Perspectives on WBAI

The Decline & Fall of Pacifica: Part 1
What's the Future of Pacifica?
by Paul DeRienzo

Part 1      Part 2     Part 3

What's the future of Pacifica?  It's hard to answer the question without some background on myself and WBAI and Pacifica radio. I was born and raised in the New York City region within easy listening distance of WBAI. As a child I fell in love with radio after I got a small AM transistor radio in the mid 1960's. I would huddle under the covers after bedtime and tune in my first radio hero, Jean Shepherd whose 1st person narratives of family life and work in the shadow of Gary, Indiana's steel mills riveted me. Several years later I talked my dad into buying me a Lafayette Electronics short-wave radio, which I used to listen to the acid rock and Vietnam era news briefs of the old WNEW-FM, and the late night rantings of WBAI hosts like Bob Fass. The political and counter-cultural programming of WBAI introduced me to the anti-war movement, civil rights and Lower East Side and Greenwich Village bohemian life styles.

When college came around my radical leanings led me from suburban New York to the radical hustings of Madison, Wisconsin. There I met the founders of Madison's first community radio station, WORT, which is an affiliate closely, tires to the Pacifica network. I'll never forget soon after WORT began broadcasting in about 1976 a programmer allowed some Milwaukee nazi's on the air causing a near riot on the street in front of WORT's studios. It was my first real grounding in the power of radio to spark an emotional response. I often appeared as a guest on friend's late night WORT talk shows, mostly gabbing about politics after a night of beer drinking at one or another of Madison's Socratic watering holes. During this time I really discovered the Pacifica National News and fell in love with their serious treatment of radical politics and exposure of the status quo. I decided I wanted to be a radio reporter for Pacifica too.

Returning to New York City with my degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1980 I turned on WBAI and rediscovered the radio station that was so influential in my youth. Soon I was in a boring desk job working for a law book publisher that allowed me a portable radio and a telephone. I split my listening between WLIB, an African-American owned and oriented station and WBAI. One day while listening to a program on prisons the host, Dennis Bernstein, asked anyone who wanted to come down and volunteer. That began my long professional association with WBAI and Pacifica radio.

Dennis and I hit it off immediately and I met his family, friends and associates, including Chela Blitt, Robert Knight, Andrew Phillips, Valerie Van Isler, Samori Marksman and eventually Amy Goodman, Although I did some things for WBAI in those days I was more deeply involved with the anarchist scene on the Lower East Side where I had moved in 1983. I continued my involvement with Rock Against Racism, a series of political rock concerts I had organized in Madison and in Chicago and which held annual events in Central Park. With the 1984 Presidential elections coming around I went off on what we called the "Rock Against Reagan" tour to California, the Southwest and culminating in vigorous protests at the Republican National Convention in Dallas. Returning to the Lower East Side I became involved in the anti-nuclear weapons and anti-apartheid movements.

I got involved with a group calling itself "Brooklynites Against Apartheid" in 1986 and we began a series of protests aimed at shutting down South African Airways, which was still flying into the United States. One of the protests at JFK airport got pretty wild and I caught some of it on tape, which my friends Pieman Aron Kay and Bob Fass suggested I bring down to the WBAI news department. At the news department I hooked up with reporter Judy Schimmel and soon became a regular volunteer contributor to the news department. It wasn't until sometime after that Amy Goodman appeared at the news department fresh from her involvement with a feminism program at WNYC, a public station then owned by the City.

The late 80's were a golden age for WBAI and Pacifica since reporters like Bernstein, Knight and KPFA's Larry Bensky had been schooled on tales of the Vietnam era's heroin pipeline from Southeast Asia to the veins in the arms of US addicts. A pipeline often supported, protected and even benefiting the US military. When it was revealed that the arms for hostages deal set up by Reagan between his "freedom fighter" contras in Nicaragua and Iran's Ayatollahs involved a cocaine smuggling back channel Pacifica was in 60's era radical journalist heaven.

Besides learning about the hypocrisy of America's War On Drugs, I was also getting a real schooling in Pacifica's ways of doing business. There always seemed to be a major deficit of management (and money) at WBAI's 8th Avenue studios. In a short time I noticed a parade of General Managers who didn't seem to manage very much, and I remember a decidedly unpopular Program Director named John Scaggliotti. Most of the staff seemed to really hate him, but they never took the time to explain to me in coherent terms exactly why they didn't like him. But the animosity was great and led directly to the formation of WBAI's first union, which was unusual because it included members who were both paid staffers and volunteer programmers.

