Scott Harris: (SH) We’re speaking with Bernard White, program director of WBAI radio in New York City, one of five radio stations owned by the Pacifica national network. Bernard White, thank you very much for joining us.
Bernard White: (BW) Thank you, Scott.
SH: I wonder if you would start out by summarizing for our listeners, some of whom are acquainted with recent events at WBAI and the Pacifica Radio network, and some who are not, what’s happened over the past week at WBAI. And just, quickly...many people will know that yourself, a veteran producer with 20 years at WBAI, and Valerie van Isler, the long-time, ten-year I believe, general manager of WBAI were summarily fired by the network. But, why don'’ you take it from there? Tell us how it happened, and why you think it happened.
BW: Well, a couple of weeks ago, Valerie van Isler thought that she was getting a visit from the national office, that they were going to conduct an evaluation. However, instead of getting an evaluation, she was told at that time that she had two options: and that was to either take a position, in Washington, DC, working as the Executive Producer of National Programs, or to take a...that she would be terminated, and they would give her two severance options.
She decided that she would take neither and that she was going to remain at the station. So they came back the next day, this happened on a Tuesday. On Wednesday they came back, and they told her, they gave her those options in writing and told her that her last day would be December the 31st.
So, we had been discussing that and trying to get Pacifica to understand that that was not in accordance with the policies, with the established policies which said that there needed to be consultation between the staff, the Local Advisory Board, as well as the unpaid the workers at the station. We were trying to develop some understanding with the national office around that, when on Friday, last Friday evening, the executive director of Pacifica, of the Pacifica Foundation came in with locksmiths and began to change all of the locks.
She was accompanied by Utrice Leid, who’s a producer at WBAI who does a program called “Talkback” who informed the people there that she was the new interim station manager. And, she didn’t tell people at that time what else she had done.
But at 7 o’clock on Saturday morning, I got someone ringing at my doorbell.
They were ringing it incessantly. I went to the window to find out who
that was ringing the bell like that, and I was told that there was a package
for me downstairs.
So, when I went downstairs I, there was a young man there who said, “you have to sign this package’. So, I said, “sign what? What is it?”
I looked in the envelope and there were two checks, as well as a letter stating that I had been terminated, and that if I was...if I came on the premises that I, that it would be considered trespass, which means that they would have me arrested.
I was told that the two checks was my severance pay, and that my belongings would be shipped to me at a future date. And also, about an hour later, Sharan Harper also received a letter in the same manner.
Now, I didn’t accept this. I give it back to him and told him that I
wasn’t signing anything.
SH: Sharan Harper is a producer on the morning show called Wake Up Call, on BAI?
BW: Yes. And, we both gave back the envelopes with all of its contents. And, when I left to come outside later on in the day, I realized that he had put the checks through the mailbox. So, the checks were still there but the letter stating that I was terminated and the conditions was not.
So, since that time, the staff as well as ...there was a spontaneous demonstration in front of the radio station on Saturday in which about 200-250 people showed up to protest these actions, and to talk about the treachery of some of the staff members who were complicit with the national office to pull this act. We had been talking about this, we’ve has several staff meetings since Valerie van Isler received her letter.
However, at these meetings, the overwhelming majority of the staff, with the exception of two or three staff members, all, each time it was Utrice, who was among those who did not vote...but the staff did not want Pacifica to remove the station manager because of the precedent it set.
SH: Well, that’s an amazing turn of events, not totally unexpected given the history of Pacifica and their dealings with KPFA out in Berkeley, California last year. But, Bernard White, I wonder if you relate the events of what happened in Berkeley to the events that happened at WBAI this past week? How are they connected in any way?
BW: Well, we think that its similar. There are a lot of similarities. One of the things is that there was a memo that preceded the Berkeley incident, written by one of the Board members...an errant memo, e-mail, that went to an organization that made that e-mail public. And it talked about the sale of both KPFA and WBAI. And there is some sentiment in the Board, on the National Board, that is interested in the sale of radio stations, particularly KPFA and WBAI.
