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Potential Crisis Looms at WBAI
Posted 4 Dec 2000 00:00:00 UTC

WBAI 99.5 FM in New York, the radio station that has hosted "Off The Hook" since 1988, is facing a major confrontation with its owner, the Pacifica Foundation, this week.

In a scenario eerily similar to that which happened to Berkeley's KPFA in 1999, the general manager of the station is being terminated by the network. In Berkeley, this was seen as outside interference and it resulted in the station being shut down for weeks while thousands of listeners marched in the streets. It has long been feared that something like this would one day happen to the station in New York.

The Pacifica network was started in 1949 and currently owns five stations around the country. Many more carry its programming, including the nightly Pacifica Network News and the daily "Democracy Now!" which itself has recently been the subject of controversy. That program's host, Amy Goodman, was threatened with termination this fall by Pacifica if she did not clear the contents of her programming a week in advance with the network. She refused and demonstrations were staged outside all five Pacifica stations in New York, Washington DC, Houston, Los Angeles, and Berkeley. The stations are funded by their listeners. WBAI at one time was a commercial station and was donated to the Foundation in 1959, on the condition that they never air commercials.

For much of the 1990's, a disturbing trend has developed within Pacifica, where a self-elected national board has taken on more of the decision making and operation of the network and the individual stations. As the stations are supported by listeners and run by local volunteers, this "remote control" by people not familiar with the programming, listeners, or locale of the stations has been met with resistance. The two stations that have fought the hardest and, as a result, retained much of their programming and local control, are KPFA and WBAI.

In 1999, a KPFA news reporter was forcibly ejected from the station by armed security guards sent by Pacifica when he broke the "gag rule" by reporting on the Pacifica crisis, which at that time involved the firing of KPFA's general manager. That led to Pacifica shutting down the station and playing canned music for weeks while demonstrators clashed with police outside the studios. After a great deal of bad publicity, Pacifica reopened the station and allowed the KPFA programmers to once again run the station. Later, Pacifica quietly transferred its headquarters from Berkeley to Washington DC.

Since then, a number of ominous events have taken place, including the recent seizing of all finances of the local stations by the network, disciplining of Pacifica News reporters for reporting on these events (which has led to a strike by many of these reporters who have gone on to form Free Speech Radio News), continued rumors of plans to sell one or more of the lucrative FM frequencies, national board meetings that have been closed to the public, the threats against Amy Goodman, sudden directives to air national programming (most recently resulting in the last minute cancellation of "Off The Hook" on Election Day), and now, the firing of WBAI's general manager, Valerie Van Isler.

The plan is to replace Van Isler with a Pacifica-appointed replacement who presumably won't resist control of the station from a remote office. Already this has met with firm resistance from the programmers at WBAI who are speaking out over the air against this move and the general direction of Pacifica. This is in defiance of Pacifica's "gag rule" which prohibits discussion of Pacifica matters over the air.

WBAI has some of the most interesting programmers in radio and the station has become known throughout the world for its diverse programming, investigative news reporting, and controversial content. It was WBAI that was at the center of the FCC's "seven dirty words" case. WBAI reporter Robert Knight interviewed Manuel Noriega in Panama and reported on atrocities during the U.S. invasion. Amy Goodman, who recently interviewed a surprised President Clinton on Election Day with hardhitting questions, risked her life reporting on government atrocities in Indonesia in the early 90's. Recently, a colleague of hers was murdered, apparently by the military over there. This kind of thing happens to reporters who get close to the story. A listen to the November 30, 1999 edition of "Off The Hook" reveals the determination of WBAI reporters in Seattle to get the story to the listener, no matter the cost. The late program director, Samori Marksman, was well known by many heads of state and was successful in bringing a number of diverse voices to the airwaves. Listening to the station on any given day is like taking a journey throughout the cultures and ideas of the planet. From the teachings of scientist Michio Kaku to the entertaining and inspiring perspectives of 90 year old Grandpa Al Lewis to the Irish show, science fiction, movie reviews, a program on weaponry, the Grateful Dead, old time radio, personal computers, housing rights, alternative news, and dozens of other unique programs, WBAI is probably the most famous, and certainly one of the biggest community radio stations in existence. Radio is a passion for those who work there.

It's hard to predict what will happen next. The staff and the listeners are riveted to the radio, awaiting news of any developments. Please spread the word and keep listening. If the net link on www.wbai.org becomes full or is taken down, we will try to add more in the "Off The Hook" section of this site.

NYC Independent Media Center

The Committee to Remove the Pacifica Board

Save Pacifica

Free Pacifica

WBAI Union

Listen live to WBAI

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