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THE PACIFICA COUNTERREVOLUTION HITS WBAI


Edward S. Herman

One

of the most crushing series of blows to the U.S. left, and to democracy in this

country, has been the gradual transformation of the five station Pacifica Radio

network from locally-based and left-oriented stations into centrally controlled,

mainstream institutions. Before 1990, all five stations in the network were

locally oriented, locally managed with strong inputs from local audiences and

employees, and both highly political and progressive. During the 1990s, however,

three of the stations–Houston, Washington and Los Angeles–were pushed into the

mainstream by the Pacifica management, with only KPFA in Berkeley and WBAI in

New York City remaining as holdovers of the earlier tradition.

On

December 26, however, the Washington management seized control of WBAI, removing

the long-time manager Valerie Van Isler, firing Program Director Bernard White

and producer Sharan Harper without notice, changing the locks on the doors in

the middle of the night, and installing a new manager from within the WBAI staff

secretly primed for her new job. Only people on an approved list, which did not

include Pacifica Foundation board member Leslie Cagan, were admitted to the

station on December 27. There has been nothing democratic about any actions of

the Pacifica management for many years, and with one of its board members a

member of a law firm with a specialty in union-busting, the management has long

mastered the art of using every trick in that trade.

It

will be recalled that the Pacifica management had tried to remake KPFA in

Berkeley several years ago, locking out the employees, firing many, bringing in

security forces and strikebreakers, but meeting such resistance, with 10,000

protesters in the streets, and getting such negative publicity that the

management had to retreat. The stalemate resulted in a tacit settlement that

gave KPFA and WBAI temporary autonomy and led to the appointment of several new

representatives of the audiences and stations to the Pacifica board.

But

this settlement was only temporary, and the new board members quickly discovered

that they were not listened to and were kept outside any decision-making

process, sometimes by illegal actions (and two of the dissident board members

have an ongoing suit against the board based on these illegalities). That the

central management was on the march again, and that a takeover of WBAI might be

in the works, was suggested by the sustained attack on Amy Goodman and her

Democracy Now! program that escalated this past September and October. Goodman

has long been harassed by the Pacifica top management for her lack of sympathy

with Clinton and general failure to stick with the approved media agenda. She

was brought to Washington in September and told quite clearly that her focus on

East Timor, capital punishment, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Lori Berenson (etc.) was

excessive. Former board chair Mary Frances Berry called her

"troublesome," and said that she had "embarrassed" the

network, possibly meaning Berry herself and her friends and colleagues in the

Democratic Party. In October Goodman was once again brought to Washington and

directly threatened with termination unless she refrained from using volunteers

and cleared her programs in advance in Washington (among other demands). She

immediately filed a grievance with the union for harassment and censorship.

A

problem for the Pacifica elite is that Goodman’s show heavily outdraws their

regular news programs, and most other Pacifica programs as well. This makes it

awkward for them as they claim to be reforming Pacifica in the interest of

enlarging audience size, which they have been trying to do by substituting

popular music for politics (and softening any politics that remains). But

Goodman’s show and its successes in drawing audiences suggests that critical

politics can be quite popular if done well. That she is regarded negatively by

the Pacifica brass reflects political bias and a determination to defang and

depoliticize the network in accord with the biases of the top management and

their constituency. The constituency of the "old Pacifica" was the

local audiences and employees and volunteers; the constituency of the "new

Pacifica" of Bessie Wash and Mary Frances Berry is Washington power

brokers, officials of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the

Democratic Party.

Even

the New York Times notes that the Pacifica Foundation was initially based on

"a lack of corporate control and its dedication to peace," and

represented "grass roots, alternative broadcasting" (Jayson Blair,

"Pacifica Foundation Locks WBAI Station Manager Out of Office," Dec,

28, 2000). The "new Pacifica" has changed course, and has abandoned

both its grass roots base and alternative broadcasting. Its attack on Amy

Goodman and the current takeover of WBAI are a part of this de-democratization

and political neutering. This process has resulted from the capture of the

Pacifica Foundation by a small group of liberal technocrats and Democratic

Party-linked officials, who have added to their controlling board membership

businesspeople in the real estate, construction, and corporate law fields to

support them in their remaking of Pacifica. They have moved Pacifica’s

headquarters from Berkeley to Washington DC, in keeping with the shift in their

constituency from audiences and employees to Washington power brokers.

We

are dealing here with a kind of coup d’etat, and a systematic destruction of a

major left institution in the wake of that coup. Given the importance of the

media in hegemonic processes, and in contesting those processes, what is

happening to Pacifica, and now WBAI, should be first order business for the

left. This was our only radio network, and it is being destroyed! It is a

horrifying fact that a chunk of the left actually signed Saul Landau’s letter in

1999 which defended the Pacifica management and urged the left to stop its

"Pacifica bashing," with "Pacifica" identified with the

management group that was destroying the old Pacifica and picking off left

journalists and stations one by one. Some of the signers are people trying, for

example, to contest corporate globalization, a subject on which Amy Goodman and

the old WBAI would give their contesting position extensive and friendly

coverage, but which the emerging "new Pacifica" will ignore or treat

perfunctorily. (The "new Pacifica" Washington station WPFW, formerly

run by current Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash, has been notoriously

uninterested in protests against not only the dominant political party

conventions, but those against the World Bank and IMF.) The lack of left

solidarity involved in signing the Landau letter is equalled only by the sheer

short-sightedness and stupidity of helping destroy a media institution that was

a natural ally, if not part of the left itself.

The

battle over Pacifica and WBAI is not over. There are mounting protests against

the WBAI takeover, and there are at least three legal suits in process against

the Pacifica Foundation control group. I would urge people to get into action

now. This is important! It was encouraging to see the New York Times finally

come up with an article on December 28 putting the WBAI takeover in a negative

light for both tactics and implied violation of organizational purpose. This is

the time to move into action with letters, phone calls, picketing, and

contributions to the funding of legal responses to illegitimate authority.

Information on the issues and names and actions under way can be obtained from

these key sites:

Hotline:

800-825-0055

to volunteer

718-707-7189 for e-mail and updates

Local

WBAI sites:

www.glib.com WBAI union

www.wbai.net WBAI listeners

Sites:

general info and background

www.radio4all.org/freepacifica

www.savepacifica.net

Committee

to Remove Pacifica Board:

707-526-2867, Carol Spooner for info

[email protected]

 

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