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by Haiti Progres
Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001 at 1:44 PM
Informative and comprehensive article on the community radio crisis engulfing Pacifica and its five stations.
CHRISTMAS COUP ROCKS PACIFICA'S WBAI:
PURGE TARGETS COMMUNITY BASE, RADICAL VOICES
"Le journal qui offre une alternative"
* THIS WEEK IN HAITI *
January 10 - 16, 2001
Vol. 18, No. 43
In the early morning hours of Saturday, December 23, programming
at radio station WBAI-FM in New York City suddenly ground to a
halt. Utrice Leid, a well-known producer and host of the
afternoon program "Talk-Back," went on the air to announce that
she was the new general manager of the station, replacing
long-time administrator Valerie Van Isler. "There are no SWAT
teams here," announced Leid to the stunned listenership at 1:40
a.m. "This is not a coup."
But it sure looked like one. Leid and managers from WBAI's
Washington-based parent Pacifica Foundation changed all the
locks in the station, installed security guards, restricted access to
a list of "approved" persons, then fired and banned key producers
and staffers from the station. Also fired were Program Director
Bernard White, who hosted the popular morning show "Wake-Up
Call" and the show's producer and WBAI shop steward Sharan
Harper. They were awakened early Saturday morning by a courier
informing them that they had been sacked and that if they came to
the station, they would be arrested.
WBAI staffers and listeners immediately protested the move,
calling it a "Midnight Massacre" and a "Christmas Coup." "We
deplore the [Pacifica] Foundation's coming in secret in the
middle of the night at the start of a holiday weekend to change
the station's locks, and the illegitimate installation and
imposition of new station management," protested WBAI staff
members, including "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman and
"Afrikaleidoscope" producer Elombe Brath. "We deplore the
firings, the bannings, the presence of security guards in the
station, and the denial of access to personal property belonging
Listener-sponsored WBAI in New York City has long been an
independent and radical voice for community and activist groups
in the New York area and internationally. Through its programming
-- particularly through "Democracy Now!" -- it has helped fuel
resistance to the World Trade Organization, the death penalty,
police brutality, violence in East Timor, injustice against
immigrants, and media disinformation about Haiti, to name just a
The station, through producers like Goodman, White and Van Isler,
has also provided an important outlet for the Haitian community
in New York. Van Isler, a former producer at WBAI who received
the New York Association of Black Journalist's award for her
reporting on Haiti, continued covering the country even after she
took over as general manager in 1990. Of Haitian heritage on her
father's side, Van Isler traveled to Haiti as a reporter and
delegate to national congresses of the National Popular Assembly
(APN) in 1989 and 1995. Goodman also visited and reported from
Haiti following the U.S. military occupation in late 1994,
revealing the complicity of U.S. military commanders with agents
of the right-wing paramilitary organization FRAPH. This is why
one finds many Haitian cab drivers in New York with their radio
set to WBAI.
The station's radical programming and grass-roots character has
increasingly vexed the rightward-drifting Pacifica Foundation,
which owns WBAI and four other radio stations around the country.
The Pacifica National Board is moving to centralize control and
soften the left-wing content of WBAI and other stations. Some
board members have advocated taking corporate funding for
Pacifica Radio was formed in the 1940s by radical writers and
conscientious objectors to World War II who started the network as
a forum for marginalized voices and a vehicle to promote peace and
social justice. They started broadcasting out of KPFA in Berkeley,
California, in 1949 and pioneered the concept of supporting the
station through listener contributions, shunning commercial
advertisements. The formula worked and, in addition to KPFA and
WBAI, Pacifica Radio now owns KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in
Houston, and WPFW in Washington.
In the 1980s, Pacifica managed to secure funding from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a Federal agency
funded by the U.S. Congress, despite the opposition of some
right-wing Republican lawmakers. But the additional support
turned out to be a double-edged sword. Since the mid-1990s, the
CPB has prodded Pacifica to end its radical programming and to
wrest control of its stations from local listener boards.
