WBAI

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 27 11:30:29 MST 2000


>Would it be possible for some of the comrades here to
>give a brief overview and history of WBAI? For those
>of us who don't live in NYC and have no idea what WBAI
>and Pacifica are, it's a bit difficult to figure out
>what's going on.
>
>Thanks,
>
>Adam

(I posted this to the list in July 1999)


Crisis at Pacifica

Last night when I turned on the radio around 3am, I was surprised to hear
Larry Bensky being interviewed on WABC, the am talk radio station. He was
reporting on the arrests of Dennis Bernstein, a KPFA programmer and his
supporters out in San Francisco this week and continuing protests. This is
a tidewater event for the American left.

KPFA is one of five FM radio stations that are part of the Pacifica radio
network, founded by pacifist and anarchists shortly after WWII. A bitter
struggle has been unfolding over the past 5 years over the future of the
network. The national board wants to make the network more mainstream and
liberal, while the local stations want to retain control over programming
which includes many radical voices, including Dennis Bernstein's.

The divisions between the board and the local stations map roughly to the
divisions that were manifested over the war in Yugoslavia. The board is
made up of Clinton supporters, including the chair who is a bureaucrat
appointed by Clinton to her current job. The local programmers are the
kinds of people who have challenged the Clinton agenda for the entire time
he has been in office, including his war in the Balkans.

Before trying to clarify the underlying political issues, I want to relate
some personal encounters about the network that for much of my adult life
has been as centrally defining as the Internet is today. When I was a
high-school student in upstate NY during the late 50s and early 60s, I was
a classical music and hi-fi nut. In order to take advantage of NYC's FM
classical stations, I set up a powerful antenna in our backyard. WBAI,
NYC's Pacifica station, introduced me to some of the most incredible
programming I ever could have imagined. Gunther Schuller was the host of a
60 part series on the evolution of classical music in the 20th century. I
can remember almost like it was yesterday Schuller explaining how the
shifting harmonies of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun influenced Schoenberg.
He would play a moment or two of the Debussy side by side with some of
Schoenberg's 12 tone music and explain their kinship. Another memorable
show was hosted by composer Henry Cowell, who surveyed folk music of the
world from the Roma people to China. Cowell was a left-wing composer who
was part of the broad popular front of the 1930s and 40s. His interest in
folk music, which was reflected in his own great compositions, reflected
the same kind of internationalism found in Paul Robeson.

After moving to NYC in 1965, shortly after graduating college, I began
listening to WBAI in order to get uncensored news about the war in Vietnam.
Their reporter Chris Koch was based in Vietnam and exposed administration
lies on a daily basis. It helped me to turn definitively against the war,
which led to my radicalization. WBAI was also a home to the
counter-culture, as late night host Bob Fass frequently played host to the
Bob Dylan, Abby Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg. The station also fostered the
development of free form radio in which a host literally improvised for
several hours about personal neuroses and enthusiasms. Free form radio,
first developed at WBAI, became a powerful influence on the next generation
of commercial broadcasters like shock jock Howard Stern, who listened to
the station while growing up in Long Island. Free form radio has also been
a big influence on the way I use this medium, the Internet itself.

After joining the Trotskyist movement, I lost track of WBAI. In the various
cities I traveled to on behalf of the SWP, there was only one that had a
Pacifica station. That was in Houston, Texas where Pacifica radio and the
SWP were two of the main targets of the Ku Klux Klan. Our bookstore had
been destroyed by a pipe bomb a few months before I had arrived in late
1973. Meanwhile the Pacifica station's transmitter had been dynamited twice.

