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Posted 9 Mar 2001 07:01:13 UTC

As promised, Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) brought the controversy at WBAI to the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday morning. This extraordinary step puts the spiraling crisis involving listeners, community radio stations, and the parent Pacifica Foundation in front of an even larger audience.

These are the remarks made by Rep. Owens:

"Mr. Speaker, tyrants in control of totalitarian countries like China, Serbia, and Iraq consider control of the airwaves an absolute necessity. They ruthlessly enforce censorship of a kind few of us can imagine in America. On last Monday, however, I had the weird and frightening experience of being gagged by a radio station manager in my own home city of New York. It started with a routine request that I call in for a phone interview on a show hosted on radio station WBAI by Ken Nash which focuses on union and labor news and features. The name of the show which commences at 2 pm was 'Building Bridges.' As the Ranking Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee I welcome the chance to appear on shows related to working families or unions.

"It is important to note that radio station WBAI is a non-profit station. It runs primarily on contributions solicited from a mass of diverse listeners. Since last December this station has experienced considerable turmoil internally and long-term producers and hosts have been fired or locked out of the station. Like many New Yorkers I am concerned about the present and future of this vital outlet for free speech on the radio. Without knowing all of the specific tensions and confrontations within the station, I have indicated my interest in working toward the resolution of the problems hampering the continuation of the unique and robust programming of WBAI.

"It is important to note that I am presently seeking ways to get more avenues opened for radio free speech in my city in general. Five low-powered Haitian stations have been shut down. The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking more access to the airwaves. The bully monopolies of commercial radio provide the continuing roadblocks to these stations. My knowledge of the reputation of certain recent appointments to the Board of Pacifica Network, which is the parent non-profit institution responsible for WBAI, leads me to conclude that there is a clear and immediate danger that attempts will be made to sell WBAI to a commercial owner. Such a sale would mean the loss of a vital voice for working families in New York City.

"My beliefs and point-of-view are considered heresy by Station Manager Utrice Leid. Without explanation or apology she shut down the microphones and proclaimed that she had to intervene because it was her job to allow only the truth over the airwaves. The following is a summary of the statement I would have made had I not been censored and shut off:

"The situation at WBAI has implications far beyond this one station. Freedom of speech over the airwaves via radio, broadcast television, and cable television is presently quite limited for the majority of Americans, and they are not aware of this. We have a problem of great magnitude that is not being appropriately addressed. The WBAI arrangement and structure offered one model to be emulated. As a listener supported station with a very diverse set of programs, procedures, and guests, WBAI represents the optimum use of radio in the services of ordinary people.

"When I attended the memorial service of the late Samori Marksman, who was a former WBAI Station Manager, last year in the great hall of St. John's Cathedral, I saw at that funeral a more diverse assembly than I have seen anywhere in New York City. Folks from all races, religions, income levels, and political persuasions were there. There were intellectual snobs who support programs broadcasting esoteric operas mingling with radical, grassroots political activists. Indeed, as a politician, one immediate reaction I experienced as I contemplated all of the diversity and the solidarity that was at that funeral, I felt that some of the powerful people in powerful places would see WBAI as a threat and seek to destroy it.

"WBAI represents radio freedom of speech that does not make profit for anyone. There are those who see profits being made via WBAI and other Pacifica stations. There are others in powerful places who feel that only commercial stations should exist, or if there are public stations, they should be indirectly controlled by corporate grants and benign corporate advertisements.

"Some of the persons who have recently been appointed to the Pacifica Board represent such powerful commercial interests. In my opinion, WBAI is an endangered station as long as such business predators are on the Pacifica Board. Persons far removed from the original ideals and philosophy of the founders of the Pacifica chain are not likely to promote the original intent of this very well conceived system.

"A basic question which must be tested as soon as possible in the courts is: Who owns a non-profit entity and who has a right to sell a non-profit radio station? Does the original charter or licensing by the FCC permit any group of trustees or directors to treat Pacifica and WBAI as if they were commercial entities?

"While the Pacifica turmoil is raging, I strongly urge WBAI to seek to preserve its freedom by exploring the necessary steps to become independent of Pacifica. As a non-profit entity WBAI should use the university structure as a model. It should elect a Broad of Trustees through a voting process utilizing its contributors and supporters as the voters. The Trustees should be responsible for basic business operations while the producers and staff should be given a role similar to the faculty of a university. Basic freedoms similar to academic freedom and tenure should be conferred upon the longstanding producers and long-term paid and unpaid staff participants.

"We want to preserve WBAI in New York City."

Audio of Rep. Owens' Remarks
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