An organizer for the broadcast union AFTRA told me that his union had been approached by WBAI and he had the impression that the managers of Pacifica and WBAI were basically AWOL. The AFTRA rep told me that his union wanted nothing to do with WBAI because the WBAI producers seemed to want the union to teach them how to manage the radio station. Pacifica veterans told me that the Foundations governing board was led by folks with a "laissez faire" attitude who made a point of allowing each station complete autonomy. In actual fact that meant who ever had the time to hang around the studios the most wound up in charge eventually. That fact wasn't lost on me at the time and I decided to hang out until I could inherit a job as a reporter.

It wasn't long before my big break came, it was the proverbial long hot summer in New York City in 1988 when police officials working secretly with real estate interests and a handful of yuppie newcomers decided to impose a curfew on Tompkins Square park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was there with my newly purchased professional tape recorder and I recorded what became the worst riot in the city in 20 years. Taking advice from Bernstein and Phillips I cut the tape into a documentary, which Program Director Scaggliotti played one morning on WBAI. I didn't immediately get a job, but I started getting paid gigs in radio and before long I was engineering Bernstein and Knights half hour morning program Contragate, which later became known as Undercurrents. It was the program that gave rise to what eventually became known as Democracy Now.

Despite programming successes that Pacifica achieved during the last days of Reagan's presidency many people were obviously unhappy with the direction of the network. There was a huge gulf among the programmers over what the Pacifica mission should actually become. Years before there had been a huge fight when managers led by Anna Kossoff and Pablo Gussman tried to modernize the tragically unhip WBAI by bringing in popular Latin and Black music. The result was a bitter fight with racial overtones that pitted the old Jewish folkies who had dominated WBAI against the city's rapidly changing racial demographic. Basically, NYC was becoming majority minority and the new audience realities weren't going down easy at WBAI.

Program Director Scaggliotti was one of the first people I met at the station with the opinion that most of the station's programmers were incompetent and who felt there should be radical programming changes. As much as there was animosity between Scaggliotti and the volunteer producers, he always liked me, because he said my work was always competent. It's funny that I hit it off with the folks who wanted professional standards at WBAI and had problems with some of the people who like Valerie Van Isler, a volunteer producer and later General Manager, saw her role as defending the status quo. Valerie tried to fire me soon after I began working in the news department in the early 1990's without giving any reason. Since I got along as well as anyone with Amy at the time I always suspected that some other senior producers were jealous and thought that I was competing for the role of "enfant terrible" at WBAI (which I wasn't, but I suspect these producers were very insecure). I never knew Valerie to make too many important decisions on her own. The Union at the time helped me and after that I became very involved with WBAI union activities, to the extent that there were any.

The dynamic at WBAI in the late 80s and early 90s was almost entirely about stopping anyone from making major programming changes; the staff was united on that point. Pacifica soon backed down on plans for changes and Scaggliotti happily left to be a successful filmmaker. Interestingly it was Dennis Bernstein who broke down staff unity for the first time by forcing his program "Contragate" into the 8 AM Monday thru Friday slot, it was the first "strip programming" show besides Gary Null's Natural Living program and it started the pattern that lead to the development of Democracy Now! The first show to fall to Bernstein was Fred Herschkowitz's "Home Fries." Bernstein had actually written a book of poetry he self published called "French Fries," the book cover looked like a McDonald's french fry carton. I'll never forget Dennis bruskly kicking Herschkowitz out of the studio at 8AM and a fuming Fred exiting only to be confronted with a stack of copies of Dennis's book on a table next to the control room. I'll give Fred this for professionalism he kept his cool, but barely.

Just as fanatical as some programmers could be about access to airtime, there were situations where producers would literally disappear for months at a time. I experienced this phenomenon shortly after the first Gulf War when Bernstein and partner Robert Knight had a bitter falling out over Knight's winning the prestigious Polk Award for journalism. Bernstein demanded that the entire Undercurrents/Contragate team accept the award, something that the egoistical Knight wasn't going to allow. One day Bernstein just up and moved to Berkeley, California and Knight just disappeared. I continued to get paid for some time (Valerie Van Isler was the paymaster) while showing up at the station each morning as both the program's engineer and host.

During this period Scaggliotti had left WBAI and was replaced by professional radio veteran and award winning producer Andrew Phillips. A chain of false starts marked attempts to hire a General Manager, including one guy who unbeknownst to Pacifica continued in another full time job for almost a year before he was discovered and fired. He just never showed up for work and no one noticed. Eventually Pacifica settled on Valerie as General Manager, she was not particularly liked, but wasn't feared either. She was expected to be a non-entity who would not pursue major programming changes.

