A voice of dissent

Print edition : January 06, 2001

A daily news programme aired on WBAI, a radical radio station in New York affiliated to the Pacifica Foundation, and its host Amy Goodman run into trouble with the management for being "too confrontational" and "too intellectually demanding".

WHEN President Bill Clinton was making "get-out-the-vote" phone calls around New York on election eve, one of the 40-odd radio stations he reached was WBAI, the radical radio station in New York City affiliated to Pacifica Radio.

The President was scheduled to go on air with a brief election pitch for his wife, Hillary Clinton, running for a Senate seat, and for his deputy, Al Gore. Instead, he found himself defending his Administration's record on a range of issues in a 30-minut e interview on "Democracy Now!", the station's hard-hitting daily news programme hosted by Amy Goodman.

Amy Goodman, producer Jeremy Scahill, and co-host Juan Gonzalez at the studio.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Not in the least awed by the unexpected guest on her show, Goodman plunged right in with, "Mr. President, what do you say to people who feel that the two parties are bought by corporations?" From there, she and Gonzalo Aburto, her co-host on Alternativa Latina, went on to grill the President on executive clemency for Leonard Peltier (the Native American activist held in prison for 24 years on charges of shooting two FBI agents), a moratorium on the death penalty, the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iraqi ch ildren, normalising relations with Cuba, the U.S. Navy's bombing of the island of Viques, amnesty for undocumented foreign workers, trade relations with China, the Israeli killings of Palestinians and the question of a United Nations force in West Asia f or the illegal occupation of the territories.

Clinton, famously media-savvy and a master of spin, was agile in his responses, but began to feel the heat soon enough, exploding, 'Now, you just listen to me... You have asked questions in a hostile, combative, and even disrespectful tone, but you have never been able to combat the facts I have given you." However, his interviewer was unflustered and was ready with her next question.

The subjects were somewhat different from the standard foreign policy targets of the mainstream U.S. media (which tend to be Saddam, Arafat, Saddam, Arafat). The White House staff was not pleased. "They said the President was only doing two to three minu te election pitches, and how dare I keep him so long and stray so far afield," Goodman said, chuckling, in a conversation a few days later at WBAI's offices in Wall Street. "But I told them I was only doing my job. He is the Leader of the Free World and was free to have hung up on me."

It was the kind of no-holds-barred performance WBAI listeners have come to expect of Goodman and Democracy Now!, WBAI's flagship programme that bills itself as the "Exception to the Rulers." Goodman has co-hosted the show for the last five years with Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez.

"The audience reaction was tremendous," Goodman said. "Some people were angry, of course, but overall I was amazed at the number of people who wrote or e-mailed to say that the President had for the first time addressed issues that mattered to them."

For punch and sheer audacity, the Clinton interview was a prize-winning scoop and characteristic of the way in which Goodman has broken the silence created by the American media on controversial subjects. Whether it is the debate over genetically modifie d foods or the involvement of American corporations with foreign dictatorships, Democracy Now! features the kind of hard-nosed investigative reporting that only non-commercial radio can do in the U.S. Lately, while reporting the presidential vote recount imbroglio in Florida, Democracy Now! moved beyond the legal bickering between the Democrats and Republicans to uncover the discrimination against black and Hispanic voters rampant not just in the disputed counties but all over Florida.

But none of this has noticeably eased Goodman's troubles at WBAI, whose management, the Pacifica Foundation, has made her the latest target of its disciplinary measures. In September, management representatives summoned Goodman, and said her style was to o confrontational and too intellectually demanding. They accused her of focussing too much on East Timor, police brutality, Mumia Abu Jamal (the Pennsylvania journalist on death row since 1982 on charges of shooting a police officer) and Lori Berenson (a n American woman activist serving a life sentence in Peru after being charged with involvement in a revolutionary guerilla movement). Goodman was asked to clear programmes in advance, not use volunteers and let management know of her speaking engagements outside. Failure to comply, she was told, would lead to disciplinary action, including termination.

The actions against Goodman are the latest chapter in a year-long saga of turmoil, dismissals and censorship that has engulfed Pacifica, the oldest and only independent American radio network.

The struggle could be dismissed as routine warfare in a news organisation. And the trend of managers bent on dumbing down news content is a depressingly familiar one in media houses anywhere in the world. But the stakes are considerably high in the case of Pacifica, which stands out as a lone alternative voice in the vast sea of corporate-backed media in the U.S. "Democracy Now! has covered a host of stories that the mainstream media ignored or on-the-other-handed to death," The Nation wrote in a n editorial.

The programme was able to do this because Pacifica was a staunchly "commercial-free listener-supported" radio. Pacifica refuses money from corporations. Its overall budget is little over $9 million, almost all of it coming from station fund-raising effor ts. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides some matching-fund grants, and individual stations like Democracy Now! receive grants from private foundations. By contrast, National Public Radio funds nearly half of its budget of more than $75 milli on from private foundations and corporations, whose messages are put on air in the form of quasi-commercials.

