by Jeff Land
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 93-101
The Pacifica radio network remains, after 46 years, one of the more fascinating institutions of the post war counterculture. The first successful experiment in listener-sponsored radio, Berkeley's KPFA began as an idea of Lewis Hill and his allies in 1946 who envisioned a radio station which would promote pacifist awareness in the face of the looming Cold War. Concerned that the nonviolent movement which emerged from the carnage of the Second World War lacked public support, Hill, a conscientious objector during the war, wrote:
Pacifica was begun by persons whose humanistic, but not leftist politics, disdain for mass culture, and overall altruism led them to invent and then remain with the impoverished phenomenon of commercial-free radio. Most of the original personnel and many subsequent volunteers had technical skills which could have earned them a good wage in the world of corporate media. With ecumenical taste, the original broadcasters had a general sense what good radio sounded like — modeled heavily on the BBC. They innovated a form of broadcasting which would neither pander to nor berate their listeners, whom they imagined to be much like themselves: a liberal, cultured middle class who were sick of the insipid commercialism of the mass media. They synthesized their politics — a combination of Paine and Gandhi — and their aesthetics — Arnoldian modernism — with little problem. While the aesthetics and politics may have had no natural relation to each other, the two complemented each other in varying from the apolitical entertainment of commercial media.
KPFA, the first of the current five Pacifica stations, went on the air in April 1948 with the specific injunction to
Hill's staunch pacifism was joined with an equally vehement attachment to the U.S. tradition of civil liberties and dissent. His radio network would consistently herald its freedoms under the First Amendment to challenge the emerging Cold War consensus, an audacious and indeed unprecedented stand for any of the broadcast media of the time. With its consistent engagement with political struggles of the post war world, Pacifica has invited alliances with nearly all the different transformatory movements of the past fifty years, from the Beats and Hipsters to the Weather Underground, from practitioners of holistic medicine to ACT-UP.
Because Pacifica situated itself not as a neutral observer but as an engaged participant within these movements, difficulties inevitably have arisen between providing an uncensored environment for individual expression and creativity, while at the same time enabling a large number of communities' and groups' access to the airwaves (which means abiding by the mandate of federal license requirements). The creative tension between promoting the radical transformation of society within a licensed, communally oriented institution has served to push Pacifica beyond being just a broadcast medium. At heart the network strives toward a synthesis which combines community and liberty. It has also pioneered a number of media innovations: the use FM broadcasting when almost no other broadcasters were interested in that channel, the transformation of talk- and call-in radio from a realm of fabricated candor into an uninhibited forum, and the creation of "underground" radio of the 60s and "community" media in the 70s. Here I wish to examine one of the most contentious epochs in Pacifica's legacy: the struggles at its New York outlet, WBAI, from the late 60s to the mid 70s, a period during which the station first saw tremendous growth and equally precipitous decline and turmoil.
KPFA's iconoclastic programming had led New York philanthropist Louis Schweitzer to donate the license of his commercial FM station, WBAI, to the Pacifica Foundation in 1959. (It is said that the first person Schweitzer spoke with hung up the phone believing him to be a crank.) In the late 50s and early 60s, the radicalism of Pacifica's broadcasts was based on its eclectic musical programming and educational and political series on issues rarely dealt with by the mainstream media — such as the Kennedy administration's subterfuge in pursuing a nuclear arms build-up. While these elements remain vital aspects of broadcasts now, the Vietnam War and upsurge of protest against it had an immense impact on the role played by the network's three stations during the 60s. WBAI's changing moniker indicates its transformations over the course of the 60s and 70s: "free speech radio" evolved into "free radio," finally "community radio." These name shifts indicate both the increasing spontaneity of numerous live programs as well as the utopian expectations these programs elicited from their audiences. This latter phenomenon in particular shaped WBAI's pioneering role in creating what we today call community radio.
WBAI's "free" or "live" radio programs during this period were arguably among the most innovative and explosive mass media ever broadcast in the United States. Yet, this remarkable achievement's blessing and curse was that its creative impulse derived in large measure from its symbiotic relation with listeners' expanding opposition to the Vietnam War. As the Movement splintered, first ideologically in the late 60s, and then in practice with the end of the war, the imaginary connection unifying WBAI's audience underwent immense transformation. This change, however, does not represent the end of WBAI's story. After analyzing briefly the station's development in the 60s, I will trace how different "communities" or new social movements began participating in programming during and especially after the antiwar movement. This was the genesis of community radio.
As the vice president of WBAI's local board put it,
Ultimately, the situation became intolerable, and the station went silent in the wake of a forty-five day strike in 1977.