Andrew Phillips was a lot of fun to work for and he like many Program Directors at WBAI was constantly complaining about the stultifying change-phobic atmosphere at the station and Pacifica in general. Despite the difficulties he came up with some good ideas and claims to be the instigator of the programs that became Democracy Now. But indirectly the Corporation for Public Broadcasting played an important role as well. Unfortunately, Phillips' support of professional standards at WBAI (including setting up Amy Goodman as morning drive time host) angered a small group of self-entitled producers. Phillips was an Australian radio veteran who had briefly been the equivalent of a park ranger on the island of Borneo. A whispering campaign against Phillips claimed he was tainted because as a ranger he was technically part of Australian government law enforcement. This smear campaign against a good man that was based on a job he held years before, while in his youth, was not the last time I would be disgusted by the ugly and underhanded tactics of some Pacifica folks. Unnerved by all the negative attention Phillips resigned and another chance for sanity at WBAI was lost.

Meanwhile the lax supervision at Pacifica was drawing unwelcome attention from the U.S. federal government who were getting involved in Pacifica affairs. The Foundation was targeted by a CPB crackdown on Community Radio after a gay radio play called the "Jerker" was broadcast on Los Angeles Pacifica station KPFK in the early 90's. Although the play was broadcast after 10 PM it generated obscenity complaints to the FCC, which caused an investigation of the Foundation. On the floor of the US Senate, Bob Dole called for a cut in funding to the CPB of one million dollars, then the exact amount provided to the Pacifica network by the Federal government. Pacifica national management, technically libel for any financial disasters during their service to the Foundation, started to wake up the brewing dangers inherent in a radio network that was spinning out of their control.

A well known community radio activist named Pat Scott was hired as the new Pacifica Executive Director. She was a hardheaded professional who insisted that Pacifica had to get rid of the "hippy crap" if it was ever going to grow. According to the CPB, grow Pacifica had to. The anemic audience ratings of the Pacifica network were starting to get noticed by the government officials who provided 15% of the network's operating budget. In response the CPB demanded that every station accepting their money must show actual community service by proving that its audience (not its producers, staffers or managers) represented the ethnic demographics of the local community. Consistently Pacifica stations were shown to have unusually small audiences that were disproportionately white, over 50 and male. The CPB was pressuring Pacifica to do something about it and Pat Scott responded by putting radio professionals in charge of some of the stations.

It was easy in Los Angeles where a so-called "African-American Liberation Weekend" of programming devolved into angry race baiting and charges of anti-Semitism. In the wake of the "Jerker" incident and Bob Dole's attack on Pacifica, Scott acted quickly by appointing a new manager named Mark Schubb who began a house cleaning of the more marginal programmers at KPFK. But by far the most controversial thing he did was enforce the long ignored rule that Pacifica owned the programs that it broadcast and not the programs producer. This was the act that fed the paranoia of a Pacifica "takeover" and sewed the seeds for the Pacifica civil war.

Meanwhile, Pacifica moved to reflect some of the suggestions made by its consultants and the CPB under the rubric of the so-called "Healthy Stations Project." The basic thrust of this plan was to replace the Balkanized schedule of unconnected programmers who were producing hundreds of hours of unlistenable, self-serving and audience-free radio with so-called "strip programming." Strip programming means one host, on at the same time every weekday, allowing the audience to actually get to know the host. Pacifica under Pat Scott was going to use their proprietary KU satellite system to broadcast strip programming on all five Pacifica stations at once, sending the program to hundreds of affiliate radio stations across the country too. The problem was finding the right host. Immediately there was bitter infighting among veterans like Larry Bensky, Dennis Bernstein and Amy Goodman, but after a few false starts the network settled on former California Governor Jerry Brown, who lasted until he left to run for office.

Meanwhile, Amy Goodman was building an empire at WBAI through her zeal that often bordered on the manic. Amy was News Director at WBAI, but she soon expanded her activity to the stations morning show that had been strip programmed under the control of a Sunday night producer named Bernard White. Long time WBAI producer Samori Marksman had replaced Andrew Phillips, but although Samori was not a big fan of Amy he would say that to do anything at Pacifica you "worked with what you had." Amy was a problem because her ego was only outstripped by her arrogance and her control freak behavior. She instigated Van Isler and White, who she controlled like marionettes and made Marksman's difficult job even harder. Marksman made it clear in letters to Pacifica that strip programming at WBAI could backfire by over-feeding the egos of the people he had to manage.

