Crisis at WBAI

Pacifica, the only Left national radio network in the U.S. and the home of samar's own Asia Pacific Forum (APF) program amongst other critical and radical radio programs, is in the throes of the most serious battle in its 50-year existence.

Founded by pacifist Lew Hill in the darkest days of McCarthyism, Pacifica has historically been the leading, and often the only progressive radio voice in the U.S. During the Vietnam period Pacifica carried the only alternative critique of the war, bringing in European, Vietnamese, and other perspectives to balance the U.S.-centric mainstream coverage. Pacifica carried interviews with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s when it was high on the State Department's list of "terrorist" organizations, despite vigorous opposition from even the progressive Jewish community in the U.S. Pacifica took the lead across a range of issues -- starting the first women's programs and gay and lesbian programs, providing the earliest analyses of East Timor or of the U.S.'s involvement in Central America. Most importantly, what distinguished Pacifica in the politically progressive early days from even the best of its imitators from National Public Radio, say, is that Pacifica saw its role not simply to inform but to engage. Only on Pacifica was radio consistently an arm of political activism on the Left, motivating listeners to write letters, push for legislative changes, and to go out to the streets for demonstrations. The network risked a good deal for its politics. In the 1960s, when Hoover was at the peak of his power, Pacifica ran stories exposing the inner workings of the FBI -- its enormous anti-Semitism, racism and program of personal vendettas. Pacifica board members were red-baited, subpoenaed to appear before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and the radio network threatened with dissolution.

Pacifica has helped sustain progressive Asian coverage at all its member stations. In New York, Pacifica station WBAI started the Asia Pacific Forum program in 1997 in a second attempt to create a regular weekly slot for Asian politics and culture. samar was invited on board in early 1998. It has been a hospitable environment for our programming over these years, whether on Narmada or the Asian Dub Foundation, on New York taxi workers or political repression in Aceh, Indonesia.

This rich culture of progressive broadcasting is now in serious jeopardy. Many of you may be familiar with the bare bones of the immediate crisis. On December 22 last year, the Executive Director of Pacifica, Bessie Wash, executed a late night coup at the WBAI studios -- changing the locks on all the doors, banning the then program director and station general manager and a number of producers, and installing a new general manager, Utrice Leid. Since then, some 25 of the most radical producers have been removed, and many of the best programs banned. Even Pacifica's premier public affairs program, Democracy Now! was continually impeded, host Amy Goodman denied press passes to critical events and verbally and physically harassed to the point where she finally had to leave the studios to broadcast from an independent space downtown. Our own program, Asia Pacific Forum, is not yet banned but has faced continual harrassment. It was canceled at the last minute three times in the weeks following the September 11 attacks. This at a time when the war buildup in South Asia and the racial attacks on immigrants including South Asians make the program particularly relevant.

The current crisis at WBAI has its roots in a deep, concerted attack on progressive radio, and on progressive media in general in this country. Pacifica has grown substantially in the last 50 years -- it now has stations in five major listener areas (New York, Berkeley, LA, Washington DC and Houston), with a signal that can reach one out of five households in the U.S. Starting in the mid 1980s and accelerating into the early '90s, this potential has drawn increasing fire from the Right and the mainstream. In 1992, at the height of the Gingrich Congress's attack on the U.S., Bob Dole specifically singled out Pacifica as "hate radio" and threatened to cut off all funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (cpb) unless Pacifica was muzzled. Even though Pacifica gets only a small fraction of its funding from the cpb -- which largely funds NPR etc -- the cpb forced Pacifica to take more "professional" people on the Pacfica National Board. As a result, the national board's 11-5 majority now includes a lawyer for the union-busting law firm Epstein, Becker and Green; an official of the National Home Builders Association, a real estate group that lobbies Congress for the removal of Clean Air and Water acts and occupational safety acts; a businessman who finances the building of maquiladora factories, and so on. This board has gradually instituted major changes in Houston, Los Angeles and Washington. Both Washington and Houston are now primarily music stations like other local commercial music stations, and much of the diversity of community programming in Los Angeles has been eliminated. The board tried a coup in Berkeley, by replacing the general manager with an outsider, and by removing a number of the more popular programs. The uproar that ensued, with up to 10,000 people in street demonstrations, got the Pacifica board to back down. In New York the board then went about its coup with greater stealth, bringing in an individual from inside, Utrice, who was embittered at having been passed over for Program Director earlier, and willing to carry out the program of eviscerating progressive programming at the station.

At this stage, there is a real danger that the network will be lost to the progressive community. The resources of Pacifica are too important to give up without struggle, especially during a war when alternate and critical information and analysis is desperately needed.

What you can do

To learn about/join the struggle to take back Pacifica, contact:

Pacifica Campaign
51 MacDougal Street, #80
New York, ny 10012
(800) 797 6229

Concerned Friends of WBAI
PO Box 21711
Brooklyn, ny

(800) 825-0055

Banned WBAI producers have taken to internet radio links and cable TV. In Manhattan, Democracy Now! is broadcast every weekday from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on Manhattan Neighbourhood Network, Channel 34, and on as well as being rebroadcast on WFMU 91.1 FM.


Best of luck.
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