Congress had sharply objected to Pacifica's airing voices like
that of famed journalist, former Black Panther, and death row
inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In 1998, Pat Scott, who was the Pacifica Board's executive
director, solicited an opinion from the CPB, which then began to
directly interfere in our governance structure, which they had
never done before, explained Mimi Rosenberg, the co-host of a
labor-oriented program entitled "Building Bridges". The result
was that the national board completely severed its relationship
with the local advisory boards [of Pacifica's member stations]
for fear that CPB funding would be lost."
Previously, each local Pacifica station elected two of the
national board members. Gradually, some national board members
began to seat their friends and allies as "at large" board
members, even if those people were from areas not covered by
Pacifica"s radio signal. With the "at large" seats they could
put on the board whoever the hell they wanted, Rosenberg
explained. Then finally, you had a by-law change which resulted
in a board which was 100% self-appointing."
To make matters worse, the national board's executive committee
began to illegally make decisions without ratification by the
full board, a move which is now being challenged in court.
In March 1999, the crisis between the national executive and local
stations exploded. Pacifica fired the general manager of KPFA and
a number of other producers. Listeners and the community
objected, and Pacifica closed down the station for 23 days. Only
after a protest of more than 10,000 people in the summer of 1999
did Pacifica reopen the station.
"Pacifica, founded by 'discontented leftists,' now openly
expresses discontent with leftists," noted the late WBAI Program
Director Samori Marksman, referring to the recent red-baiting and
political witch-hunts launched against radical voices in
Pacifica. Verna Avery-Brown, known as the "Voice of Pacifica"
after 11 years as national news anchor, walked out of the
Pacifica Network News (PNN) in late 1999 because of a dramatic
shift toward mainstream orthodoxy and blatant censorship. "I left
because I no longer felt the renegade spirit of Lew Hill was in
control of Pacifica," said Avery-Brown, referring to Pacifica's
founder. "I left when I realized the majority of the board
members were too timid, too uninformed, or too conservative to
give a damn to step in and make the necessary changes. I left
because the Pacifica I had fallen in love with no longer
Dan Coughlin, a former correspondent of Inter Press Service in
Haiti who broke such stories as the U.S. government's theft of
Haiti 160,000 pages of coup-related documents, became
Pacifica's News Director in 1998 but was removed from the job in
late 1999 after he tried to halt the News Department's rightward
drift. The pretext for his firing: a 30-second news spot about
the KPFA conflict, which violated an unspoken Pacifica gag-order
about mentioning the Berkeley war.
This week, Leid moved to fire Robert Knight, the award-winning
morning news director, producer of "Earth Watch," and (like Van
Isler and White) a twenty-year veteran of the station. But WBAI"s
news director Jose Santiago refused to carry out the firing,
forcing Leid and Pacifica's bosses to back down... for the time
The model Pacifica station for most national board members is
KPFT in Houston, which now operates as a music station with a
"Sound of Texas" playlist. Previously, the station was
politically engaged; it was bombed twice by the Klu Klux Klan in
the 1970s. Now, the BBC occupies its top morning news slot.
To reach the KPFT ideal of soft, non-controversial programming,
Pacifica's leadership has also advocated selling WBAI, which
could fetch, according to the New York Times, between 0 to
0 million for its frequency -- 99.5 -- in the middle of the FM
dial. In a 1999 e-mail that went astray, Pacifica Board member
Micheal Palmer, a corporate executive with the real estate firm
CB Richard Ellis, discussed the sale of KPFA versus the sale of
WBAI: "My feeling is that a more beneficial disposition would be
of the New York signal as there is a smaller subscriber base
without the long and emotional history as the Bay Area, far more
associated value, a similarly dysfunctional staff though far less
effective and an overall better opportunity to redefine Pacifica
going forward. It is simply the more strategic asset."
