matter on the air was literally pulled away from the microphone by guards.

The Pacifica foundation shut down the station and I believe it was 22 or 23 days that it was shut down in terms of live broadcasting and they played archival material and their were armed guards. There was demonstrations, marches, rallies, educational events as well as civil disobedience and eventually in fact the community in Berkeley essentially won back control of the station. An interim station manager was installed -- and he still is installed, they still don't have a permanent station manager -- and then a few months following after that the national office of Pacifica which has always been in Berkeley, literally in the middle of the night, they packed it up and moved it across the country to Washington DC.

And I think that very symbolically shows the kind of direction that, again, the present leadership of the national board wants to go in. That is, to be close to the centers of power in this country and to have programming throughout the five stations, that is toned down , that is not as cutting edge that doesn't confront the powers, be they elected or economic or social powers in this country, and indeed around the world. And that's what's at stake here.


Leslie, when you look at what's taken place over the last year and a half or so , what is at play? I mean you're a member of the board of directors of the Pacifica foundation. What information do you have about the motivation for what could only be described as either just reckless behavior on the of the management or a desire to completely overturn the culture of at least two of the Pacifica stations.

Right, well actually its hard to know I mean I just joined the national board in June so I've only been to a few national board meetings and I must say they are horrendous.

The lack of internal democracy, the lack ... how you have to fight to make a point to get recognized and to challenge the direction -- its unbelievable. I've never experienced anything quite like it and that's only one piece of the big picture.

Its been very very hard to get any concrete information and I don't think people are being; I know people are not being direct and up front. Nobody has actually said "We want to change the character of Pacifica", its all couched in terms of 'we want to reach a broader audience, we want to increase the listenership etcetera.

Well we all want to increase the listenership -- we want more people listening -- to it but the question is what is the content of it. And I think that's really at the heart of this. Will the Pacifica stations remain a place where people can challenge the common assumptions, can raise questions. Can it offer information and news that they don't get other places.

And let me just say that the kind of changes that I'm talking about and that I'm fearful they want to impose here in New York have already happened in several of the stations. The Pacifica station in Washington DC is now basically an all music station, basically all jazz. They have a few public affairs and news programs The station in Houston, Texas is now basically an all country-music station.

Now let me be perfectly clear, I have no objection to music. I love music. And that's not what the issue is.

The issue is that there are many, many other radio outlets where people can get music. What Pacifica has to offer is something different and unique and precious in broadcast history in this country, and that is a truly non-corporate dominated, independent network of radio stations where new ideas and challenging ideas can be heard.
SCOTT HARRIS Maybe you can talk about the loss of local control in a bylaws change that was made, I believe, last March, March 1999. The local, what are they called....
LESLIE CAGAN: Local Advisory Board
SCOTT HARRIS Local Advisory Boards that are elected members, listening audience maybe from each station, each of the five stations, no longer really have any input. Is that correct?

Well what happened was that for most of the life of the Pacifica network , the national board, 15 people, was made up by each; of the Local Advisory Boards of the five station sending two representatives. And then five people were elected by those ten people, or selected as at-large people.

And what happened in that March 1999 by-law change is that it took the power away from the Local Advisory Board to send their two designated people to the national board. And that was, I think, a very very important move signaling the intent by again the present leadership -- and again I want to put quotes around the word "leadership" -- to really undermine the autonomy of community based radio.

One of the things that I think is really important to understand about the Pacifica stations is that in each city they have really been a cooperative effort between producers (most of whom are not paid, work on a volunteer basis) the volunteer producers, the paid staff and community, the community that listens and relies on those station.

And this was sending a signal - this change in the by-laws - about how the national board would be put together, really was a signal that the national leadership was not interested in that foundation which the whole Pacifica network is based, and that is a commitment to community radio.

Maybe you could describe some of the members on the current board of director of the Pacifica foundation that you serve with given that there's been a lot of criticism from staff people at the various stations and some activist listeners groups that they really don't have ... they don't really believe in the mission of Lou Hill, the founder of Pacifica, that implicitly, that very strongly believed in the model of community radio that has really guided Pacifica for these about fifty years.


Right, and I should say also that Lou Hill was very clear that it wasn't just community radio but it was radio that was not controlled by corporations and corporate money. It was independent of the corporate domination that has gotten wildly out of control in this country in every arena of life and certainly in the mass media.

So it was both and also the commitment to free speech radio - that the producers had control over their own shows, that they could cover whatever material in whatever way they wanted to. So those are sort of the three underpinnings here that I think all of which are being undermined.

The national board has a very strange combination of people. On the one hand there are people like myself -- and we are definitely in a minority, this little group of six of us that are dissidents within the board of 18 altogether. But people like myself who come to this out of our own activism, our own social change activism, and understand the power of the mass media and how much we need the independent voice of the Pacifica station. and how much we rely on that to do our work, to learn information from other communities and to project the information that we need to get out there.

So on the one hand you have people like myself on it, who are very much a minority, and then at the other extreme, you have somebody Bert Lee, who is an entrepreneur, who has made many many dollars (I don't know millions, how many) basically buying and selling radio stations and other media outlets.