In New York City during the height of 60s social ferment, radio station WBAI played a central role in the vast counterculture. According to Larry Josephson, announcer, producer, station manager, and longtime member of the Pacifica family, WBAI "helped make the 60s what they were in New York. Everybody listened" (Josephson, 1993). Although precise audience figures are unreliable, in the late 60s perhaps 600,000 tuned in to 99.5 FM each week for "free radio": news, agitation, music, and live coverage of rallies, sit-ins, be-ins, happenings, protests, and street theater. This vast, passionately devoted community of listeners actively participated in all aspects of the station: in producing the shows as volunteers, in phoning in to the many call-in shows, and in attending events and demonstrations which the station promoted. By 1971 almost thirty thousand chose to sustain the station by paying ten to thirty dollars annually as subscribers.
To see how WBAI largely produced New York's counterculture, it is important to understand the role Bob Fass, host of "Radio Unnameable," now in its thirty-first year. (See Sand, 1994) In WBAI program guides from the early 60s, listeners were invited to tune in at 1:00 A.M. to "listen to the grass grow." (WBAI, 1964) What they heard on Fass' show was a completely unprecedented ("unnameable") melange of music, poetry, political analysis, stream of consciousness monologues, and phone calls from the audience — the cabal."
With his instinctive psychological acumen, avuncular demeanor, and extraordinary dexterity on the soundboard, Fass was a master radio artisan. More important than his effortless skill using WBAI's archaic equipment was the ineffable immediacy of his show's tone. Fass' deep baritone, coached by years of theatrical training, was as an instrument perfectly suited to mediate the counterculture's utopian premises and political strategizing. Within two years "Radio Unnameable's" nightly extravaganza emerged as one of New York's central loci where, like Berkeley's Sproul Plaza,
The show had no format. Prior to Fass, WBAI simply signed off around midnight. When he volunteered to fill early a.m. hours, he could do whatever he pleased. (By 1967 his audience was so vast that the station needed to hire a personal secretary in order to keep up with the amount of mail and phone calls his show generated.) It is claimed that "Blowin' in the Wind" had its radio debut on "Radio Unnameable." Abbie Hoffman, another good friend, called in daily during recesses from the Chicago 8 Trial to give live updates of the court's progress after Pass began to augment his nightly broadcasts with a daytime program as well.
By the mid-60s "Radio Unnameable" had taken on a life of its own. For the emerging counterculture it had become
During the same period, by all accounts the station had the most extensive and in-depth war coverage in the New York metropolitan area in spite of being the poorest major media outlet. In 1967 a reporter noted that the station owned "only four tape recorders, and half were in Vietnam." (Powell, nd)
WBAI, Louis Schweitzer's donation, which joined the Pacifica family in 1960 and stressed somewhat austere public affairs shows, jazz, folk, and classical music, poetry and drama, now hitched itself to the Moment's combustion to become something completely different. By 1967 a new generation of programmers — Larry Josephson, Steve Post, and somewhat later, Julius Lester — all began experimenting with "live radio." This unclassifiable bricolage would begin and end each broadcast day, waking WBAI's listeners in the morning whenever Josephson arrived to turn on the microphone and easing them to sleep when Pass received his show's last phone call, at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. One might accurately trace a line from Fass' boundless energy, engaged dialogue, and unconventional play lists to both Josephson's blend of humor, Jewish angst, and iconoclasm and to the Yippies' throwing $1 bills onto the New York Stock Exchange.
But a more important and subtle effect permeated outward from "Radio Unnameable" into WBAI's overall soundscape and thence into the culture generally. Before broadcasters understood something called "community radio," WBAI's "free radio" and call-in programs were defining one version of what such a thing could be. While the experimental poetry and fora on such arcane topics as television in Africa still had slots in the broadcast day, the live phone-in shows with Post, Josephson, Fass, Lester, and others functioned as a fulcrum, raising audience exceptions that the station would deliver more than education and entertainment. WBAI demonstrated that radio was uniquely situated to catalyze an immense, ceaseless conversation about the possibilities of the new age. In the midst of the inchoate energies which the 60s and the Vietnam War had stirred up, the station assumed the immense responsibility of mediating the Movement's understanding of itself in the New York megalopolis.
The first major spectacle which Fass choreographed using his show was a "Fly-In" at Kennedy Airport, an event which set the stage for New York's first "Be-in" in Central Park a few months later. Pass spent the weeks of early 1967 inviting the "cabal" to venture to Kennedy Airport's international terminal on February 11th at 1:00 a.m. to admire the Calder mobile and the lights from the planes. An estimated 3,000 participated. Recalls one participant:
"I went there on my own without knowing if anyone else would come. I walked into the terminal and sure enough, no one was there. But then I heard this applause, so I looked up. And all around the balcony were hundreds of people—freaks — greeting everyone who came with this ovation...Everybody was high, everybody knew everyone else was high. Even though we had never met, because we were all connected through Fass, we felt connected to each other. It was like being part of the greatest party you could imagine, in the middle of this huge airport at 1 a.m." (Mclsaac, 1993)
Steve Post, who programmed the early morning slot on weekends, responded by calling for a Central Park "Fat-In" in which revelers burned life-sized posters of Twiggy while feasting on ice cream.