SH: And that would be a particularly valuable property to sell because it is right in the commercial band in some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.
BW: Right. It could go up as much as $200 million.
SH: Amazing. Bernard, when it comes to transformation of the Network, there are many people charging that there’s a plan afoot to dilute the political content of WBAI’s five Pacifica stations [sic]. What are some of your thoughts on what’s driving the personnel changes here. Is that really inextricably linked to changing the content in programming on these stations?
BW: Well, I think it is, and I think that there’s enough evidence if one...I don’t know whether your station picks up PNN News...
SH: Yes, we do.
BW: I’m sure that listeners who listen to PNN news have recognized that in the last year and a half or so, that there’s been a dramatic change in the content as well as personnel. That, we feel, is what is about to happen to the entire network, that there’s some people who believe that our political content is an embarrassment to them, that they don’t want to hear about police brutality, they don’t want to hear about lesbian and gay issues, they don’t want to hear about a lot of the cutting-edge kind of things that we do. They’d much rather go to another kind of format.
As a matter of fact, I was sent to a week-long conference in San Diego,
the National Public Radio Program Directors conference where 99% of the
people there were people who use a lot of the NPR programs on their radio.
And I think I was sent there so I could be sensitized, as Program Director,
to that kind of material.
SH: One of the things that I’d read about was the Pacifica network’s discomfort with recent WBAI broadcasts that included a speech by Fidel Castro when he came to New York recently, as well as coverage of the demonstration of Palestinian rights. Is that another indication...maybe you could speak to the accuracy of those reports, if you’ve seen the writing that I’m talking about.
BW: Yes, I think so. Particularly around the...there was a march a couple of Saturdays ago over Palestinians’ right of return march in Washington, DC, which we covered. And, when I was in San Diego, the National Program Director came over to me and began to question me about our coverage of the program.
He started asking me questions about, did I get any money? Dis we get any money for the program? Was it a national program? Did it go up on the satellite? A whole series of questions and I kept asking him, “What are you asking me this for? What is this? You know we do programs all the time, why are you asking me about this program?”
Well, he said he had gotten a letter from CPB, and they were interested into whether or not we...well, he didn’t say exactly what their interest was...
SH: Now, CPB is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which funds Pacifica Network, including your station?
BW: Correct. I think about ten percent of our budget comes from CPB. And, you know, so this kind of questioning...I was also called by the national executive director who told me that I had to write a written report about this program. I didn’t write the report because I didn’t think that that was proper either. Once I start responding to Pacifica National making reports like that then I’m in effect working for them. So, I told her she had to talk to the station manager about it. Well, the station manager wrote a report on it, but why should we have had to write a report about that program?
There was also some controversy over the Fidel Castro program. They didn’t want to carry it, and then at the minute not only did they want to carry it, but since they realized that we were carrying it, they wanted to have one of their people, Don Rush, they wanted him to be one of the co-anchors of the program.
It wasn’t our program, and he got in there so late he couldn’t get security clearance so he was not let in. I think they blamed that on us.
SH: In terms of the internal discussions at Pacifica Network to expand the audience, that has often been used as one of the cudgels to justify what’s happened both at KPFA in Berkeley and now at WBAI. That somehow this is a struggle to win back listeners who have left the Network. How do you address that? Certainly expanding listenership is a good thing...most people would agree that expansion of listenership is something that should at least be discussed. But how does this figure in with, what the management changes, some of the content, programming changes that occurred?
BW: That’s very puzzling because we started out this year with a $200 thousand deficit and an unbalanced budget. We can in at the end of the fiscal year with a balanced budget. We had made up the deficit. Our subscriber base is increasing and we have a $70 thousand surplus. Valerie van Isler, the station manager had received from the Foundation in March, a letter commending her for the good work that the staff had been doing, offering her a $10 thousand increase in pay. So, it’s very puzzling that at this time there would be this crisis that had to be resolved by the removal of both the station manager, the program director and one of our producers.
SH: Well, if you had to give us the quick version of why you think this
has all happened...why?