What is somebody like that doing on the Pacifica board?

You have somebody like John Murdock, who is a lawyer with a very large firm called Epstein, Becker and Green, one of the largest law firms in this country and maybe even in the world, who on their own website proudly announce that they will help make your workplace union free. Some of their clients , some of the work they do, the legal work, is in defense of HMO's who have suits brought against them by patients, by people who need access to medical care.

What is somebody like that doing on the board of Pacifica radio?

There's somebody, actually the vice-chair Ken Ford, who is based in Washington, who is one of the lobbyist in Washington of the National Association of Homebuilders. We don't have a representative on the board from any kind of national association of tenants. Its homebuilders, the construction industry basically.

I'm not saying that someone who works in a job like that is inherently a bad person. In fact all of these people are very nice people. We all get along very civilly at the meetings.

That's not the issue . The issue is what are they represent and what interests are they arguing for and pushing for and what are they doing there at Pacifica radio in the first place.

And I really think -- and I'm sure they would not like to hear me say this , but I said it as loudly and as clearly as i can wherever I can - - that the national board needs to be a reflection of what not only the founding principles of what Pacifica radio are but the reality of what this network is and still is in at least some of its stations.

Leslie how do you answer the, I guess the response of Pacifica management that the issues of KPFA and WBAI are really of personnel issues and really have nothing to do with some master plan to transform the Pacifica radio stations into something completely different and dilute the political content. There's a constant denial from management that that is what these personal changes are about. How do you respond?

Well one thing is that if there are legitimate personnel issues than there needs to be a resonable process to evaluate people, to give them feedback to see if they improve, and if they don't improve, to give them warnings. There are practices to evaluate people's performances in the job. You don't knock on somebody's door at seven o'clock in the morning and tell them they're fired right then and there. I mean that's , you know, tif there are resonable personnel issues than go through a reasonable progress.

I'm not arguing , for instance, that Valeri Van Isler, the station manager at WBAI, was perfect and never made a mistake in the ten years that she was there. But then, evaluate her, give her feedback, give her time to improve, and if she doesn't improve, offer her a different job. And if she doesn't want that than maybe she has to leave.

But none of that was carried out . Changing locks in the middle of the night is a hostile act. Its answered by saying, well they didn't want to disrupt work in the station. Well, if that was true than you just put out a memo that you need to change the locks and the locksmith is coming at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and nobody would be disrupted.

But to do it in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend, one of the biggest holiday weekends of the whole year, is a hostile act. I don't believe its a personnel issue. I think by calling it a personnel issue you're then allowed to say we can't discuss any of it publicly. It gives you a cover.

I do think that, as I said earlier when we were talking, that's really what is going on here is to change, to water down, to take the hard edge off the programming that we see here at BAI. I don't think that you're going to see that overnight, that programs are just going to flatly disappear, you know in the middle of the night; I think its a gradual erosion that we're already seeing happening.

You see it happening in the morning show that Bernard White for many years was the host of, and in fact even though he was program director the last three months, until they found somebody to take that slot, he had been filling in still as the host of the morning show Wake-Up Call.

And now in the last week or two you've already seen , much less interesting programming, a kind of watering down of it , and in fact I just heard this evening that a show that a producer's been on the air for many many years; early in every new year he does a montage of major events of the year before. And included in his montage this year he had a little piece (it was probably just a few minutes long) on this present crisis on WBAI. It was edited out of his show.

That's not free speech radio.

I wanted to ask you briefly, Leslie, about pending law suits. I know there are certain members of the Pacirfica foundation board that have a law suit against some of the ways in which the board has conducted business and there are other listener law suits.

Tell us about the importance of those and what ways you hope that they can make some of the changes that you've been advocating.

Well actually there are three law suits and I can't evaluate which one is most important or not, but there are three.

There is one law suit that basically represents people on the different local advisory boards; not all the members of all the advisory boards but a few people from each of the five local advisory boards.

Then there's a suit that was brought by listeners and again represents listeners from each of the five signal areas.

And then the third one as you mentioned, was brought by two of the people on the national board who brought a law suit that really has to do with the way internally decisions are made that undermine the functioning and the rights and responsibilities of all the board members.

I really -- I'm not a lawyer and I'm not a plaintiff in any of those lawsuits. And in fact its a kind of weird playing out of all this that I'm a defendant in two of the lawsuits, the listener one and the one by two of the other members of the board.

So I'm in a kind of an awkward and strange position and wish I wasn't a defendant certainly. And yet it not really clear how much I can talk about them. What I should say is that people are feeling very hopeful that the lawsuits will help straighten things out and get things back on track.

Personally, whatever success the legal tactics have I think that we can't rely on the courts to do the political organizing work that we have to do. And that's what this has to be.

We need a national campaign to get Pacifica back on track, both in terms of respecting the autonomy of each of the five stations, but also recommiting ourselves and whatever resources we have as a national entity to building free speech radio that is corporate free and really tied to the communities that they're in.


Just a last question here; Again. we're speaking with Leslie Cagan. a member of the Pacifica national board and a dissident member on that board that is opposing a lot of the changes that have occurred at the network and the five stations over the last couple of years.