These theatrical, participatory events originating from the station, which knit together an ever larger collective, were of a piece with such programs as the round-the-clock coverage of the Columbia student rebellion in 1968, the use of the station switchboard as an extensive calendar and hotline, and, somewhat later, the concerts, readings, and consciousness-raising sessions held in the studio before live audiences. All the while, conversations on literature and poetry, music, and erudite investigation of "Guy Fawkes and British radicalism" continued on the air, albeit without dominating the schedule. Unlike addressing a small, educated elite which Hill saw his Berkeley station serving in 1950 — during an ongoing political witch hunt at a time when less than 15% of the audience even owned an FM tuner — WBAI broadcast on a 50,000 watt station in the middle of the dial in the world's largest media market to an audience poised for revolutionary change. Hundreds of thousands of people
This exuberance seems only a slight exaggeration given Fass' participation in the founding of the Yippies in early 1968, his close and abiding friendship with Paul Krassner, Jerry Rubin, and Hoffman, and his personal participation in the Chicago demonstrations. WBAI's extraordinary experiment probing the dialogic and propagandistic capacities of radio lasted beyond its birth in the 60s. In the early 70s the station found itself confronting new political and economic circumstances and a changing social milieu.
CRISIS AT WBAI
By the turn of the decade most of the counterculture (and straight) community in New York knew that WBAI's call-in programs would provide a safe space for someone to chat about their homosexual lover, their phobias, or problems with their rabbi. And they knew that thousands of others were listening in. New producers, notably gay and feminist activists, began blending programs into the daily schedule that included the older "personality-based" broadcasting, as critics would designate the shows of Fass and his epigones. The new shows' appeal rested more on frank and often eloquent discussions between host and audience than on "free radio's" hallucinogenic blending of music, sound effects, agitation, and spoken word. "Live radio" invited listeners to become part of some vast underground conspiracy which everyone already knew about; the newer shows were less flamboyant. In them, previously silenced, invisible or ostracized groups emerged into the media limelight and found they could recognize and speak with each other. I would not want to make this into a hard and fast distinction, but over time the subtle differences in programming style and politics widened.
As the 60s ended, these newer programs reached out to new listeners, expanding the distinct audiences WBAI served. It is at this moment, when Puerto Rican and Black nationalists, radical lesbians, Asian-American activists, feminist spokespeople, and newly empowered ecologists all begin regularly scheduled programs, that "community radio" is born. According to many accounts, no one single show or personality mattered the most, but the sequence of so many of them, one following another in a broadcast day, had an ineffable quality, with the callers and hosts engaged in an unrelenting, collective effort to speak honestly about simple issues like housework or defusing stereotypes of Greco-Americans. On paper these topics hardly seem of the same magical dimension as the "Fly-In," but for the people who heard and responded to the shows and who ended up relying on them for nurturance and education, such programming was of supreme significance. As several people recall:
Critics have called some of the programs from the newer movements amateurish, hosted by people who knew little about "good radio." One listener wrote in 1972:
As examples of silly and peripheral programs, this listener cites a preponderance of "feminist orgasm worship" and his displeasure with Charles Pitts. Pitts was the radical host of the country's first regularly scheduled, openly gay radio program, and this critic calls him "spiteful, intolerant, and tedious, and a querulous spoiled brat to boot." (Ibid.)
WBAI had been relatively solvent during the late 60s. It had launched a major fund drive and in early 1971 moved its operations to a large church, a comfortable, well-equipped facility fondly remembered by all who worked there. The nearly 30,000 subscribers who pledged yearly support in the early 70s for a service which they could get for free was a huge number by subsequent standards — subscriptions plummeted to 8,000 after the disastrous strike in 1977. The cushion of some major outside funding and a large subscriber base enabled WBAI's experiment in diversifying its programming to continue into the 70s — at least until 1974. In that year, several difficulties concerning station financing began to converge.