Palmer added, "The Executive Committee, at a minimum, should
have access to experts (whether from Wall Street, NPR/CPB,
Microsoft or otherwise) to get a strong reality check (me included)
about radio and Pacifica's position in it so that informed decisions
can be made."
The Christmas Coup at WBAI comes in the wake of mounting
attacks by Pacifica on Goodman's daily national program
"Democracy Now!" The Pacifica network, which has ties to the
Democratic Party, cracked down on Goodman after she interviewed
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader on the floor of the Republican
National Convention last summer. Pacifica claimed that Goodman
violated journalistic ethics by conducting the celebrated interview at
the Convention and yanked her press pass, preventing her from
providing the same sharp coverage of the Democratic Convention.
Management then imposed a new set of "work rules" on her,
including the demand that she clear all speaking engagements with
Pacifica bosses and provide them each week with "a list of
possible shows the following week and a short status report on
"The motivation is blatantly political," said Goodman in a
October 2000 memo to the Board, noting that Pacifica executives
had criticized her for airing the story of the 1997 New York
police brutalization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. One
Pacifica boss said that he didn't want to hear details of police
brutality ¿before breakfast.À Goodman has also been slammed for
her extensive coverage of Mumia Abu-Jamal, East Timor and Peru.
While presenting itself as a left-wing network, the Pacifica
Board's composition has slowly moved to the right in recent
years. This celebrated non-profit, community-based,
listener-sponsored radio foundation now has some serious
capitalists on its national board: Pacifica treasurer Michael
Palmer has boasted of developing "maquiladoras" in Northern
Mexico; Pacifica vice-chair Ken Ford works for the National
Association of Home Builders, a lobbying group for corporate
builders; Businessman Bert Lee has extensive experience buying
and selling broadcast licenses. Appointed to the national board
last February was John Murdock, a corporate attorney whose
practice, Epstein Becker & Green, is known as one of the most
anti-union law firms in the country.
"In 1949, Lew Hill went to the airwaves at the height of the Cold
War and said that the FBI was a scurrilous and contemptible
organization, that the whole country knows it, that he would
resist it, and that everyone else should join him in resisting
it, " Rosenberg recalled. "One would be hard-pressed to believe
that PacificaÚs current national board would ever make such a
This conservative make-over of the National Board fundamentally
results from the bypassing of the earlier structure controlled by
local advisory boards, which were in turn elected by community
listeners. "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," said media critic and
author Ed Herman in a recent interview.
Ironically, this year, WBAI is in better financial health than
ever, running with a ,000 surplus after its Fall on-air fund
drive raised 1,000, the most successful campaign in the
stationÚs history. "We had achieved all the big goals for the
station," À Van Isler told Haiti Progres. "We had balanced the
budget. We had paid down all past debt from the move of the
station [from midtown Manhattan] in 1998, one of the only
Pacifica stations to do that in two years."
For these reasons, many feel that Pacifica's claim that WBAI
management needed to be replaced overnight is disingenuous. "The
real reason for Valerie's ouster was that she was no longer
politically useful to the national board," said Ray Laforest, a
Haitian activist and WBAI local advisory board member.
New Interim General Manager Utrice Leid has insisted that this is
an internal issue that is being blown out of proportion. It is
true that many producers at the station had disputes with WBAI
local management over the years. But the conflict now is much
larger and deeper than a mere personality clash between station
personnel, as Leid and her defenders argue. All evidence suggests
that Pacifica is exploiting internal rifts among the WBAI staff
to grab power and disembowel the station of its progressive
It also must be noted that in the early 1990s, Utrice Leid was
editor at the now defunct Brooklyn-based African American
newspaper The City Sun, which among other unenlightened political
positions, justified the September 1991 coup d'etat in Haiti. In
an Oct. 2, 1991 article entitled "A Lesson in Irony: An
Experiment Gone Awry," À Leid's writer Hugh Hamilton argued that
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide got what was coming to him due
to his "separation, not only from the democratic institutions of
the country, but from significant parts of the constituency that
elected him." Hamilton's analysis came, not surprisingly, from
Ray Joseph, editor of the right-wing pro-coup weekly Haiti
Observateur, who is quoted extensively and exclusively in the
article. Another "lesson in irony": Observateur was The City
Sun's neighbor in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the years since,
Joseph's politics have become as reactionary as his journalism is
flaky. Nonetheless, he has been invited more than once on Leid's
"Talk Back" program, of which Hamilton has taken over as host
since her "promotion."