BW: Well. I think that one of the things that Pacifica National has been looking for is a way to get into WBAI. Because of our strength, they have pretty much left us alone. But there is a cabal of individuals, disgruntled individuals who work at the station who were in contact with Pacifica and I think that they began to recognize that here was a way that they could come in and begin to put people in place who were more in tune with their philosophy and their idea of what should happen.
And, I think they found that in the person of Utrice Leid, who has come in over the objections of the staff. She says that this is a crisis... and the staff wanted this crisis resolved and that the staff was happy about having something done to remove the station manager. However, if this was something that was embraced by the staff, why was it done in the dead of night? Why couldn’t it have been done during the day? Certainly the staff would have welcomed it happening. But that’s not the case.
These individuals, who put their own selfish desire for revenge over the safety of the radio station, and invited Pacifica in. And now that that precedent has been set, there’s a good chance that Pacifica can come in at any time and remove them and even put somebody else who more conforms to their idea of what the radio station should be.
SH: We’re speaking with Bernard White, Program Director at WBAI radio in New York city, one of five Pacifica stations. Bernard White, along with the general manager Valerie van Isler, were terminated last week from their positions by the national Pacifica Board, and Bernard White is here to tell us about what’s going on at the station presently. Bernard, when it domes to listener and staff reaction, I know there’s been several community meetings, in fact a very large community meeting that just occurred this past week. What is the course of action now?
BW: Well, I think that we...speaking of the very large meeting that we had last night, the meeting before that we had about 4-500 people out...as the word is getting out the community is getting more and more incensed. Last night we had between 1500 to 2000 people out at a meeting on a cold, winter night in the middle of the holiday season, and I think that as this gets bigger, more and more people are gonna come out. If we were in another season, a warmer season, we’d probably see a much larger response.
But the staff, many of the people who spoke last night and who were in attendance, many of the staff were in attendance at the meeting, and they don’t appreciate being sold out. A lot of the paid staff, of course...people at BAI, you know you don’t make much money, so a lot of these folks are living on the edge anyway, so for them to speak out at this time, many of them feel that they might lose their jobs. And I can understand that and I wouldn’t want anybody to put their family in jeopardy at this time. But the overwhelming majority of the staff, particularly the unpaid staff, are outraged over this. And, as well as the community. There’s a growing buzz in the community that views these individuals as being traitors, as selling out the radio station, selling out the integrity of the station and I’m sure that there is going to be an increasing response. About every five minutes of the day, I get a phone call from somebody expressing outrage, offering what help they can give and I’m sure that this is just gonna get larger and larger.
And what we’re hoping people will do is to make a...two demands. One is that this situation be reversed, that Utrice Leid be taken out of that position, is one. And the other is that we, that Pacifica accept a policy, or refer back to a policy that was...that is in existence, that no station manager can be removed unless its with the consulting of the staff, the local advisory board, as well as the unpaid workers at the station.
So, many phone calls have gone out, people have called Bessie Wash and the National Board just to let them know that they don’t appreciate what...no justification. We didn’t know that there was a crisis until the locks were changed, until Valerie van Isler was told that she was going to be terminated. It’s almost like in Grenada, where the medical students didn’t know that they were in trouble til the US Marines landed and told them so.
SH: Bernard, what’s your recourse though, in terms of, you know, making a stand here...the staff and the listeners of the station, what can be done? I know there are probably some things you’re thinking about and strategizing about you don’t want to put on the air. But in terms of the ownership of the station, Pacifica National Corporation owns the assets of the station, they own the broadcast licenses. What in the end can you do to turn this around?
BW: Well, they do own the broadcast license and there has been a change in the philosophy and ideology of the National Board. One of the things...we have to work on many levels, cause the staffs of the five radio stations that Pacifica has, we have not been paying attention to the National Board. And as a result the National Board has moved to the point where they’re self-appointing. It used to be a time when the local boards, the advisory boards would send two members up to the National Board. And this way, those two members would always report back to the Local Advisory Board and to the staff at the radio station.