The first hint of a problem had occurred in 1969. A guest on Julius Lester's program, "The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution," read an anti-Semitic poem written by a Black teen over the air. The poem had been as a response to the teacher strike and the turmoil in Ocean Hill/ Brownsville over community control of schools, where tensions had boiled over in a confrontation between the largely Jewish teachers' union and the local Black community's desire to hire and fire school personnel. Lester, a prominent spokesperson for the civil rights and Black nationalist movements, did not himself advocate the poem's vitriolic, pro-Hitler sentiments, but the program elicited enormous response, leading to pickets at the station and ongoing public outcry. The station took a principled First Amendment stand, acknowledging that some listeners were offended but arguing that Albert Shanker and racists within the teachers' union had exaggerated the incident. In this imbroglio, which included death threats and other hints of violence, Lester's staunchest allies were the station's Jewish programmers (Post, Josephson, and others) while his comrades in the Black community remained largely silent. (Lester subsequently converted to Judaism.) Although the station's mass subscription base did not greatly suffer from this controversy, a core group of "wealthy Jewish communists" who were generous to the station in the past became reluctant to give as much support as before. (Josephson, 1993)
Union leader Margot Adler, feminist host of early a.m. call-in show "Hour of the Wolf" which combined public affairs and personal commentary, has no doubt when the station's real difficulties began.
From Adler's perspective the large audience for both the free radio of the 60s and the newer shows in the early 70s were primarily drawn from people listening to the two daily news shows and late-evening war summaries.
No one would dispute the assessment that the station's financial success was largely the fruit of WBAI's award-winning news team, which since 1965 provided New York's most comprehensive coverage of both the war and the antiwar Movement. In 1965 news director Chris Koch was one of the first Americans to produce programs directly from Hanoi, a clandestine feat for which he was fired from the station, only to return with honor after subscribers rallied to his support. Dale Minor won an Armstrong Award for his on the scene coverage of the campaign around Da Nang in 1967. Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai story on WBAI in 1969.
These famous highlights of WBAI's war reporting deserve all the accolades they have garnered. However they should not obscure the central importance of what WBAI, and its sister stations in the Pacifica network, accomplished as a daily phenomenon. It was the only media outlet in New York which made extensive use of Agence Française, which was the sole major western news agency with a staff in Hanoi. WBAI's lengthy morning and evening news reports of the war were supplemented in 1967 by a new Washington news bureau, as well as by hundreds of special public-affairs programs on all aspects of government policy. Combined with the station's involvement with the antiwar Movement — live coverage of demonstrations, teach-ins, and strikes — and the extensive bulletin board/calendar service which it broadcast daily, the programming around the Vietnam war built a huge audience who habitually listened to WBAI. This listenership was the station's bread and butter, the mass base from which experiments in "free radio" could draw an audience. As one longtime staff member put it:
Assessing such a dynamic situation is complicated. The individual programmers — especially the feminists — recount an unquestionable sense of "calling" about their work at the station, an attitude which may have deepened during the postwar period. Even a small audience by commercial standards might mean 30,000-50,000 listeners, a considerable number by the measure of the print media or public speaking. The times were confusing; one era was ending without any clearly defined new one emerging. For that reason, WBAI's producers and audience depended ever more on the common etheric space in which they had habitually gathered to make collective sense of what was happening.
While Pacifica's history has been plagued by financial insecurity, WBAI's success in attracting subscribers in the late 60s perhaps dulled the edge which a fear of poverty had forged. As the red ink began to mount in late 1973, eliminating staff seemed unthinkable. When the station faced escalating financial problems in 1974 in a clear act of solidarity, many salaried personnel opted for pay cuts. Several now claim that they would have worked for nothing, believing the thrill of being on the air provided enough compensation ("the greatest high of all"). Indeed, some key staff members did work for almost nothing — under $10,000 for fulltime work in 1975. Yet, in spite of all this altruism, one must consider the assessment offered by Larry Josephson, the station manager in 1974 when the troubles first began to threaten overall operations:
Thus by the mid-70s two contradictory phenomena intersected. For a decade WBAI's staff had experimented in fulfilling "the social destiny of radio" in an unprecedented manner. If not every experiment succeeded, this did not diminish the staff's accomplishment using the power of broadcasting to create a vastly expanded, heterogeneous public sphere. However, one price of this success was an increasing distance on the part of some of the most experienced hosts from the exigencies of keeping the station financially viable.
As the financial situation worsened, a series of charges of sexism, racism, and elitism aggravated this complex situation. Since its founding in 1960, WBAI was dominated by a largely white, male staff. Women programmers struggled to intervene in this heavily male environment. The most well-known, pioneering feminist broadcaster, Nanette Rainone, began producing "CR" in 1970, a show in which female listeners participated weekly in a two-hour, on-air consciousness raising session. Rainone's program simply featured "a group of women honestly discussing their lives." (Post, 1993, p. 104) In one of the more dramatic programs, women were invited to come with their mothers to the studio for gynecological self-help sessions. Unlike the late night and early morning call-in shows, "CR" was broadcast midday, probably
The show's calls were screened to prevent men from participating, a controversial practice which in certain respects ran counter to Pacifica's traditional claims to freedom of speech.
