Why WBAI Should be "Left" Alone
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Jan 8 11:17:00 MST 2001
New York Newsday, January 8, 2001
Why WBAI Should Be 'Left' Alone by Pacifica
Peter Goodman. Peter Goodman's e-mail address is peter.goodman at newsday.com
"My feeling is that a more beneficial disposition would be of the New York
signal as there is a smaller subscriber base ... far more associated value,
a ... dysfunctional staff ...and an overall better opportunity to redefine
Pacifica ..." -Pacifica Foundation board member Micheal Palmer's e-mail to
then-chairman Mary Frances Berry, July 12, 1999.
"You have asked questions in a hostile, combative, even disrespectful tone,
and have never been able to combat the facts I have given you." -President
Bill Clinton to Amy Goodman of Pacifica's "Democracy Now!" on Nov. 8, 2000.
IF YOU WANT to know about the ruckus within the tiny, leftist, five-station
Pacifica Foundation and its New York outlet, WBAI/99.5 FM, those two
statements say it all.
First, Palmer is suggesting that Pacifica sell WBAI, one of its two
flagship stations, to raise money and change the network. The foundation
was created by conscientious objectors after World War II, whereas Palmer,
now the board treasurer, is a real estate executive in Houston, where the
Pacifica outlet is essentially a country-western station.
Second, there's Clinton, 25 minutes into an extraordinary grilling by
Goodman, losing his temper at her implacable questioning. Since then,
Goodman has complained that her bosses have harassed her and tried to
censor her program, Pacifica's most popular show.
Most recently (but certainly not finally), there is the "Christmas coup" at
WBAI, when Pacifica's executive director entered the offices late on the
Friday before Christmas, changed the locks, fired the program director and
a key producer, banned others and temporarily barred workers, including
Needless to say, the "dysfunctional" staff and many listeners are in an
What they fear-and what clearly appears to be happening-is that the
national board, dominated by corporate executives and lawyers rather than
unionists and social activists as in the past, wants Pacifica to be a
centrally run, corporate organization more interested in getting a larger
audience by toning itself down. Less attitude, more obedience.
Should anyone care? Pacifica, with five stations in some of the nation's
biggest markets, doesn't even register in the ratings. The board leadership
thinks it has become "irrelevant," and many industry pros agree. If the
purpose of a radio station is to have listeners, a station without them has
no reason for being. Pacifica's politics are outdated '60s leftovers,
worthless in a 21st Century where socialism is dead and the market rules.
Very seductive arguments. Radio today is run by a handful of huge
corporations. Pacifica's stations, created when AM was king and FM
frequencies went begging, are right in the middle of the commercial dial.
They're worth a mountain of money -WBAI might bring $200 million or more on
the open market, and a cash-starved foundation could do a lot with that,
even buy a cheaper location and keep going. Where's the harm in running
focus groups and giving more listeners what they want? It would be a
disaster, even if very few people would know about it.
The truth is that WBAI does give its listeners what they want. The mere
fact that it manages to raise enough money to limp along without corporate
underwriting or significant government support shows that enough people
care about what they hear to write checks. Yes, the programing seems
obsessive in its concern for "fringe" issues-but they're not always on the
fringe. WBAI has been pounding for years at the restrictive Rockefeller
drug laws. Just last week, Gov. George Pataki announced plans for major
reforms, and WBAI stalwarts Al (Grandpa) Lewis and retired New York City
police detective Frank Serpico were prominent in the crowd in Albany.
Most important, at a time when the national discourse is dominated by
voices from the center and the right, the continuance of a truly left-wing
organ, no matter how small, is extremely valuable. They paid for that
microphone; let them use it.
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