So there was always this free flow of communication as well as a vested interest in protecting the radio stations from which these individuals came. And now that is not the case. The Board is filled with individuals who have no relationship to the local radio stations. So that has to be turned around. We have to work on turning that around.
There are several lawsuits that listener groups...that the listeners have instituted against Pacifica for not sharing information. So we have to begin to now focus on the National Board and make demands, and make demands for democracy, make demands for input into the decision making.
Bessie Wash, who’s the National Executive director, just feels that she doesn’t have to consult with anyone. That all she has to do is give out edicts and that everyone is supposed to follow them. So, we have to turn that around, cause there’s gotta be a sharing, there’s gotta be some democracy, there’s gotta be some input from folks from the bottom up.
SH: I can tell from the point of view of WPKN, a long-time Pacifica affiliate, we’ve had some long discussions about our role here. And we’re going to be think about what we could be actively doing to support those of you who find yourself on the outs with the Pacifica Board who are really on the opposite end of the Lew Hill philosophy, that seems to be being increasingly displaced at Pacifica.
Now I find it interesting, as you’ve mentioned before, in some of your discussions, that this is happening at Pacifica at a time when the growth of activism and the growth of progressive and leftist movements is sort of finding its stride again. And, a network like Pacifica that prides itself on giving information, providing information to activists around the nation, critically more needed than ever at this point in time. What are some of your thoughts on that?
BW: Well, I don’ t think that it’s just coincidence. I think that there has long been developing an attempt to try and still these voices to not give folks an outlet to express some of the ideas that we have, some of the ideas that Lew Hill spoke about, to allow artists and thinkers to get together to talk about alternatives...that there is a definite move afoot to still those voices. The whole issue of police brutality, of the death penalty, of globalization...there’ve been a lot of information and networking that has come about as a result of the cooperation of independent networks and outlets. And I think that there’s a move to stop that.
We had someone on the...who was the Chair of our Board, Mary Frances Berry, who worked for President Clinton. I think we have to begin to look at those kind of contradictions and what they portend for the suture of the radio stations. She certainly is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and we were critical of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. And there were many people who didn’t like the fact that we were critical of the Democratic Party.
SH: Well, Bernard, as we conclude here, maybe you can again provide our listeners with some direction. We have many listeners to this station who also are avid listeners and supporters of WBAI. What do you advise they do at this time? And perhaps you could provide some contact phone numbers or web addresses?
BW: One of the things you can do is to take this number down – 800 – 825 – 0055 as well as you can look up on the web savepacifica.net for information. You can find addreses or Board memebers to write, e-mail fax and let then know that a lot of people are watching this. Because I don’t think they thought that they would get the kind of response they are about to get. Last night was a good indication, given the sentiment that was expressed by a lot of the people from the community that came out. They were outraged that something like this could happen to WBAI particularly when we...you know, one of the things that we tried to do, one of things I’ve tried to do as Program Director was develop trust. After the invasion of KPFA in 1999, many people lost faith in Pacifica, and stopped giving to the radio station. And I had to, along with some of the staff, develop a way of re-inventing that trust, regenerating that trust between WBAI and its listeners. We were successfully doing that. This totally destroys that trust again, and there’s supposed to be a fundraiser in January. And we’re not going to able to, the station isn’t going to able to raise any money because that trust is gone. I don’t know...I think the only way that Pacifica can restore that trust is to reverse its decisions.
I think Utrice Leid has to go. She has to leave. It’s a very difficult
thing because she’s a very popular person, very articulate and has done
good things in the past, but this a very bad thing that she’s done. And,
we have to let Pacifica know that this situation cannot stand. They must
reverse it and allow the radio station to select its own person, to select
its own leadership. So, I’m hoping that folks who do contact some of these
National Board members, as well as the National Executive Office, will
let them know that BAI has the capability, intelligence and the desire
to do its own internal cleansing.
SH: Bernard, thank you very much...appreciate you spending time with us and we’ll be in touch certainly.
BW: Well, thank you very much.