DC Hearings 5-15-01
Audio of the hearings at: http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=3064
The Washington Post, Wednesday, May 16, 2001
Pacifica Radio Airs Its Troubles At Hill Forum
by Frank Ahrens
One sure way of getting the U.S. Congress involved in a nasty public radio war is for a House member to feel like he got kicked off the air in mid-speech.
For the past two years, internal strife has ripped at the Pacifica public radio network, a listener-supported chain of six stations in five cities. (Washington's Pacifica station is WPFW-89.3 FM.) Management and labor are locked in a struggle to determine the future of the left-leaning network, founded in 1949 by pacifist Lewis Hill.
A legion of current and former on-air talent believes the network is becoming too corporate and ditching its commitment to alternative news. Management believes the dissidents are stuck in the '60s and have no interest in growing or improving the network. Some members of Pacifica's board of directors have joined the dissent.
Yesterday, Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) convened a Capitol Hill forum to address the Pacifica troubles, attended by about 60 people in the Rayburn Building. Owens's involvement in the Pacifica mess stems from his March 5 telephone interview with Ken Nash, the former host of "Building Bridges," a labor news show on WBAI, New York City's Pacifica station.
On-air Owens addressed the WBAI situation as a labor struggle. At which point, things -- as they invariably do in the Pacifica troubles -- get a little unclear.
Owens says his call was terminated by Utrice Leid, WBAI's interim general manager. In a speech on the House floor in March, he decried the "weird and frightening experience of being gagged" and compared the tactics to those used in totalitarian regimes.
Leid, reached yesterday at WBAI, said that's not what happened.
She said that Nash's co-host, Mimi Rosenberg, had recently been fired for "reprehensible conduct," though Leid would not elaborate. On the day of the Owens interview, Nash began the show with a tape of Rosenberg "excoriating WBAI and Pacifica," Leid said. Since January, Leid said, WBAI's staff had been forbidden to talk on-air about the Pacifica problems. (Most other Pacifica stations also have a "gag rule.")
Nash then switched to Owens, calling from Washington, "with his own version of the inaccuracies leveled at Pacifica," Leid said. When Leid entered the studio and tried to go on air to speak with Owens, she said, Nash elbowed her in the neck and shouted her off the microphone. The engineer, seeing this, switched the broadcast to music.
Nash has denied the allegations of violence in a statement posted on a Web site by Pacifica critics.
Leid said she immediately fired Nash and tried to retrieve Owens. The incident took less than a minute, she said, but by then Owens had hung up.
Reached yesterday evening, Owens described the call this way: "I was talking on the phone in my house in New York, listening to myself on WBAI on my little radio. Suddenly, I didn't hear myself talking anymore. I heard music. Then, the line went dead."
The episode illustrates the wide gap between warring Pacifica sides.
"Pacifica has to go through a change because the country has gone through a change," Leid said. "Those in charge [of the internal revolt] are still stuck in some sort of strange ideological era."
Yesterday, Pacifica board member David Palmer resigned, urging his former colleagues to "protect themselves" from Pacifica critics. In his resignation memo obtained by The Washington Post, he alleges critics have harassed and physically threatened board members.
At yesterday's Hill forum, the tune could not have been more different. Several former Pacifica employees and some current board members testified that the radio network has betrayed its roots and is being run by authoritarian incompetents bent on purging politics from its broadcasts.
Rosenberg called on Congress to help "preserve a unique democratic instrument in a time of unprecedented [media] consolidation."
Jacquelyn Battiste, a former host at KPFT, Houston's Pacifica station, said it has moved toward a moneymaking, ratings-grabbing "adult alternative" music format, abandoning programs aimed at minorities, even as "two-thirds of Houston's population is now made up of 'minorities.' "
Marialice Williams, former chairman of WPFW's Local Advisory Board -- a group of listeners that helps decide programming for Pacifica stations -- said WPFW is ignoring local news, such as the attempted closing of D.C. General Hospital.
Williams, a former chairman of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, said the Pacifica network had been taken over by "mean-spirited people."
Owens asked: "But not crooked? There's no racketeering here?"
"They aren't smart enough to be crooked," Williams countered, generating laughter from the audience.
Though Owens acknowledged there is little the government could do in the Pacifica troubles -- absent criminal activity -- he said it is the "responsibility of elected officials" to speak out when community radio appears threatened.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
5-18-01: Ken Nash to the Washington Post
To the Editor,
In his May 16th article about Pacifica Radio, which owns WBAI in N.Y.C. and WPFW in Washington, D.C., Frank Ahrens reports on the incident in which Congressman Major Owens was cut off the air over WBAI in NYC.
I co-hosted "Building Bridges: Your Community & Labor Report" on WBAI with Mimi Rosenberg who was fired by WBAI Station Manager Utrice Leid in February. Leid says in your article that on the March 5th program I played a tape of my co-host Mimi Rosenberg "excoriating WBAI and Pacifica." In fact I played no such tape and Ms. Rosenberg was not on the air that day at all.
I did speak with Congressman Owens by the telephone about the crisis at WBAI. Station Manager Leid entered the studio uninvited and according to your article she asserts that I "elbowed her in the neck and shouted her off the microphone." She says that the station then went to music and she fired me. All of this took less than a minute according to her.
This statement is utterly false! I never in any way was in physical contact with Ms. Leid and it was my microphone that was cut off when she entered the Studio. I, of course verbally protested this interruption of "Building Bridges" which was rude and in violation of policy and practice at WBAI. The first I knew about the alleged attack on Ms. Leid was two weeks later when my Shop Steward told me she had mentioned it to him. Her allegation took me by complete surprise because it never happened. Ms. Leid never mentioned it to me in the Studio that day or in two subsequent conversations I had with her. Similarly, Ms. Leid did not make this fabricated event known to the listening audience during the roughly 7 minutes we were in the studio together (the air check of the program bears this out) or in the half-hour session which she defended her actions to irate listeners following the incident. Apparently she did not see then the need to make up this false story to divert attention from Congressman Owens' critiques of Pacifica's undemocratic governance and censorship.
This allegation against me, as well as Ms. Leid's prior allegations about my fired co-host Mimi Rosenberg, should be seen in the context of the tactics of fear and intimidation which Ms. Leid has been using to maintain her tenuous control over WBAI and to get her way as to what WBAI's listeners will hear and know. These include the firings, bannings and gagging of workers and listeners of the Station. This latest tactic is a desperate attempt to escalate this reign of fear and intimidation by accusing the victims themselves of violence.
Mr. Ahrens notes that this incident "illustrates the wide gap between warring Pacifica sides." It certainly does and much of it has to do with credibility. Pacifica Management says that WBAI was relying on an outdated radical formula in its public-affairs programming. Yet, WBAI was financially successful and growing when it was taken over by Pacifica in December, 2000. WPFW, Pacifica's Washington D.C. affiliate, in contrast has abdicated Pacifica's 50 plus years mission of promoting social change by switching to a mostly music format as has its Houston station KPFT. If the leadership at Pacifica does not know how to run a progressive radio network they should follow the lead of their Treasurer Michael Palmer, a Vice-President of a nation-wide real estate company CB Richard Ellis, who recently resigned from the Pacifica Board because of the criticism that the growing movement for change at Pacifica and WBAI has generated.
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