As Amy became more and more involved with Bernard White's newly strip programmed morning "Wake Up Call" show it came time to hire a new News Director. However, despite the eventual hiring of news professional Jose Santiago Amy refused to give up the title of News Director. In one embarrassing incident Jose attended a national conference only to find Amy sitting behind a name plaque identifying her as WBAI News Director. In another incident Amy, Bernard and Valerie attempted to force Gary Null to stop interviewing guests on air about political subjects, ordering him to stick to guests on health issues alone. Eventually Amy gave folks in New York a much needed break from her need to control when she moved briefly to Washington DC to work on the newly launched national version of Democracy Now.

Amy continued her manic behavior in Washington where she clashed repeatedly with her producers and other co-workers. Amy had extremely unhealthy work habits. She would go without sleep and work seven-day weeks, looking more and more haggard she sparked concern in her colleagues who sent her a memo asking Amy to ease up on her workaholic ways. A suggestion that went unheeded. As the relationship between Amy and Pacifica deteriorated she moved back to New York and the support she had always received from her old friends Valerie and Bernard. But the shadow of Pat Scott's vision of a truly national Pacifica was slowly beginning to loom over the extremely dysfunctional WBAI and the authority of Pacifica followed Amy to New York.

WBAI had been muddling along under the management of Valerie Van Isler, who was truly a strange duck. She was impenetrable as a personality; in fact it was as if she had no personality at all. In two decades I cannot remember seeing Valerie laugh or smile, she was totally humorless. Everybody knew she was in over her head and unable to manage WBAI, but her old time radical friends on the Local Advisory Board (LAB) supported her anyway. The LAB is a powerless institution, required by the FCC and meant as a soapbox for listeners. At WBAI the LAB was virtually invisible and had no discernable function. I went to one meeting in the summer of 1999 and witnessed first hand the madness that could sweep over WBAI in a blink of an eye.

The LAB meeting followed a volunteer meeting a week earlier where then morning host Clayton Riley flew into a rage calling Bob Fass "my bitch," and launching into a near physical confrontation. The LAB meeting was promoted as open to producers, for the first time in the LAB's history. I came to bring up the Riley incident. Riley showed up too and the ensuing confrontation was right out of bedlam. One LAB member leaned over and told me the confrontation made for the most "fun" LAB meeting he'd ever attended. Other LAB members told me how difficult it was to deal with Van Isler and that certain LAB members were working with Pacifica to get Van Isler out. But more telling was a well known community activists who became hostile when suggested that the LAB have Van Isler removed. I realized the LAB was seriously divided.

Instead of red flags being raised by Valerie's often-odd behavior she was allowed to plod along because she refused or was unable to make any changes at WBAI. She was also a union nightmare; she acted unilaterally in personnel matters as if there wasn't a union contract, that she had signed herself. She fired several long time employees and then refused to allow them to collect unemployment insurance. Numerous grievances were filed but Valerie stonewalled the union to the point where the National Labor Relations Board and WBAI's then union, the United Electrical Workers, considered her one of the worst bosses in New York.

WBAI's union was one of very few that allowed unpaid volunteers to become members of the bargaining unit. It was a hold over from the mid-1980's battles against an unpopular Program Director. Pacifica, under Pat Scott challenged the presence of unpaid staff in the unit, which added to the growing paranoia that Pacifica was going to exercise its ownership and exert control over WBAI. The local NLRB ruled in favor of the union, but soon after the National NLRB overturned that decision ruling definitively that they would not recognize a union with unpaid members. The old contract, which AFTRA claimed hadn't been substantially changed sine 1992, stayed in force and WBAI and its union continued on as if the NLRB decision didn't matter, but the problem was festering and coming to a head.

Meanwhile the ongoing stagnation at WBAI prompted a coalition of unionists, programmers, staffers and listeners began to flood Pat Scott with demands that Van Isler be removed as General Manager. Pacifica didn't immediately respond by firing Van Isler, but they reviewed her work and asked her to take a vacation and then make changes at WBAI. She refused both requests and a subsequent offer of a new job with a raise within Pacifica and eventually Van Isler was fired. Van Isler was returned as General Manager of WBAI about one year later after a year of open warfare between programmers and Pacifica management, a year after that she was "promoted" by Pacifica to a similar job to the one she had originally turned down.

After a dozen years of association with WBAI and Pacifica I took a job as Editor-In-Chief of High Times magazine in early 1998. It was a job fraught with difficulties from the beginning and I had asked Jose Santiago to allow me an unpaid leave of absence (as allowed by the union contract) to try my hand at magazine publishing and broaden my journalistic skills. Keep in mind that in my years at WBAI I was an outstanding reporter who never missed a day of work and was responsible for breaking many news stories from housing issues, to police brutality and terrorism. Although I never received a mention from Pacifica or WBAI's managers Jose Santiago and a few others understood my value to WBAI's news department over a decade of service. Jose agreed that I should get a leave of absence and he wrote a memo to Van Isler to that effect. A year later when I came back to WBAI and asked for my old job back, Van Isler refused despite the record of memos and communications. Why she was so negative towards me I'll never know, but I considered it at the time an issue of rank favoritism on her part on behalf of other producers.

