More than a thousand angry listeners of radio station WBAI-FM
packed a New York City union hall in late December in a show of
support for that station's longtime manager and two other veteran
employees who were suddenly fired over Christmas weekend and locked
out of their offices. The dismissals, which were ordered by the
Pacifica Foundation, WBAI's
Washington-based parent group, mark the latest in a series of crises
that have rocked the tiny nonprofit network for two years.
Normally, radio listeners couldn't care less about who the manager
of their favorite station is--forget about going out to a meeting
on a frigid night to discuss the matter. But WBAI has always been
a rare bird in the high-flying, fast-talking world of New York radio.
For 40 years it has steadily remained the city's only leftist, radical,
noncommercial station, occupying an increasingly valuable media
platform right in the middle of the radio dial--at 99.5 FM.
No matter the issue, if you wanted to hear a dissident opinion
that could be found nowhere in the mainstream media or on those
right-wing radio talk shows, you could always turn to WBAI. If you
wanted to know where the next big protest in the city was, what
the big unreported international story was, or what the latest innovative
musicians were up to, you had to tune in. The same usually held
true for Pacifica's other four affiliates in Berkeley, Houston,
Los Angeles and Washington. Because all of the stations depend on
volunteers and listener donations for their survival, they have
always had the most loyal and passionate followings of any in the
I should know. For nearly five years, I have worked as a part-time
co-host on Pacifica's national morning news show, Democracy Now!,
alongside the network's best-known journalist, Amy Goodman.
Even as the for-profit radio empires grew, as stations cut back
on staffing and news programming became more tepid and homogenized,
WBAI and the other Pacifica stations somehow managed to buck the
trend, with reporting that forced those in power to react. Sometimes
the reports were strident in tone or insufficiently researched,
but often they were far ahead of the commercial stations, and they
always reflected the deep commitment of Pacifica reporters delivering
important stories to the American public.
But now Pacifica, which has always prided itself on the democratic
way it functions and how it involves community advisory boards in
decision-making, has started to ape the authoritarianism of its
capitalist counterparts. Nearly two years ago, a crisis erupted
at the Berkeley station after the board dismissed a popular station
manager. When staff members and the local community objected, scores
were arrested for trespassing and the network locked out the staff
and temporarily shut down the station.
That led to thousands of people surrounding the station in a string
of protests, to lawsuits and to local politicians launching investigations
of Pacifica's operation. While Pacifica's board eventually relented,
reopened the station and brought back most of the employees, it
did not change its manner of operation.
During that crisis, a memo surfaced from a Pacifica board member
that mentioned the possible sale of the Berkeley station or WBAI--each
could be worth as much as $100 million on the open market--to raise
funds for the cash-starved network. The board has since renounced
that memo, but many critics still fear a possible sale, especially
since some recent additions to the board since the Berkeley crisis
are far more oriented toward the corporate media world than the
social activism roots of previous Pacifica board members.
Then came the firings at WBAI that many are calling the Christmas
coup. Gone were station manager Valerie Van Isler; program director
Bernard White, who has been with the station for more than 20 years;
and Sharan Harper, a producer of White's popular "Wake Up Call"
morning show. In Van Isler's place, the board installed Utrice Leid,
the host of another popular talk show. Leid's appointment has sharply
divided the staff as well as the listeners, especially because she
took over in the middle of the night, changed the locks in the station,
banned several longtime producers from entering and brought in security
"This is an internal matter," Leid told me in early January. "Some
people have imperiled this station by their singular, rash, individual
actions," she added, refusing at the same time to elaborate. In
several on-air appearances since then, however, and in meetings
with WBAI staff, Leid has suggested that White, Harper and others
who were tossed from the station were being manipulated by Amy Goodman,
and that Goodman has secretly orchestrated a public campaign against
the Pacifica board and concocted a non-existent political schism
merely to mask her own inability to accept supervision by anyone
This attempt to turn a deep and long-simmering conflict--one that
has spread throughout the network and involved thousands of people--into
the personal machinations and fantasies of a lone individual would
be laughable were the stakes not so serious.
Pacifica, an organization founded by pacifists, is being rapidly
turned into a network at war over democracy. Only, as Berkeley showed,
in this war it's the listeners and donors who will have the last