After leaving the Trotskyist movement, I returned to NYC and made WBAI an
important part of my life. During the decade of the 1980s, I was deeply
involved with Central America solidarity and the station was literally part
of the movement. I became friends with fellow CISPES activist Will K.
Wilkins, who hosted a morning show. Will was also a big fan of world music,
which WBAI scheduled frequently. I also listened to the last generation of
free form radio personalities, like Larry Josephson. Josephson was a
neo-conservative crank who hated the leftists who dominated WBAI's
programming. Like many 60s liberals, Josephson had shifted to the right.
The only thing that made him interesting was his confessional approach,
which was a combination of Woody Allen's self-deprecating shtick and bitter
tirades against the women who had dumped him. Anybody who listened to him
for a few moments would understand why he was so lonely. He was an amusing
but creepy person.

In the 1990s, program director Samori Marksman, a black Caribbean Marxist
and no-nonsense sort of guy, purged the station of such personalities. The
station became even more left-wing and more earnest. As somebody with a
taste for the neurotically offbeat, I found myself listening to the station
less and less, especially since the Internet has become my main form of
entertainment. Why listen to WBAI when I can read elegant and ironic prose
from Argentinian Marxists in English or Spanish?

However, the recent battles at Pacifica have really captured my attention.
Basically the national board wants to transform the network into another
version of NPR, the liberal public radio network that has been criticized
by media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) for its
pro-State Department coverage of the Gulf War and the recent war in
Yugoslavia. A warning sign of what might be in the offing is Mark Cooper's
proposal that the station function more "like the Guardian". Cooper, a
Nation Magazine journalist and host of a Pacifica show himself, views the
old guard at the station as out of touch. If being in touch means pushing
Nato's war like the Guardian, then one might as well call in the Ku Klux
Klan to blow up all the transmitters right now.

It is difficult to understand exactly where the current board is going,
since they operate in secrecy. As chairperson, Mary Frances Berry has
proven to be as unpopular as Pat Scott whom she replaced. Both of these
women are African-Americans with a lengthy history of involvement with the
Democratic Party. Another key board person was Jack O'Dell, who was a
veteran CP'er and trusted aide to both Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse
Jackson. Another African-American, William Lucy, National
Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME, sits on the board and has deep ties to this
milieu. He was a key figure in the civil rights and peace movement. June
Makela is another board member who I am familiar with. She was head of the
Funding Exchange in the 1980s, a liberal donor of causes like Tecnica, the
group I worked with. I wrote her an email complaining about the direction
the board was going and received a canned response that the board's critics
were racist and sexist.

Basically the board represents the institutions that have ties to the
left-wing of the ruling class. The foundations that they are connected to
have been adapting themselves to the Clinton agenda for a number of years
now. While giving lip-service to the idea of changing society, they mostly
have acted as loyalists who urge a less severe attack on the poor and the
working class. The black middle-class and the labor movement have been in
the forefront of defending Clinton and it is no surprise that people like
Berry, Lucy and O'Dell would find the cranky, hard-left edge of much of
Pacifica's programming to be "out of touch" as Mark Cooper puts it.

Station founder Lew Hill described his philosophy in a 1951 statement which
can be found at the extremely useful "Free Pacifica" website, which is part
of "Radio For All" (http://www.radio4all.org). Defending the need for
listener sponsorship, Hill explained its political importance:

"The fact that the subscription is voluntary merely enlarges the same
point. We make a considerable step forward, it seems to me, when we use a
system of broadcasting which promises that the mediocre will not survive.
But the significance of what does survive increases in ways of the
profoundest import to our times when it proceeds from voluntary action.
Anyone can listen to a listener sponsored station. Anyone can understand
the rationale of listener sponsorship---that unless the station is
supported by those who value it, no one can listen to it, including those
who value it.. This is common sense. But beyond this, actually sending in
the subscription, which one does not have to send in unless one
particularly wants to, implies the kind of cultural engagement, as some
French philosophers call it, that is surely indispensable for the sake of
the whole culture."

When all of America seems consumed by greed and self-improvement, the
mission of Pacifica seems more worthwhile than ever. When you think about
Hill's rationale, it is closely related to the idea of socialism which is
based on the free association of producers. In essence, the attack on the
Pacifica stations is an attack on socialism.

Louis Proyect


Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/





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