To Van Isler's credit, WBAI in the past decade has increased its
audience, achieved the first million dollar fund-raiser in
community radio history, improved the quality of its shows, and
won over 40 top awards in US journalism, more than any other
Pacifica station. Prestigious George R. Polk Awards have gone to
Knight for his reporting on Panama and to Goodman and reporter
Jeremy Scahill for their reporting on Chevron's human rights
abuses in Nigeria. WBAI produces some of the finest programming
and programmers in community radio and, in the process, has built
the most diverse audience of any public radio station in the
Meanwhile, WBAI has remained an indispensable voice for social
movements and the chronicler of epoch-making events worldwide.
When the CongoÚs Laurent Kabila made his historic march to
Kinshasha, he spoke with WBAI before any other US broadcaster.
Knight and fellow Pacifica journalist Dennis Bernstein broke the
news of the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, while Goodman broke
the story on the arrest of Lori Berenson in Peru.
WBAI achieved this unparalleled record of success not by killing its
community ties, but by nurturing them, which was Pacifica's
original mission. The strength of these ties was evident on Jan. 6,
when hundreds of protesters gathered in the streets in front of
WBAIÚs studios at 120 Wall Street in Manhattan to denounce the
"Christmas coup" and the larger offensive to politically eviscerate
WBAI. On Dec. 27, almost 1200 people turned out for a community
meeting to discuss ways to turn back the coup. Dozens of smaller
meetings on the crisis are being held by WBAI staff members,
listener groups, and community activists each week. Columns
protesting the coup have appeared in Ms. Magazine and Newsday.
"The founding purpose of WBAI, and the original Pacifica, was to
provide a voice for the voiceless, to provide substantive
analysis and contrary thought to the mainstream, unencumbered by
commercialism, government, and corporatism," Mimi Rosenberg
This is the alternative vision that so many programmers, producers
and listeners still hold for Pacifica. It is a from- the-bottom-up
approach in terms of governance and programming. At its core is
Lew Hill's vision of a world without war, poverty and racism. WBAI
has always aimed to serve the diverse constituencies which have
been locked out of the national discourse as determined by the
mainstream corporate media: new immigrant workers, indigenous
communities, labor organizers, gays and lesbians, democratic
media activists, prisoners, Black and Latino communities, and
political leftists. These sectors show no signs of letting the
"Christmas Coup" stand.
To learn more and take part in the fight to take WBAI back:
1) For excellent background information, go to
www.savepacifica.net. For more information, and daily updates,
and to be put on an e-mail list for up-to-the-minute information,
call 718-707-7189 or 800-825-0055.
2) Contact Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash to protest the
coup at WBAI and to demand continued democratic processes at
WBAI. Call toll free: (888) 770-4944, ask for Bessie Wash at ext.
348. Or fax a letter to: (202) 884-0860. Or write: 2390 Champlain
Street N.W. Washington, DC 20009. Or
3) Call or write Pacifica Board chair David Acosta at (713)
926-4604. E-mail: email@example.com.
All articles copyrighted Haiti Progres, Inc. REPRINTS
Please credit Haiti Progres.
"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
newsweekly. For the complete edition with other news in French
and Creole, please contact the paper at (tel) 718-434-8100,
(fax) 718-434-5551 or e-mail at .
Also visit our website at .
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