Nonetheless, Rainone, who became station Program Director in late 1971, served as a model for a range of producers, men and women, as they filled the air with call-in shows and public affairs programs which attempted to realize the revolutionary feminist injunction to connect the personal and the political. Responding to the charge that Rainone and other new programmers were diluting WBAI's message, General Manager Ed Goodman wrote in 1973 that
Others did not defend Rainone, however, citing her tenure as program director as the moment when the station began to Balkanize, with each host staking claim to precious airtime without regard to overall scheduling blend. Whether the struggle to bring feminist consciousness to WBAI was fondly or bitterly recalled, there is little dispute that both WBAI's programming and internal staff relations confronted some of the core issues of feminism and patriarchy during this period.
Less successfully addressed were the subtler issue of elitism and the vast problem of racism. The charges of elitism at WBAI were less a direct attack on Pacifica's "highbrow" approach to programming — which was far less hegemonic in New York in 1970 than it was in Berkeley — than a reflection of its complex class dynamics and the peculiar psychology of white guilt found generally in the New Left and epitomized by the New York Jewish left in particular. Most WBAI programmers were moderately affluent children of the middle class whose political sensibilities were forged during the cauldron of the 60s. Participation in a range of civil rights and anti-imperialist movements led them to attempt to idealize bonds of solidarity with those outside their own class background. (There was no indication of this particular vision in Lewis Hill's genuinely pro-labor orientation when he founded Pacifica in the 40s.) However well-intentioned and motivated they were, in their utopian zeal, members of the staff never discovered a populist, truly cross-class form of programming, which might invite "the silent majority" to keep their radios tuned to 99.5. This dilemma, now almost three decades old, struck many staff members far more acutely in 1970 than it does today. In this regard it bears repeating that Hill and earlier leaders of Pacifica had no illusions about using intellectual and avant-garde programming to reach a mass audience. Such a goal would have run counter to their mandarin vision of broadcasting only excellent and challenging cultural work in order to influence "leading opinion makers."
The complexities of politics and programming are summed up neatly by Josephson. According to his analysis, the network, reliant on volunteer labor and hence lacking normal criteria for screening employees, has chronically suffered from a split between two groups — the "radio people" and "the politicos." (Josephson, 1993) Pacifica was founded and sustained by media professionals, but has always attracted those who see it less as a radio network than as a bully pulpit for various causes. By the mid-60s Pacifica attracted more and more commentators who were basically political agitators. This group had sophisticated and important insights into U.S. society, but, according to Josephson, in their idealism (or dogmatism) they simply lacked the patience to master the skills of "good" radio. Unlike the first generation of "radio people," these newer broadcasters tended to show less tolerance for diverse opinions and seemed generally unconcerned with the formal elements of interesting sounding broadcasts.
In Josephson's narrative, the fundamental problem facing WBAI in the mid-70s was that activists ("radical lesbian ayatollahs") overwhelmed and eliminated media professionals such as himself, leading the station to emit a much less attractive overall sound. This process did not happen all at once. Nonetheless, by 1973 Fass went on extended leave; Josephson planned to move to the Bay area; Julius Lester had left, lamenting in his farewell note that WBAI was becoming more of a radio station and less of a community. There was a suspicion that the glory days had passed.
Josephson's overview rings true to a large extent, although it hardly has gone unchallenged. Countering his overly neat division are those who believe it was Josephson's own elitism and timidity in committing WBAI to an even more overtly political schedule when he became interim General Manager in 1974, which led many "politicos" to experience the feeling of airtime scarcity. While it may be an exaggeration that "Larry had no politics at all" (Wesson, 1993), Josephson was, by his own admission, not someone who wanted "to use WBAI to save the world." (Josephson, 1993) He was also clearly more impressed than many other staff members by the power of major fund-raisers on the Board of Directors to purchase the church building for the station on the strength of a promissory note. These "liberals" believed that the larger budget needed after moving to the church meant that WBAI could no longer afford to act so purist about sources of income. For this faction, development energy should go toward obtaining larger grants and major donor contributions, mitigating the station's reliance on its diminishing listener-sponsorship.
Pursuing such a funding strategy greatly impacted the facts of life at the station. On-the-air marathons might still glorify WBAI as "the voice of the Movement," but the overall requirements of grantsmanship led Josephson and others to stress the programming's professional and technical qualities to major donors. Little things around the station began to change, which reflected this shifting orientation. Tape-recording equipment, previously available "for anyone who walked in off the street" (Woodward, 1993), was now locked up. Volunteers needing mentorship came to be seen as hindrances by the veteran programmers. And the station's overall ethos subtly shifted towards enhancing infrastructure and coddling "experts," away from unpredictable programming and radical politics. Most consequentially, in 1974 Josephson chose to suspend publication of the program guide, the Folio, in a cost-cutting effort, which to some indicated disdain for WBAI's core listeners. It is doubtful any of these problems alone would have pushed the station over the edge, but the aggregation of various difficulties proved disastrous.