One thing I had learned in a dozen years at WBAI was that quality and dedication were meaningless to most of the managers, it was always whom you knew, and who you had something on, if you weren't going to play their games you would have no future there. I had no plans to pay anybody's game; politically I'm firmly independent and took my role as a journalist seriously. My UE shop steward at the time was Utrice Leid, she was the only person besides Jose Santiago who supported me in my labor conflicts with WBAI and because of that she was the only person outside of the newsroom at WBAI for whom I felt any real loyalty.

Soon after Van Isler reneged on my leave of absence I started my own business, a magazine called Heads, which was noted as one of the best new magazines of the year when the first issue was published. During my time as Editor-in-Chief of Heads I promoted and paid for the work of many near starving Pacifica producers, who I soon realized were suffering incredibly low wages and poor treatment throughout the Pacifica system. Among those who I hired and paid were Dennis Bernstein, Bill Weinberg Brother Shine. Except for Brother Shine helping these people brought me nothing but grief. Fortunately working with a gentleman like Shine made my efforts to help producers worthwhile, although there are a number of Pacifica folks who were such nebbishes that I would never hire them for anything ever again. Dennis Bernstein alone wrote numerous articles for me, including a column for High Times called "Spywatch" for which he was paid an eventual total of several thousand dollars.

Magazines, although fun to publish, are not particularly profitable and I soon traded my stake to a group in Canada, which continues to publish Heads from Montreal. I was still working with the magazine in late 2000 when the Pacifica crisis began to really heat up. Despite my late night show "Let'em Talk" which I had hosted for a decade I was not that connected to Pacifica events. Larry Bensky and some other California folks updated events in Berkeley from their perspective but no matter what happened on the west coast there always seemed to be a lot more smoke then fire and that fact tingled the journalist in me but I didn't act on my intuition because I was just too busy. I followed the issue passively, but I gave general support to people I thought were my friends, how cheap those friendships were I would soon learn.

In December 2000 I was working on my magazine, my partner was caring for her sick mother and Pacifica was a peripheral concern. Valerie Van Isler, after turning down a promotion and raise, was fired. Bernard White, after attempting his own coup at WBAI was also fired as was his producer, and several of his close allies were banned from the premises. Another player, Mimi Rosenberg was banned after she attempted to kick Utrice Leid while screaming, in the presence of numerous witnesses, "you f*cking bitch" at Utrice at the door to WBAI's studios.

My serious involvement with these events began at about 11 PM on the night of December 23rd, 2000. I had just returned from a Christmas party and turned on the radio to hear Utrice and former Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash on the air announcing that Valerie had been fired. I admit to laughing, because after all the blustering of Bernard and Valerie in the end they were totally outmaneuvered by Pacifica. At that moment my phone rang and a California activist who had mysteriously appeared in New York to head a supposed "stringer strike" against the Pacifica Network News interrupted my laughter to ask if I knew what was going on. "Yes," I answered, "I'm listening now." Then to my surprise she became incensed and demanded, "why are you laughing?" I responded, "Because it's funny." She immediately hung up the phone and about 5 minutes later, near midnight, it rang again and this time it was Larry Bensky wanting to know "why were you laughing." I repeated my answer, "it's funny," and he hung up in a rage.

The next morning Dennis Bernstein called and started raging at me when I told him that I thought Utrice might make a good General Manager for WBAI. He sputtered something about me being biased against Valerie Van Isler because of some "petty labor problem," and he hung up. Dennis called up again on Christmas Day when I was out of the house and my partner picked up the phone. He railed and threatened her and me claiming that "I am a reporter, I know how to get you." Dennis's own mother was sick at the time and he knew the hell my partner was going through, yet he called three times on Christmas screaming and cursing at a higher pitch with each call. All I could do was shrug and think that I must not have been as close a friend with Dennis as I thought.

The events of the next year are a story in and of themselves. It's a tale of banality and venality sold in the name of dissident politics. People I thought were progressives turned out to be self-interested reactionaries capable of vicious racism and violent attacks against a radio network they had purported to love. In the end most of these folks loved little more than hearing their own voices and were willing to drag the Foundation down to their own level in order to do it. It was an example of gutter politics writ large and we are living with the results to this day.

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