Right from its inception in 1949, Pacifica has been a voice of dissent. Its founder, Lew Hill, a conscientious objector during the Second World War and a pacifist, saw Pacifica as an alternative to the crass commercialisation of American radio and a have n of free speech in an era when dissident views on race, war and the emerging American empire were considered unpatriotic and un-American, says Mathew Lasar in his biography, Pacifica Radio.

Pacifica's ties to the political left deepened as American anti-Communism emerged as the biggest threat to free speech. Those ties have grown over the years with WBAI's consistent anti-war reporting in Latin America, Asia and Africa, especially its spotl ighting U.S. military support to repressive regimes. When a programme director of WBAI died last year, Cuba sent regrets and Alexander Cockburn wrote in The Nation. Janet Jagan ordered a recess in a meeting of the Guyanan Cabinet. Over the years, Pacifica has trained some of the best radio journalists in the U.S. Many alumni have gone on to distinction on National Public Radio (NPR) and television news.

Pacifica programming may be uneven, infuriatingly "politically correct" and even strident, but it is often the most provocative on the dial, especially in times of crisis and controversy, says Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel, a not-for- profit media watchdog. "When the rest of the media were into "Monica all the time," Pacifica countered it with "Mumia all the time" (covering the movement to support Mumia Abu Jamal)." Schechter, who is a veteran of radio newscasting on a commercial stat ion, says he "can't stand the frequent technical gaffes or the sometimes overzealous preaching to the converted. Yet for all its shortcomings, there is nothing else like it."

Pacifica's efforts to rein in Goodman are, on the face of it, no different from the controls imposed at other networks, continues Schechter. "But at Pacifica these demands - and the way they have been imposed - seem to signal less an effort to uphold hig h professional standards and more an attempt to provoke Amy to quit and to change the political character of the programme," he said.

In her reply to the management, Goodman said she had filed grievances against the Pacifica board charging gender harassment and censorship. "But, there is something far bigger than a mere work-rules dispute involved here... her letter said. "It is the de sire of management to rein in and exert political control over Democracy Now!" She noted that the programme was confronted with new restrictions and threats just as the presidential campaign was reaching its climax, and wondered whether "the stakes are t oo high in this presidential election year to permit too free a press - even at Pacifica."

The management issued a statement that denied all the allegations and characterised some of Goodman's claims as "inflammatory and inaccurate".

SEVERAL media commentators echo Goodman's fears that underlying the management shakeups is a battle for political control of Pacifica. Political connections and stakes are key to this battle, given the links of top management representatives to the Democ ratic Party and considering that this is a tough election year, says media analyst Edward S. Herman, writing in Znet. Goodman received a written reprimand for bringing Green Party president Ralph Nader on the floor of the Republican Convention - an act w hich led to the Pacifica Foundation denying WBAI press credentials for the Democratic Convention weeks later.

"Political conformity, staying within the mainstream, is demanded of the underlings," says Herman. "It has never occurred to the managers that audiences might be enlarged by more programmes like Democracy Now! rather than by depoliticisation, mainstreami ng and popular music. For them the Left is the enemy, and they have been fighting it for years." The statement has an ironic ring of truth to it and mirrors the battle lines between Nader and the Democrats on the national political scene, with liberals s avaging the Left, and accusing Nader of costing Gore the election.

Moreover, says Herman, the current Pacifica management represents a new managerial elite that has no community roots and regards employees simply as hired hands. Its move from Berkeley to Washington signalled its closeness to power brokers in the nation' s political capital. Many of the current problems stem from changes in the way the national board is now put together, doing away with local representatives and thus with accountability and responsibility to local stations, says Leslie Cagan, one of six dissidents in the 18-member Pacifica Foundation board.

Along with structural changes, the board's push for "audience-building reforms" since 1994 is at the heart of the crisis. With 800,000 listeners, Pacifica's network of five flagship radio stations in major cities (WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, KP FT in Houston, KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFA in Berkeley) still draws more numbers than any other American media on the Left. The network distributes Pacifica Network News and other programmes to more than 60 listener-sponsored stations across the U.S. It s powerful FM transmitters broadcasting from prime frequencies on the dial can provide clear listening to a potential audience of 42 million. (W is radio code for stations east of the Mississippi and K the code for stations west of the Mississippi. BAI i s Broadcasting Associates Incorporated, which is what WBAI was called before it became a part of Pacifica. PFA is short for Pacifica (PFK is a variation of that), PFT Pacifica Texas, and PFW Pacifica Washington.)

But Pacifica audiences have not grown at the same pace as those of NPR whose listeners had, by the early 1990s, risen from two to eight million in just eight years. More crucially for Pacifica stations, say some observers, only a fraction of their listen ers can be described as "hypercore." The majority tuned in for anywhere between a few minutes to several hours a week.

