WBAI AND CZECH PUBLIC TELEVISION: FEARFUL SYMMETRY

by Bill Weinberg

The leadership at a non-commercial broadcast station is re-shuffled from above in a surprise move just before Christmas. Staff and reporters are improperly fired. Armed guards are brought in. Personnel who refuse to go along with censorship, firings and bannings are themselves threatened. Reporters are harassed for challenging powerful public figures. Large protests are held in support of persecuted station personnel.

Is this taking place in the tentative new democracy of a post-Communist country? Or in the media capital of the "Free World"?

Both.

The turmoil at New York's WBAI-FM is eerily mirrored by that at the public TV station in the Czech Republic. Ironically, the situation in Prague is now approaching a resounding victory for free speech--while that at WBAI is only deteriorating.

In April 2000, Jiri Hodac, a crony of former prime minister Vaclav Klaus, was appointed news director at Czech Television. Viewers and critics warned that Klaus' right-wing Civic Democratic Party would be granted undue influence.

Sure enough, in June, talk-show host Roman Prorok was fired after insisting that if Klaus refused to show up for a live round-table featuring the Czech political party bosses, there would be an empty chair with his name on it in the studio. Hodac stepped down following the resultant outcry. But at Christmastime, Hodac was rewarded for his loyalty by being appointed station director. He hired a news director who was a Klaus political advisor, and fired 20 people who were perceived as disloyal. The news staff rebelled, locking themselves in the news room, broadcasting their own, unapproved and uncensored programs. Hodac pulled the plug, and screens went blank across the Czech Republic.

On December 31, security guards were brought in to secure access to the news room, and criminal charges were filed against strikers. But viewers mobilized, holding large protests in support of the journalists. On January 11, Hodac acceded to the popular mandate for his resignation. The journalists continued their strike, demanding that all Hodac appointees must go.

Finally, on January 23, President Vaclav Havel signed a law allowing Parliament to appoint a new interim director and calling for the Czech Television Council, which picks the station director, to be nominated by citizen groups, not politicians. The government has also announced an audit of the station. The journalists have broached ending their strike.

Now, dateline New York City: listeners, producers and staff are similarly protesting a "Christmas coup" at non-commercial WBAI Radio, in which the station's general manager and program director were removed and others banned for perceived disloyalty to the new regime. The banned staff charge that the National Board of the Pacifica Foundation, which holds BAI's license, is attempting to purge dissenting voices from the airwaves—or even sell the station to commercial interests.

On November 29, 2000, 10-year Station General Manager Valerie Van Isler received a letter giving her an ultimatum: to accept a job with the Pacifica Board in Washington DC, or resign. She refused to do either.

The timing was predictable. Two years earlier, Van Isler had--at Pacifica's request--testified against the rights of unpaid station staff to unionize before the National Labor Relations Board. But now, in a turn-around, she had just signed a nine-month extension of the contract recognizing the rights of unpaid staff to representation by the United Electrical Workers Local 404.

She also protested Pacifca's efforts to rein in Amy Goodman's hard-hitting network-wide "Democracy Now!" show, which is produced at BAI. In October, Pacifica had imposed harsh restrictions on Goodman, ordering her to submit show ideas in advance for review--prompting Goodman to file a grievance with the UE. Then, on Election Day morning, Goodman and President Bill Clinton were surprised to find themselves on the air with each other when the president called New York stations to get out the vote. Goodman's relentless grilling won her a phone call from the White House the next morning, admonishing her that she would no longer have the president's "cooperation."

On the night of December 22, Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash and WBAI "Talk Back" host Utrice Leid changed the locks on the station's front door. Utrice interrupted a broadcast to announce that she had been appointed interim general manager.

The next morning, Program Director and "Wake Up Call" co-host Bernard White and his co-producer (and UE shop steward) Sharan Harper received letters at their homes by personal messenger, informing them they had been terminated—on Pacifica stationery, and signed by Bessie Wash. These terminations were arguably illegal: such decisions are to be made only in consultation with the station's Local Advisory Board under Pacifica by-laws.

In the following days, guards were brought in, and Leid announced that four other personnel were banned--with no cause given.

Leid declared the Local Advisory Board would be denied access to the station for their monthly meeting if it included public commentary (as mandated by station by-laws). On January 23, the LAB put this edict to the test. When Leid persisted in barring entry to the banned volunteers, nine supporters refused to move from the hallway and were arrested, including two LAB members--Miguel Maldonado and Vicente Panama Alba of the National Congress for Puerto Rican rights. They all spent that night in The Tombs.

That the listeners who support non-commercial radio have a right to a voice at their station was the radical founding doctrine of the Pacifica network. But the Pacifica National Board is today a virtual who's who of corporate America, and is moving to homogenize the five member stations in New York, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington DC. Since voting to centralize all power in its own hands in February 1999, this board has been a self-perpetuating entity, denying the member stations any voice on appointments.

Pacifica Treasurer Michael Palmer is a Houston real estate developer who invests in Mexican maquiladoras. In a leaked 1999 e-mail to then-Pacifica chair Mary Francis Berry, he urged the sale of WBAI to private interests. Board member John Murdock is an attorney with Epstein, Becker & Green, a New York firm that specializes in "maintaining a union-free workplace." Board member Bertram Lee, Sr. specializes in media buy-outs, with DC's WKYS-FM and Boston's CBS TV affiliate among his recent conquests.

There are three lawsuits pending against Pacifica for violation of its own charter: one by a group of listeners, one by dissident members of the National Board, and one by members of the stations' Local Advisory Boards.

The Foundation was also recently audited by the state of California, where it is incorporated. In 1999, it relocated to DC in the face of ongoing protests at its Berkeley offices over the crisis at the Pacifica station there, KPFA. For several weeks that summer, all staff were locked out and the station occupied by an armed security force after Pacifica removed longtime Station Manager Nicole Sawaya. The California Joint Legislative Audit Committee report found that Pacifica may have violated the rules of its tax exemption by locking out KPFA staff in breach of their contract with the Communication Workers of America.

An alliance of WBAI staff and listeners has mobilized to defend WBAI's autonomy. The alliance, Concerned Friends of WBAI, has held several protests outside the station's Wall Street offices, demanding recision of the terminations, lifting of the bannings and establishment of a democratic governance structure for the station and Pacifica. But, in vivid contrast to the situation in the Czech Republic, WBAI and Pacifica management remain intransigent.

The state of free speech and independent media appears to be healthier in parts of the post-Communist world than in USA. It is time for Pacifica to follow the heroic Czech example, and let the listeners back into listener-supported radio.
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January 2001