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Nearly every morning, Erik Gustafson tunes into radio station WPFW for his favorite radio talk show, Democracy Now. The venerable program—broadcast out of New York’s WBAI via the Pacifica radio network—amounts to an on-air sounding board for old lefties out to dis the establishment and inveigh against the mainstream press.
On July 14, Gustafson was listening to host Amy Goodman preparing to welcome recently suspended Pacifica announcer Dennis Bernstein. A lot of folks would sooner curl up with a volume of municipal housing regulations than listen in on a radio station’s personnel squabbles, but avid Pacifica fan Gustafson figured it would make for good radio. After all, Bernstein would surely attack the network executives responsible for his suspension. And Goodman’s show isn’t exactly famous for airing sober, restrained criticism.
Democracy Now also isn’t known for its music programming—which is why Gustafson was surprised by what happened next. “One second, I’m listening to Dennis Bernstein and thinking, ‘Good for Amy,’” he says, “and the next minute, boom! Jazz—I was listening to jazz. I thought it must be a music break.” But this was no music break. The show never returned. “I called WBAI and the engineer seemed surprised, because he said everything was fine on his end in New York.”
Pacifica aficionados have long been accustomed to technical glitches and unplanned silent minutes at the volunteer-heavy network. But Gustafson wasn’t the only WPFW listener noticing bigger holes in the station’s programming. On July 21, Pacifica Network News—broadcast daily from 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.—was only 21 minutes long, rather than the usual 30. In the nine-minute hole, the station played jazz. “There was no explanation,” says Lynn Frederickson, a regular listener who’s also the executive director of the East Timor Action Network.
One afternoon that same week, WPFW listeners who tuned in to the media-review show Counterspin also unexpectedly picked up jazz instead. And last Friday, the mystery deepened when WPFW went to jazz, once again, in the middle of Democracy Now. This time, a WPFW announcer went on the air to inform listeners of mysterious “technical difficulties.”
People close to the station, however, say there is no mystery. They also doubt “technical difficulties.” They believe that the management of WPFW—the famously liberal network’s voice in Washington—has embarked on a systematic campaign to censor any broadcast that discusses the internal crisis rocking Pacifica’s Berkeley, Calif., headquarters.
The only network that regularly delivers human rights and labor news, Pacifica rarely grabs a whole lot of national attention with its coverage of topics like the U.S. war on Iraq or the Zapatistas’ struggle against Mexico. But over the past few months, the network’s civil war has gained Pacifica unprecedented interest from the mainstream press. News reports about the turmoil are fueled both by the delicious irony of leftists accusing each other of things like censorship and labor abuse and also by the very real spectacle of listener protests at Pacifica affiliates coast to coast.
The story ought to be simple enough. Since late March, Pacifica’s national governing board has been facing off against the management and staff of KPFA, its Berkeley affiliate. KPFA wants to continue exercising control over the station’s programming, but the board says it wants to “modernize” the 50-year-old dinosaur by “professionalizing” the network, diversifying its audience, and creating more national programming.
To network devotees, that kind of language sounds like a secret plot to install Brit Hume as host of Democracy Now. Activists have staged daily protests outside the offices of KPFA, the oldest listener-supported FM station in the country. Scores have been arrested at the rallies. Joan Baez has planned a benefit concert. Within the network, meanwhile, two veteran broadcasters have been fired because they chose to gripe about the situation on the air. Pacifica—like many organizations—has a policy against airing dirty laundry in public.
“There’s a civil war going on,” says one insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s between those who want bland, genteel, noncontroversial programming versus those who want to continue the hard-hitting, creative, energetic reporting that has been part of the Pacifica tradition forever.”
The war in the streets, so far, hasn’t hit D.C.—where WPFW’s on-air promo proclaims that the station “challenges the mainstream and the bureaucracy.” While Pacifica stations in Los Angeles, New York, and Houston have also been targets of protests over the Berkeley imbroglio, no major pickets have popped up in front of WPFW’s Adams Morgan studios. (Washington City Paper is co-located with WPFW and is the station’s landlord.)
The allegations of censorship, however, have turned station manager Bessie Wash and programmer Lou Hankins into targets for Pacifica’s dissident contingent. On the main dissident Web site, savepacifica.net, Wash and Hankins are accused of making censorial editorial decisions. E-mail announcements of a Tuesday protest at the D.C. offices of U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chair Mary Frances Berry—who also chairs the Pacifica Foundation—listed an end to “WPFW censorship” among the rally’s objectives.
“The censorship in Washington is almost worse than it is anywhere else,” says Sam Husseini, a longtime listener and spokesperson for the media advocacy group the Institute for Public Accuracy who is helping to organize the D.C. protest. Program rundowns available on the network’s Web site show that on July 21, the day the news was cut short, one piece never made it to WPFW’s air—a nine-minute segment about the crisis within the Pacifica organization produced by correspondent Verna Avery Brown.
According to sources close to the station, Democracy Now’s Goodman aired the same piece on her program last Friday—the day WPFW pulled the show for the second time in a month. “It is arbitrary censorship of programming,” says one Pacifica insider. “You can’t pick and choose which content you want and which you don’t. News is news—it’s part of a package.”
WPFW has failed to explain the decision to excise content to people in the community—locals who, unlike the Berkeley protesters, have thus far tried to air grievances out of public view. Longtime listeners say Hankins hasn’t made himself accessible to the public in the wake of censorship allegations. “It’s hilarious to hear Pacifica management talk about professionalizing the network when WPFW has conducted itself in such an unprofessional manner,” says Husseini. “Not even returning phone calls.”
In a brief conversation with Washington City Paper, Hankins said he had no knowledge of any dispute within the Pacifica organization and suggested that the reporter contact the station in Berkeley. Hankins may have missed the stories run by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Economist, and National Public Radio.
According to D.C. listener Guillermo Quesada, Hankins himself addressed the issue July 14, when Democracy Now was pulled. “This issue is of no concern to listeners in the Washington area,” Hankins told an on-air caller, according to Quesada.
It was a perfectly defensible response: To many listeners, a programmer who decides that no one wants to hear about a far-off station’s office politics could seem entirely logical. Of course, in this case, Pacifica’s own governing board agreed to treat the dispute as a news story—meaning that Pacifica reporters were entitled to report about it.
In a subsequent conversation, Hankins hung up when asked about the allegations of censorship. Wash failed to return phone calls. “There’s a complete wont of judgment at WPFW,” says dissident Pacifica board member Rob Robinson. “There’s a lack of professionalism, judgment, and consistently bad management there.” Berry and Pacifica national Executive Director Lynn Chadwick failed to return calls, as well.
Longtime community activist and WPFW member Acey Byrd says he’s puzzled about why local management has been muzzling Pacifica content. “The methods that the management has used are unethical, arbitrary, and inconsistent with the norms of democratic journalism,” says Byrd.
“I liken their actions to the film A Clockwork Orange,” says Husseini. “Like when they played Beethoven to the guy while they’re torturing him. ‘PFW is using jazz in the same way.” CP