1300 Rally Outside WBAI, Demand Listener Control

By Harry Cason, College of Staten Island

CLARION

MAY 2001

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On April 28, 1,300 listeners and supporters of WBAI radio rallied to protest the takeover of the station by “illegitimate” new management, an action which they say threatens the station’s grassroots, activist role.

“These days, the public airways are dominated by private commercial interests,” US Rep. Major Owens told the rally, “and so it is especially important that this independent voice be maintained.” Owens announced plans for Congressional hearings on the situation at WBAI and the Pacifica radio network to which it belongs. In a speech in Congress the month before, Owens declared, “The survival of WBAI is vital for the entire movement seeking more access to the airways.”

The PSC has hosted meetings of a labor coalition organizing against the takeover of the station, and PSC President Barbara Bowen spoke at the demonstration. “WBAI has long been an important voice for social justice,” she told Clarion. “We need to make sure that continues to be the case.”

Pacifica was founded in the 1940s by Lew Hill, a journalist and peace activist, as a noncommercial and listener-supported network that would provide alternative views and news coverage on issues ignored by the corporate media. WBAI, located at 99.5 FM, has featured programs on everything from natural foods to police brutality, and has been one of the few stations where pro-labor—or pro-CUNY—voices have been heard.

In the last few years a growing conflict has developed between the Pacifica National Board and station staff and listeners: The board says it is only trying to make Pacifica’s five stations more professional and increase their audience, but critics say its real agenda is to move the stations to a more mainstream, politically acceptable format. On January 31, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez quit his job as co-host of the award-winning news show “Democracy Now” in protest against Pacifica’s change in direction, saying that the Pacifica board “has been hijacked by a small clique that has more in common with modern-day corporate vultures than with working-class Americans.” Many listeners have been especially concerned by discussions within the board about selling off one or more Pacifica stations.

Gonzalez’s resignation came in the wake of what activists have dubbed the “Christmas coup.” On December 23, 2000, the Pacifica Board sent Executive Director Bessie Wash to New York to change the locks at the station in the middle of the night. The station’s manager, the program director and others were summarily fired, while many other producers and staff were gradually dismissed, often in direct violation of the station’s contract with United Electrical Workers Local 404. One of the first to be discharged was Local 404 shop steward Sharan Harper. One of the new board members at Pacifica is a lawyer at Epstein, Becker & Green, which states on its Web site that it is an expert at “maintaining a union-free workplace.”  The law firm has also been retained by Pacifica’s board.

Unions have spoken out in support of the fired workers and their efforts to keep WBAI true to its original mission: among them are the PSC (which passed a resolution at the February 22 Delegate Assembly), the Rutgers chapter of the AAUP, CWA Local 3, the Newspaper Guild of New York, Musicians’ Local 802, the National Writers’ Union, Transit Workers Union Local 100, UNITE Local 169 and many others. On April 19, the NYC Central Labor Council voted unanimously to endorse the April 28 protest, demanding that Pacifica rehire the fired members of UE Local 404 and lift the orders banning others from the station.

“WBAI’s management is engaged in nothing less than union-busting,” DC 37 Administrator Lee Saunders said in March. Saunders was especially critical of WBAI’s abrupt cancellation of the show “Building Bridges: Your Community and Labor Report” on March 5. Co-hosted by Ken Nash, DC 37’s librarian for over 20 years, the show was the longest-running labor radio show in New York City. Interim station manager Utrice Leid pulled the plug on the program when Nash was in the middle of an interview with Rep. Owens, in which Owens criticized the “Christmas coup,” and Nash was fired on the spot.

Various lawsuits by Pacifica listeners are working their way through the courts. Owens and other progressive leaders have proposed the creation of new leadership bodies for Pacifica which would be elected by listener-supporters.