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Posted 21 Jan 2001 00:00:00 UTC

After a month of steadily increasing confrontation at the radio station which broadcasts "Off The Hook," a gag rule has been imposed on all programs, forbidding any discussion of the crisis.

Since the events of December 23 where locks at WBAI were changed in the middle of the night and various staff members fired and banned, there has been increasing on and off-air protests, teach-ins, and publicity. Listeners and staff have demanded an end to the bans, free discussion of the situation over the airwaves, and democratization of the process of hiring and firing at the listener-sponsored station. While there has been division inside the station as to the legitimacy of the newly installed management, most everyone has expressed great concern over disturbing developments at Pacifica, the parent organization of WBAI and four other radio stations throughout the United States.

During the 1990's, the Pacifica National Board gained more power in its decision-making role and lost nearly all oversight. Members of the board are no longer elected through input of the public or even that of the Local Advisory Boards of the five Pacifica stations. They have become self-electing. A proposed revision of the Pacifica bylaws released this week seems to make it easier to sell off any of the radio stations with little or no discussion. A sale of WBAI, a 50,000 watt FM station in the middle of the commercial band in New York City could easily fetch close to $200 million and is a scenario that has been long feared by the station's loyal staff and listeners. In addition, since Pacifica stations have always been paid for by the listeners, many believe the board has no legal right to even consider such a sale. Three listener lawsuits have already been filed against the Pacifica National Board and are currently in the courts.

In July of 1999, the programming of KPFA in Berkeley was replaced with canned music for several weeks when Pacifica objected to the airing of news reports which focused on public opposition of the network's policy. A reporter was pulled off the air by security guards after airing excerpts of a press conference by protestors. The live broadcast of his forced removal outraged listeners and galvanized the movement. It was only after demonstrations outside the station's offices which drew more than 15,000 people that control of the station was restored to the KPFA staff.

KPFK in Los Angeles turned out to be less of a problem for Pacifica as much of its controversial programming has been replaced over the years with more mainstream fare as well as more music. The two remaining stations have lost even more of the original programming style: KPFT in Houston is a mere shell of its once varied alternative format and now plays country music more than anything else while WPFW in Washington DC shies away from discussions of politics and activism in favor of playing jazz. All three of these stations have repeatedly taken live and taped programs off the air as soon as any mention of the Pacifica crisis is made. This disturbing policy has made its way into the websites of the network as well. One of the more glaring examples can be found in the "Democracy Now!" archives of the main Pacifica site which continues to have a blank entry for the July 14, 1999 edition of that program - that happens to be the one which aired a detailed report on the crisis involving KPFA and Pacifica. More recently, the WBAI site had all references to the current crisis removed along with its entire schedule and staff information. But, in an apparent oversight, the original pages were never actually erased by the people who did this. They remained in an easily guessable directory and have been archived by us.

The Pacifica Foundation was founded in 1946 "to promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression" as well as "to promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints" using the words of its original mission statement. It has also come to represent one of the last network outlets for alternative radio. The possible loss of this valuable asset is what has made this into such an emotional battle. "Off The Hook," hosted by 2600's Emmanuel Goldstein, has appeared on Pacifica's WBAI since 1988.

In the weeks following the "Christmas Coup" at WBAI, there have been numerous demonstrations and meetings throughout the entire New York region. There has also been increasing press coverage with articles in The New York Times, Newsday, the Village Voice, and Time Magazine among many others. The banning of WBAI's Local Advisory Board from the station meeting rooms added fuel to the fire since the radio station had always welcomed such meetings in the past. Staff and listeners alike were almost always free to come to the studios since WBAI has, for 41 years, been listener sponsored and run largely by volunteers.

Events reached a culmination on January 23 when the Local Advisory Board showed up for their meeting and refused to relocate. While listeners gathered outside 120 Wall Street, board members along with other listeners made it to the 10th floor just outside the WBAI studios. The standoff lasted for several hours and when it was over, nine people had been arrested for trespassing. Dissident Pacifica National Board member Leslie Cagan had already been a scheduled guest on that night's "Off The Hook" but the live broadcast wound up covering a breaking news story right inside the studio as protestors chanted and police entered the station.

The next day, WBAI management issued a two sentence memo to all station staff, the contents of which have already spread through the Internet: "Discussion on air by any programmer or staff member of station business, station policy, personnel issues or meetings regarding these topics or other confidential matters will result in immediate suspension and/or dismissal. The facilitation by on-air programmers and staff of such discussion on the air similarly will result in immediate suspension and/or dismissal."

Such a gag rule hasn't been explicitly spelled out in recent memory at WBAI and has resulted in a whole new flurry of emergency meetings and planned actions. The tension is very apparent over the air as producers try to walk a very fine line between not violating the gag rule and not curtailing the speech of the listeners, a great many of whom continue to bring up what are now forbidden topics.

It is of particular irony to listeners of "Off The Hook," who have long been privy to the ongoing struggle for free speech in so many different forums. Perhaps it can be best summed up in an excerpt from the July 20, 1999 edition when events at KPFA were being openly reported:

"Here at WBAI... we speak our minds and I have nothing but praise for the people around here - including the management - who really seem to get it as far as what this radio station is all about. I've been here just over ten years and never once has somebody stepped in and said 'You're not allowed to talk about this, you're not allowed to do this kind of a program.' We don't have people micromanaging us. We don't have people saying, 'Hey, this is too controversial. This is something that we don't want to get out there.' Here at WBAI we trust our programmers. We trust the people who go out over the airwaves. And that is the only way community radio can work. You start messing with that, you start looking over people's shoulders and telling them what to say and what to do and how better to do their job and how to reach demographics and all that kind of garbage that commercial radio is known for - and you destroy it. You destroy it so incredibly quickly. And I fear - I really fear - that that's what's happening out in California."

WBAI 99.5 FM in New York

The Pacifica Foundation

Save Pacifica

Coalition for a Democratic Pacifica New York

Free Pacifica

The Committee to Remove the Pacifica Board

WBAI Union

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