Leslie, when you look at the situation internally on the Pacifica national board, are people listening to the complaints? Certainly there are unprecedented headlines in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press has all covered the conflicts at the network. Are people sitting up and taking notice that what many describe as a form of cannibalism is taking place at Pacifica?
LESLIE CAGAN: (inaudible signal) people on the national board?
SCOTT HARRIS Yes, I'm wondering if your colleagues on the board are noticing that things are really precarious.

I think they're beginning to notice it . You know, I think some of the people on the board have just had blinders on, and some of the people on the board are a part of the problem and causing some of the crisis . So I think it varies from person to person.

What is really interesting is that the last national board meeting, the full national board meeting, was in September. In October the news about the harassment that Amy Goodman and the other people who produce the Democracy Now show were under, became public, and that kind of blew up. And right from then our dissident group on the board started to urge that their be an emergency national board meeting.

The next national board meeting is not scheduled until the first weekend in March.

When Valerie Van Isler was first given her notice that she was going to have to be out of the station by December 31st, we renewed our call for an emergency national board meeting.

When this Christmas coup happened we again raised a call for an emergency national board meeting. There are things which keep on unfolding and we're getting no where in terms of a response.

What is most interesting is that just a few days ago a memo went around to the people on the executive committee of the board, -- which I'm not on but some of us did hear about -- and apparently finally at least an executive meeting is being convened tomorrow. A conference call meeting.

We don't know exactly what the agenda is. I hope that the agenda is the crisis at BAI and I hope the attitude is that the board has to begin to play a positive role in terms of negotiating this and resolving it.

Let me just say also that the decisions that Bessie Wash, the executive director of Pacifica, carried out , she carried those out in her own name. Its not clear that , it is certainly not public information, and by public I mean even me as another member on the national board, if any of the national leadership of the board or any of the board members, were involved in that; which that in and of itself, raises a set of very serious questions.

So there's a whole host of very complicated issues here, very important issues but again I think for many of, and all of us involved in this struggle, the issue is will the Pacifica network, will the five stations of Pacifica be true to the historic mission of what Pacifica has always been about.

Well Leslie I just have one last question. This is fascinating to me; and many of our listeners maybe who aren't regular listeners to the Pacifica stations are not so keyed into this, but this is a critical battle for community radio in the country right now, and people should be aware of it.

But my question is how much doing your national board meetings is there discussion and articulation of a vision for the network, you know, five years down the line. We've heard about this master plan to get more listeners which many people believe is going to water down the political content of the network's programming. But can you speak to any kind of overt plan or blueprint that's on a table somewhere that speaks to these changes?

Well you raise again another complicated question but let me try and answer it as simply and as quickly as I can.

At the last national board meeting the recently hired, the then recently hired national program director, Steven Yasko (he was hired in August) presented to the program task committee (which I'm on and which was open to all the members of the board and the public) presented a proposal for how to put together a national task force to look at programming, to evaluate what's going on at the stations , to figure out who our audience is, how do we expand audience, what kind of new program initiatives could we take, etcetera.

No problem with that idea; everybody agrees we want to continue to expand who listens to the station.

What then happens though, is he goes into a little more detail as to how he sees this coming together. And I don't have the time now to go into all of it. Let me give you one example, though, of something that really upset me and other people and that we argued and made a case against.

He was talking at one point about the need to understand the demographics of who the listeners are. And that there are certain characteristics that we have to understand. We have to understand age groups, etcetera, etcetera, gender, etcetera, etcetera ... And he said for instance we want to understand more about the income of the people who listen to our stations, for instance, how many credit cards do they have.

At that point I almost blew a gut here, thinking "Is this what its come down to, how many credit cards our listeners have? Then perhaps they're interested in reaching a different audience. Its not that I would exclude anybody from listening to our stations but what is the priority? Who are we trying to serve and what are we trying to do with this network of radio stations?

He presented, he summed up his presentation with a presenting a budget of nearly five hundred thousand dollars in order to do the work of the task force and four hundred and twenty thousand of that five hundred was to be earmarked for focus groups.

Now I don't know if everyone is aware of focus groups, but its a marketing strategy. Focus groups which are now used in election campaigns and a whole lot of other arenas, come out of marketing strategies. How do you market a product to a community to get them to buy things. This is not the orientation that we need to be introducing into commercial free and corporate free Pacifica radio stations. So yes there was discussion. (signal became inaudible here) .......

I hope we have learned that we must be vigilant in our struggle for democracy within our own institutions as well as in the culture at large. And I very much see what played out in Florida this year , what's coming down in Washington in a few weeks in the coronation of George W. Bush , I see a connection between what's going on at BAI and that kind of drift in this country.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well we certainly will have to have you on the air again to follow the progress of this crisis and hopefully a resolution. But do you have a phone number where people can call to get more information about this?
LESLIE CAGAN: Ah yes, there is a phone number, its 800 - 825-0055 and that's a hotline number that people can call and get information and get other numbers and find out more about what's going on.
SCOTT HARRIS: OK, that's (1-800) 825-0055.
SCOTT HARRIS: Leslie, thank you again and we'll be in touch.