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WBAI General Manager statement at staff
programming workshop

Remarks by Don Rojas, station manager, at WBAI's Programming Philosophy [staff] Retreat- ----Saturday, January 10, 2004

Dear Colleagues,

It is good to see that many of you were able to make it to this gathering today in spite of the bitter cold.

I wish to focus most of my comments this morning on the relationship between programming, station identity/public image and long-term financial viability.

While it is easy to say what WBAI is not, it is more difficult to define just
what we are. Let me begin with what we're not:
We're not a music station
We're not a news station
We're not an all-talk station
We're not a black station
We're not a white station
We're not a Latin station

We are a curious and unique hybrid of all the above. We are a little bit of all these things..and more. What's the 'more'? That's what I believe we need to focus on in today's discussions---the challenges and responsibilities of programming a unique radio station, one with a progressive social mission, an active membership and tens of thousands of listeners.

Here's what we invariably say we are:
Community radio
Free-speech radio
Independent radio
Non-commercial radio
Non-conformist radio
Listener-sponsored radio
Alternative radio
Peace and Justice radio

While all these descriptions are accurate, there's one over-arching definition that I am most comfortable with---progressive radio.

On the flip side, here's how a huge swath of the general public and, I might add, the mainstream media views WBAI: a motley, dysfunctional assortment of self-absorbed people who live on the fringes---crazy anarchists, aging hippies, burnt-out radicals, angry nationalists, bleeding-heart lefties, conspiracy theorists---constantly fighting each other and airing each other's dirty laundry in public..a place full of intrigue and confusion..perpetual crisis, perennial instability etc, etc.

Not a pretty picture. Not a wholesome image. The derisiveness, notwithstanding, this public image is not altogether inaccurate, however. Our image is in dire need of a facelift. So the time has come for us to define ourselves more clearly and more precisely, especially to the new listeners we seek to reach, and the most important tool we have to shape an attractive and appealing new image is our on-air programming.

Questions about our public image are important because they impact on our very survival and on our prospects for future growth. Indeed, WBAI and Pacifica are more public than National Public Radio in the sense that 90% of our financial support, our bread and butter, so to speak, our sustenance comes directly from the listening public and not from foundation grants and corporate underwriting.

Image and identity for us become even more critical concerns today as we are forced to distinguish ourselves from NPR (which has morphed into corporate-lite radio) and soon we will be confronted by a new player on the field-the liberal talk-radio network backed by investors with millions of dollars which is expected to be launched in five major markets, including New York City, sometime in the Spring of 2004.

So is the answer to sound more like NPR or rather do we want to shape a decidedly different, compelling identity that distinguishes us from these competitors and accrues to us a new-found respect and influence in the communities of the New York tri-state area. I believe that we can all agree on the latter approach.

I'm personally convinced that we can win that respect and grow that influence by being more assertively progressive both in our on-air programming and in our off-air public profile. We have an opportunity now to be viewed seriously by tens of thousands of potential new listeners who are turned off by the lies, distortions, deceits and double standards of mainstream media and are looking for progressive alternatives.

We must become a respected player in the arena of serious public discourse. To do so, we must raise the intellectual quality of all aspects of our programming- --public affairs, arts, news-and produce progressive radio that sounds professional, that gives priority to high-quality production values. Progressive radio does not have to sound amateurish. The quality of programming directly affects the bottom line. The formula is simple: better programming equals more listeners, equals more revenues, equals financial stability.

Furthermore, progressive radio must not merely be the alternative sound to corporate media or to NPR, it must be the alternative voice actively confronting the spread of the US empire at home and abroad. WBAI and Pacifica must become the media that exposes the empire's value system, that discredits the empire's theories, that negates the empire's oppressive ideology. We must produce credible radio that challenges the spread of rightist influence in government, the media and the academy.

The Bush regime's policies of homeland insecurity now being foisted on tens of millions of Americans who live in the geographical center of the empire demands that we respond with mass media which, as a matter of moral responsibility, defends the basic democratic rights and civil liberties of all Americans.

Serious progressive radio in these times must become uncompromisingly anti- imperialist, not anti-American, not anti-semetic, not anti-white, or anti-black but anti-imperialist. But progressive radio like ours does not always have to be so serious, does not always have to rant and rave or spew anger and hate. Programming that is anti-empire in its nature does not have to be boring or strident. It is not about mouthing slogans and regurgitating rhetoric.

Progressive radio should also be entertaining and funny, subtle and creative--- radio that engages, educates and inspires, radio that makes us and our listeners think critically but also moves us all to sing and dance, radio that brings our diverse communities together to celebrate our common humanity, to tap into each other's strengths, to build bridges that promote dialogue and mutual respect, bridges that connect the personal with the political..radio that, in the final analysis, empowers our listeners.

Our programming must aim to build unity without uniformity in the WBAI community, a unity that stands not on the basis of some abstract ideal but on the basis of our common economic and political interests as subjects of the empire.

Sisters and brothers, while there's a lot of discussion and debate at BAI, both on and off air around issues of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, I submit that there's far too little attention paid to issues of class. While it is undeniably true that we live in a racist, sexist and homophobic society, we often overlook the central, defining characteristic of the empire that we live in---a system of class oppression and economic exploitation. Conditions of empire-economic war at home and shooting wars abroad---are the daily realities for the vast majority of humanity and our programming, in its various manifestations, should focus more on those realities.

So as we begin our discussions today on the pivotal question of moving towards a coherent programming philosophy for WBAI, we should explore whether there should be an agreed-upon set of principles or ideas around which the eclectic programming at the station should cohere. Should we search for a common denominator, a thread that stitches together the wonderful diversity of programs, and if there is such a thread should it be highlighted more than we've been doing.

I think that in searching for such a thread, it would do us well to reflect on some of the passages in the Pacifica Mission Statement (copies of which are available on the literature table on the side) especially the one that says:

"to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors..to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all such groups and through any and all such groups and through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this corporation to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms."

Finally, dear colleagues, as staff and producers let us in 2004 begin to think more of WBAI not merely as a place where 'I have a job' or where 'I have a show' but as an agent for progressive social change, as an institution that fights for peace, justice, democracy and equality for all peoples. I wish us all a very productive retreat.

Forward Ever, Backward Never.

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