Critics within and outside Pacifica view the "audience-building reforms" as "mainstreaming" efforts that will turn the network into an NPR clone - controlled from the top, driven by market-share rating, heavily dependent on corporate- and foundation-fund ing and with coverage and commentary restricted to what is palatable to the U.S. political establishment. Former programme staff say that stations that have instituted the prescribed changes have seen the death of diversity of viewpoints and expression o f religious, racial and political differences.

"Nobody says we don't want bigger audiences. I am among those who believe that we have a much larger audience out there that we haven't reached yet," says Cagan. "We can reach them by giving them different, thought-provoking programmes and viewpoints the y won't get anywhere else." But the current Pacifica management has a very narrow vision of what expands the audience, she says. "It's a market mentality of giving people what they want so that they'll give us the money we want."

The management's claim that serious subjects turn off listeners is belied by audience ratings for Democracy Now!, points out Herman. "The programme is growing in audience, in media coverage and in fund-raising from both listeners and foundations - in all the areas the Pacifica board says it is concerned with," Goodman said in her letter. Her syndicated programme has 300,000 listeners and raised $1 million in the past year.

Not surprisingly, widespread hostility has greeted the reforms agenda. When Mary Frances Berry, a respected civil rights leader, was appointed chair of the board in 1997 (she has since stepped down), she came with a strategy to build on the reforms. But almost immediately, she ran into opposition. She was accused of trying to erode long-standing local control at the stations. A rumour (later denied) that Pacifica planned to sell the KPFA and WBAI stations (combined estimated market value of $200 million ) to gain financial stability confirmed the worst conspiracy theories. Firings of popular employees hardened the opposition. Some broadcasters openly defied the management's "dirty-laundry" rule - barring employees from discussing internal matters on air - and were promptly fired.

The struggle quickly snowballed and spilled into the streets, with local listeners rallying in support of the dissidents and raising an outcry about loss of freedom of speech and local control at the stations. Joan Baez and Noam Chomsky are among the pub lic figures who have weighed in with the dissidents. Media Alliance in San Francisco and FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) in New York organised coordinated protests outside stations across the country. And the Internet has helped keep the mutiny alive through a host of "save Pacifica" websites informing and rallying loyal listeners with updates, action alerts and media advisories. More than 1,600 e-mails offering support for Goodman have gone to board members.

TAKING some distance from the continuing wrangling, some media analysts argue that Pacifica can expand its audience without commercialising or compromising its commitments. Robert McChesney, who teaches at the University of Illinois, is one of them. He s ays, "Pacifica should determine, through debate, which audiences to speak to and do its programming without regard for commercial rivals." Ultimately, says McChesney, the question should be "Why let Wall Street and Madison Avenue have unchallenged contro l over our journalism and culture? The point is not just to democratise the margins but battle for the very heart and soul of our whole nation."

"Sometimes it's as if the Left doesn't want to win," says Vijay Prashad, Director of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Prashad is co-coordinator of the Forum of Indian Leftists and a frequent commentator on WBAI. "The att itude is 'if I get mainstream, I'm selling out.' OK, you don't want the culture of big media houses but having a bigger audience doesn't mean selling out."

At least part of Pacifica's problems is rooted in the history of U.S. public broadcasting. All noncommercial radio (and television) in the country, including Pacifica, has had to contend with commercial broadcasters, who grabbed the airwaves in 1934. Sin ce then, the tacit quid pro quo for getting broadcast licences has been that noncommercial broadcasters would not compete directly with their ad-driven counterparts. "Thus were the commercial giants entitled to do whatever made them the most money , while the noncommercial players were left to do programming that would draw a negligible audience," says McChesney.

By contrast, in other nations good public broadcasting has reached for a general audience rather than serve a little niche neglected by the big commercial broadcasters. "This has meant that systems like the BBC could sometimes generate real mass enthusia sm for their fare, while also offering news and public affairs programming superior to anything our networks, public or commercial, have produced," McChesney said.

In the end, this is not a battle that needed to happen, Prashad says: "We're not fighting against capitalist media, we're fighting our own media... It reflects the sad state of independent radio worldwide." The U.S., ironically, is still ahead of the cur ve compared to many countries, Prashad says, pointing to the existence of many small independent radio stations. The United Farm Workers have their own satellite and media station in the Southwest, and there are college radio stations in every town with punk rock music and independent news.

This is small consolation, however. In an era of unprecedented conglomerisation and homogenisation of the American media, the role of independent national radio like Pacifica cannot be over-emphasised. "Without a Left media, any Left politics and the abi lity to build a grass-roots political base operates at a huge disadvantage. When will the Left learn this lesson and be willing to act on it?" asks Herman.

Cagan says she remains optimistic. "With a multi-layered approach and different tactics - pressure from listeners, pressure from producers and pressure from prominent people making public statements of support - I believe we can save Pacifica," she said. That's a rallying call to Pacifica listeners if they want democracy now.

Bharati Sadasivam is a New York-based writer, working with the United Nations.

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