The charge of racism permeates WBAI to this day (although current problems concern anti-Semitism, Afrocentrism, and, ironically, the lack of "white" programming.) The central issue facing the Board in the mid-70s, upon which they based their decision to employ new personnel, was the mediocre job WBAI had done in building a multiracial audience. The new management team made sweeping proposals for programs to build a more diverse listenership, but it did so in such a way as to offend nearly all the existing staff, leading to ever more bitter sentiments and ultimately a prolonged work stoppage. However one wishes to evaluate the specific nature of racism at WBAI during this period, on the evidence of the archives and program guides one can aver that no other broadcasting outlet in the past 45 years dedicated as much consistent airtime to civil rights, to black, brown, yellow, and Native power movements, and to third world anti-imperialist struggles as did Pacifica. At WBAI, for example, Julius Lester's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a popular and long-running program which highlighted public affairs and culture from a Black perspective. Other programs on Asian, Latino, and Native American issues were allotted regular slots.
Yet, if Lester exemplified WBAI' s commitment to diversity, some found his programs very much of a piece with the idiosyncratic, personality-centered programming which the station had cultivated since the mid-60s. A telling indication of this comes from one longtime listener who recalls Lester less for his work on Black life and politics than for his conversion to vegetarianism and the moral dilemmas he faced at Thanksgiving dinner. (Ryan, 1993) This recollection gives a good indication of the problems the Board faced as it tried to come up with a strategy to expand WBAI's coverage beyond its diminishing white, middle-class audience.
By 1975 the station was hardly "thriving on chaos." It was failing financially. There was no consistency to the daily schedule. And there was almost no audience in New York's vast nonwhite communities. For the individual programmers, each hour remained a precious sanctuary. Their smaller audiences, with whom they had developed an intricate personal relationship, were substantial. In spite of financial turmoil, these programmers remained confident that their particular show was essential in guiding New Yorkers towards the emerging ecological, gay, and feminist movements which formed and reformed through the 70s. Everyone acknowledged that there was a need for more Third World programming. Yet daily airtime was limited, and nobody wanted to cede slots for new shows.
From the Board's perspective, the "free radio" and call-in shows, which filled WBAI's schedule, had by this point become little more than vanity programming. While the programmers themselves differentiated between the Fass-inspired shows and the ones catering to the new social movements, the shows blended together within a single aural environment. In most instances these shows drew passionately devoted audiences, but as a listener-supported station, by 1974 WBAI was failing to transform enough of these listeners into subscribers. Some staff, adopting the logic of commercial broadcasting, felt that WBAI's prime central position on the FM band was going to waste. One option floated at the time was to sell WBAI's prized channel for tens of millions of dollars and relocate to another in the "left" end of the spectrum, usually reserved for educational and public broadcasting. An infusion of cash, it was argued, would have enhanced the entire network, not just the New York station. Unfortunately suspicions were running very high, and no faction was in a strong enough position to negotiate such a radical plan.
Some of the difficulties which WBAI faced in this period were generic to the challenges confronting alternative media more generally. As the 60s ended, how might nontraditional channels represent the new political forces in a way that was both honest and partisan? More importantly, what could inspire the devotion of a creative staff willing to work long hours for little money in a period which the grand inspirations of revolutionary anti-imperialism or the Age of Aquarius were on the wane? Given how quickly the new movements were factionalized, especially along the liberal/radical axis, engaged reporters found themselves in awkward situations, attempting to produce stories that would inform a larger audience without offending or betraying their activist friends. This conundrum at WBAI, which first arose in the reporting on the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, took on the quality of pitched battles. Should, for example, innovative, pioneering gay programmers such as Charles Pitts use their program to talk about "how wonderful it was to 'diddle' little boys?" (Mclsaac, 1993) Should feminists consistently promote a radical separatist line, screening out less controversial positions or male callers, thereby contradicting a central premise of "free speech radio"? As these issues arose in WBAI, mainstream media were hiring more young, politically committed journalists, providing real salaries and larger audiences. It was difficult to attract skilled, committed professionals to the life of poverty which Pacifica promised.
Different observers lay the blame for WBAI's troubles on a variety of causes:
Undisputed is the fact that between 1971-1976 the station had lost half its subscribers (from 30,000 to 15,000) and was increasing its debt, ultimately losing the church building in 1979 in a complicated tax case, where the state revoked the station's educational status. No single person or ideology shoulders the burden of guilt for this decline. More than anything else, the ending of the 60s zeitgeist seemed to deflate the innovatory zeal which WBAI experienced for almost a decade. (Sand, 1994) Given how severe the problems were becoming, one might well wonder how WBAI managed to maintain itself without any basic transformations until 1976.
