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Bernard White interviews Valerie Van Isler
Radio Vision, Cable Channel 34
Wednesday, January 17 2001

Transcript of a portion of Bernard White's show, on which he interviews Valerie Van Isler

BW: You're listening to Radio Vision, I'm your host Bernard White here today with Ursula Rutenberg the volunteer, someone who's been locked out of WBAI, as well as Valerie Van Isler, who was Station Manager at WBAI.

BW: I just wanted to ask you some questions about how this all began, because in the beginning it was Utrice Leid who I've had several conversations with, who said on several occasions that she was going to notify Pacifica to get rid of you, even when I told her what the consequences would be, which is what we're living under right now. Do you have any idea what she was talking about? Why she was so upset with you?

VVI: I believe it goes back to the very important work that we were doing there and the search that we were doing there for a new Program Director. I had hired and supported Samori Marksman in 1994 and unfortunately Samori, who had just done magnificent work for the station oincluding the first million dollar membershiop drive we'd ever done, passed on in March. And at that point it was the consensus of the staff and many others that you'd be the Program Administrator. And you took that role, and you worked very, very hard, both in terms of Wakeup Call on the Morning Show and the Program Director responsibilities until we started conducting the official search. We had more than 35+ candidates, the candidates were interviewed, a committee of 9 people was formed from the paid staff, the unpaid staff, and also from the local board. They went through that process and it was a very conflicted process, one that was in many, many respects tainted. The outcome of that was a recommendation, a recommendation only, because the General Manager has the responsibility and the right to do that management hire.

I looked at the results, I reviewed the recommendations very, very carefully, and after thinking abot the needs of the station, the work that we had to do, the broadcast skills that were required, the technical skills that were required, the community depth and outreach and the knowledge of radio, I asked you to come on as Program Director, an assignment that you did not accept right away, you thought about it, you asked for input, and you finally accepted that job. One of the candidates for that position was in fact, Utrice Leid. It was my view and remains my view, that she had neither the broadcast experience nor the skills nor the production work nor the in-depth knowledge of radio for that position.

You came on into that role, we went through the May membership drive where we reached our goal, we went through a wonderful summer fund where reached our goal, we just did a magnificent October membership drive - the highest ever in the fall history of WBAI - where we exceeeded our goal, under the programming leadership that you brought to WBAI.

So yes there is some history here. More importantly, there is a 10-year history of work. You've been at the station for over 20 years, I've been at the station for more than 22. I'm sorry that we have to put that in past tense, I don't want to and in fact I shan't. But during that time, we have seen a number of changes, a great many changes in WBAI. I became General Manager there in 1990, and it's very interesting that we are here in 1991. I'm taking it back 10 years because it was during the first part of my term, and the Gulf War started. And we did some very special programming which your help and many people's help during that very year, which number one helped us to get out of the two or three hundred thousand dollar debt that I came in with, inherited from a past administration. We did very, very special programming. We generated a huge audience response because we really did some special things that nobody else was doing in covering that conflict.

And here on the anniversary, in fact today - 10 years later - I have just seeing our Arbitron reports, and in the work that we did together in 1999 through the Fall of 2000 in fact, we have just reached the highest audience levels that we did since the Gulf War. Our cumulative audience is over 200,000 strong, our metro - that's our metro audience. Our total state audience is over 212,000. These are higher numbers in fact than we achieved during the Gulf War. So in this period of Fall 2000, when we were working on membership drives, when we were trying to deal with things where people didn't cooperate and didn't participate, as fully as they were required to, when we had problems with the telephone system and our computer system broke down, we not only did the work but we have achieved an audience growth that is the highest of any Pacifica station, and those results came out this week.

We did the work. We balanced the budget. We paid down the past debt in 2 years, from a move where we worked so hard for 24 years to get WBAI a new home. Where we developed and ran a capital campaign to raise that money. Where we asked for listener support and they generously brought that support to us. Bert put thousands and thousands of hours on the brand new studios that were to be WBAI's new home. We built that facility! You and Amy and I and Robert and many, many many - hundreds of others, with our blood, and our sweat and with our dreams. And that very facility that we worked so hard for, and paid so dearly for, we are now banned from!

It's a - it's an interesting arc, of 10 years here: BAI has never been without problems. It is the most complex and the most difficult station - in the 10 years as General Manager there we made it the biggest station in PAcifica, and one of the leading stations in community radio. It is respected across the board - for our integrity, for our programming, and during that 10 years, I went back to the records of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I made National Director for them, advocating and working for community radio stations -2, 3, 400 of them all across this country - and this is my second term - we won more than 40 programmng awards during those 10 years! Did WBAI do its work? We did our work massively - more awards than any other Pacifica station, almost more than them all combined. So in terms of audience growth, in terms of programming awards, national programming stuff - in national competitions, where we're up against big stations and small stations - we not only hit the benchmark, but exceeded it in every respect.

BW: Well given all of that, what do you think was Pacifica's motivation in removing you?

