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Struggle for Pacifica Radio made clear in Haiti Progres

by Haiti Progres Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001 at 9:44 PM

Informative and comprehensive article on the community radio crisis engulfing Pacifica and its five stations.




"Le journal qui offre une alternative"


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

to staff."

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

few issues.

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 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:

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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