In the fall of 1976, the Board hired a new General Manager, Anna Kosof; she in turn appointed a new Program Director, Pablo Yoruba Guzman. By most accounts, Kosof, Guzman, and their supporters on the Board were unprepared for the intense turmoil their new management team initiated. Those highly critical of the manner in which the managers attempted to change station practices concede that Guzman and Kosof did not create the problems they were hired to remedy. Nonetheless, it seems that this new management team, especially Kosof, was not "in sync" with WBAI's libertarian and idiosyncratic culture. Kosof had been a long-time organizer in community, affirmative action and drug treatment programs. Guzman, a former WBAI programmer, had been a highly visible and effective public-relations coordinator of the Puerto Rican activist organization, the Young Lords, before becoming involved in the local salsa music business.
This was a moment in which the station made a conscientious attempt to transform its entire schedule in order to redefine itself as a "community station." Guzman's first (last, and only) order of business was his proposal for a completely revised schedule using salsa to draw in a larger audience, especially those potential listeners from New York's burgeoning Third World community. Kosof, in her role as manager, struggled to remedy what she saw as rampant internal chaos with operational directives ("no pot smoking in the employee lounge") and more significantly with injunctions that the staff stop discussing internal station politics on the air.
Throughout the fall of 1976 the paid and volunteer staff began holding ad hoc meetings in order to present the Board with a united front opposing the impending changes. Although the staff shared little genuine solidarity about larger programming goals or about how to stem the financial hemorrhage, the simple fact of the meetings, which originally had 60-80 participants, seemed encouraging. However, as an example of the quandary the staff found itself in, when Kosof offered to resign in November, many rallied behind her, not because they believed she was well-suited for her position but in order to prevent another torturous search for a General Manager. As one participant recounted, the meetings which led to unionization in late 1976 became increasingly agonizing. Everyone realized that change was imperative, but no one seemed able to articulate the actual forms change should take. (Wesson, 1993) United in their desire to retain the maximum time to broadcast their individual programs, the staff's lack of coherent long-term strategy meant that outsiders had to intervene and transform a basically dysfunctional system.
Guzman, more than Kosof, was cast as the antagonist in the drama as it played itself out. Although WBAI surely needed someone experienced with affirmative action policies, Kosof seemed too alien to the WBAI phenomenon, "a straight, uptight woman who didn't have a drop of 60s blood in her body." (Wesson, 1993) In contrast, Guzman was a former WBAI programmer, Movement activist, and dynamic personality. Several programmers originally believed that he understood the nuances of station politics and could change things. His plan to institute a consistent and popular daily schedule which emphasized salsa music and programming aimed primarily at the Latino and Black communities seemed a plausible proposal as a place to begin negotiations.
What seemed to rile the staff, however, was Guzman's arrogance and his insinuation that he had been hired to salvage the station from some old white hippies. He justified his proposal with this claim:
If other staff members attempted to challenge his vision, they were met by charges of racism. Such race-baiting by a respected non-white activist was highly provocative — if not received as "simply ridiculous," as one opponent put it who would have welcomed more third world and salsa but not Guzman as program director. (Wesson, 1993) (It also foreshadowed problems at other stations in which Third World programmers have consistently leveled charges of racism at the Board and management.) While all the staff agreed that WBAI needed to change, Guzman seemed to lack any sympathy for the work the programmers accomplished, even though he had once been one of them. The staff's lingering idealism and an emerging, if pyrrhic, sentiment of workplace solidarity would ultimately prove strong enough to block these initial challenges for change.
In their defense, Guzman, and to a lesser extent Kosof, wanted to bring to WBAI a different democratic model for the mass media. Large, underrepresented segments of the community (loosely and positively defined as "third world") would be invited to participate in station affairs as both programmers and audience. Observers other than Guzman saw certain racism in staff resistance to his plans. The union's claims about autocratic management or the "intensity" of audience connection to a favorite host might well be true, but these qualities could not disguise another, equally compelling fact: A large number of extremely reflective, mostly white, new left and social movement activists could not accommodate some of the emerging political and cultural possibilities of the New York scene — what one now generally calls "multiculturalism politics" — and so reorient the station.