VVI: That is um... more than a bit hard to read, because when the routine evaluation and a schedule was developed by Bessie Wash, the Executive Director, and sent to us right before Thanksgiving, I felt very, very confident. We had done these wonderful things, we knew from the financial reports that we had balanced the budget, that we had in fact a $71,000 surplus. We were going into this year prepared to grow, prepared to breathe, and for the first time we really were going to be able to move that station very, very far ahead, very quickly, since the time of our move in June of 1998. Instead of doing that, she began talking to me immediately, not mentioning the word review, evaluation or performance - about some other job in Washington, some other job that no one ever knew about.. that was not funded as far as anybody was concerned, and my first question was... was why? Given the fact that we had hit the benchmark and WBAI had done its work and had done its work magnificently with the help of all the staff. Um... she never gave me an answer. The response was always "It's personnel and confidential." Well I'm the personnel, and I never got an answer. Staff asked this question, they were the personnel, they never got an answer.

What does it go back to? I've talked to many of the former Executive Directors, with whom I worked during these 10 years, and even before that. It is their view that no decision like this is made without the backing, knowledge and support - not of the entire Board because most of the Board as far as I'm concerned, and as far as they've told me - did not know about this move, did not know about this contemplated dismissal - knew nothing about it in fact. However the Executive Committee, which is a small, really controlling body within the Pacifica National Board, probably knew, according to past Executive Directors, and that's where this entire momentum may have come from.

Miss Wash denied that, she said she made this decision on her own, and it was an operational decision. Others say to the contrary, that you don't do a move like this, which placed the station in complete jeopardy - I was given 2 days to decide about some job that didn't exist, and the future and the present of WBAI - without question, because we have never betrayed that station, we have always worked for it, 7 and more days a week - that we would never betray WBAI, that the stand was there because we understood what was at stake - our present and our future.

And as the terrible lockdown - and lockout - and what is called the Christmas coup - demonstrated, it was about other staff there, which we said from the start, it was about the programming, which was immediately attacked, and this is programming that has been award-winning in every respect: Wakeup Call - the Betty Shabazz interview, a Golden Reel winner, Amy Goodman - East Timor, Dupont, Robert F. Kennedy, a Golden Reel winner. You could - I could name all 40 of them! But let that suffice as an example of the extraordinary work that we have been able to do in 10 years!

And with WBAI ready to take off, having cleared the decks there, we were in a position to do some really, really important work, and um...then they decided to move! I don't think...again, there's a connection here with the National Board, which has not fulfilled and is not fulfilling the mission of the Pacifica organization, nor the charter - one in which we so deeply believe - and that has kept us here for the past 2 decades.

BW: Are there any regrets that you have? Do you think that there might have been some things that you could have done a little differently? Because it seemed that one of the things that Utrice Leid was able to do was to galvanize a handful of people, not the majority of the staff, a handful of people around the idea of eliminating you from WBAI.

VVI: I think over 10 years, with as difficult and as complex and as rich and as vibrant a station as WBAI, there are just wonderful opportunities to do many things right and well, and there are also opportunities not taken, that should have been. I would say on the whole that in terms of working with the staff, there are 200 producers, 150 producers there, it was a relationship not only of warmth, but of real support, because they were on our air, helping with the fundraising - I'd see them in the hallway, I saw them on Saturday, I saw them on Sunday. Looking back, um... yes, there are things that we needed to do better and stronger, um...you know, no one has ever claimed to be a St. Teresa here, much less in Pacifica. I am the only female minority General Manager that that station has ever had, and that was very difficult in the beginning, when I started. The station now does not look like what it was in the 1980's or in 1990! I made a full and real commitment to Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, so that the station would reflect the city. BAI did not look like that in the 19960's nor the 1970's nor even the 1980's. So many, many things I think were done right and well, and based on principal, because it's the principal here!

We are 2 days, 3 days away from the anniversary, the holiday for Martin Luther King, and he said very clearly in one of the wonderful speeches, that if you're not willing to live on principals and for principals, then you're dead already.

Our work on WBAI has always been to nurture and keep that station alive because the service to the community was the most important thing to us. At no time during these 10 years have we banned people, at no time have we had that station closed to people, we have had elderly groups, we have had seniors, we have had students, we have had high school tours, we have had foreign journalists come in there, to enjoy the station, learn about it, we've talked to them, we've spoken to them, because as a community radio station, which is our license, what is it not if it is not completely open to access, and to the community, not just in New York City, but the nation and the world? And we made it that way. It no longer, I believe, can be called a community station.


BW: We've just about come to the end of the program. Do you have any closing statements?

VVI: Yes. WBAI and the other stations, but particularly our BAI in New York, funded by the listeners, built by the listeners, ported by the listeners, is a jewel beyond compare. Everything is at stake in this struggle, which is not a new one. It's more intense now, than I believe it's ever been since 1977. That jewel is at stake. People must do all that they can, whatever they can, taking what means are necessary to preserve and protect WBAI. This is not just a local story, although there are pieces in The New York Times today, there are 2 pieces in the Village Voice, and I did a count there were 5 or 6 pieces in Newsday current, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Bay Guardian - this is a national story. And because we are streaming on the internet - something that we brought in about 2 years ago - it is really an international story. BAI is recognized for the integrity, the quality, and the um...the grit of its programming, that..that..grain of honesty, that grain of truth that we always had as part of our hallmark. That tradition needs to continue. The fired and the banned need to be returned. This is not the kind of atmosphere, this is not the kind of situation that we can have when we have major battles to fight over the next 4 years. As we fought them in 1996, one of the Republicans came in at that time, and threatened all of public broadcasting, but especially Pacifica radio, and especially a place like WBAI. So the stakes here are maximum. And the stakes require committment.