By the end of 1976, the hostility between staff and management and the impending restructuring were a constant and bitter topic dealt with in on-air programming. Finally, Kosof issued yet another memorandum calling for cessation of airing of dirty station laundry. Some of the staff refused; the memo became a topic of on-air discussion. It was at this point that Guzman announced the full plans of his "nuevo barrio" schedule, promising to build the subscription base to 50,000 members, people who were "dissatisfied by plastic radio, yet conditioned by it." (Village Voice, 1977) This only further riled the staff. In early 1977 Guzman held a public meeting to present his view of the situation. The call-in and live radio shows would continue, but now in a much more tightly-formatted overall schedule — "ribbon" as opposed to "block" programming. In this model, the entire broadcast day or week would be constructed as an integral "soundscape" rather than as a series of discrete programs. In Guzman' s words:
At this point Guzman claimed it was impossible to institute minor programming changes which would leave the basic schedule intact; to prove that, he said the obvious:
From Guzman's perspective, which also was that of the majority of the Board, apparently, WBAI could no longer afford to pay homage to the rhetoric of an individual programmer's autonomy if that meant keeping the station white and in debt. The station, according to one board member, was "suffering from too much democracy." (Village Voice, 1977) Guzman closed his presentation with a lengthy discussion of this "fresh approach" based on a daily salsa music show combined with a public affairs bureau, which would feature "nuevo barrio politics." Ironically, although he had been hired to open the station to Third World programming, Guzman fired the only Black woman on staff, Deloris Costello, apparently finding her show implicated in the old regime.
Rather than participate in further discussions, the staff viewed Guzman's plans as an effrontery and refused to negotiate. A strike or lockout began on February 11, after Kosof told the Board she no longer had control of the situation. The Board then decided to take the station off the air in order to diffuse some of the hostility. Before power could be turned off, however, an ad hoc group of twelve announcers and engineers occupied the master control room at the station as well as the transmitter in the Empire State Building in order to broadcast their position one last time. For five hours this band played music, presented staff demands and chatted with their audience. Some in the station stayed locked in for almost six weeks, surrounded and supported by other union members.
Vehement in countering the claims of racism coming from the Board and Guzman, the union insisted the strike be seen in terms of class struggle. Recalcitrant management was attempting to balance the books on the backs of employees, while using the ideology of race to divide the staff. The union had two central demands: recognition of paid and non-paid staff as union members, and changes in programming only when "consistent with Pacifica principles." New programs would be adopted only after discussions of an agreed-upon timeline negotiated by the program director and the union. As one taped press release claimed:
Hundreds of listeners formed "Friends of BAI," picketed the homes of Board members, demonstrated at the Empire State Building transmitter and maintained a round the clock vigil at the station where some of the union were locked in.
Discussions dragged on inconclusively. Initially the Board argued that only paid employees could officially be union members, but since less than 20% of the workers were paid, this position proved untenable. (Precedence for accepting unpaid staff as union members had been set at KPFA in Berkeley in earlier labor disputes.) Although the union "agreed" to let the Board retain nominal control over programming, the Board agreed not to implement Guzman' s proposals. Claiming victory, the union returned to work, appropriately enough, on April Fools Day, 1977. By the time the strike was over, Guzman was gone, followed by Kosof a year later. George Fox, the most influential and interesting member of the local Board who had the trust of some of the staff members recalls that "the crowd was a lynch mob, using microphone wire to hang Kosof." (Fox, 1993)
Most of the renegade programmers signed a letter promising to obey all FCC policies in the future and more or less were allowed to maintain their shows. As Celeste Wesson, one of key organizers of the union, put it poignantly,
No one felt any elation at the "victory" and the station "seemed like a morgue." (Ibid.) Some activists, including most notably Bob Fass, have come to feel they have "sacrificed their best years to BAI" and now wonder about the cost (Fass, 1993). Guzman's departure led to more than a decade in which "minorities" would have a very limited voice in WBAI's daily sound. By Reagan's election, most of the staff involved in the strike had left the station, driven into other careers by chronic economic problems. By the mid-80s, however, ribbon programming as it was called gradually transformed the schedule. Free radio and call-in shows still had a place, but now they fit into a weekly flow which featured third world programming and exhibited some of the structure and continuity which the Board hoped for in the mid-70s management shift.
It is tempting to consider the strike as an expression of the political unconscious of the identity-based struggles of the new social movements. Do new movement politics all "harbor a nostalgia for class?" (Jameson, 1990, p. 388) Over the course of the struggle, the various gay, feminist, and ecological, and new left programmers came to identify themselves collectively as "workers" in order to press their claims. The staff at WBAI sought to unite their various claims "by way of their common situation as workers." (Ibid, p. 386) While much emphasis by both positivist and post-Marxist theory of new social movements lies in measuring the chasm between movement and class politics, in this particular instance there seems to be a convergence. Ironically, class solidarity at WBAI was made impossible by the charges of racism and the inability of the union to demonstrate any inclusive plan to counter those who claimed the staff's action was basically a white power play.
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