A guest on the station’s noontime talk show, We, Ourselves, Cheatwood says the bloodiness and bondage began in the sixth century B.C. when the “barbaric Caucasians” overran Egypt, ushering in a thousand years of Greek and Roman cruelties. The Arabs were the next oppressors, he says, starting in the middle of the first millennium A.D. White Europeans brought the trade to its murderous peak, pillaging Africa for chattel from the 15th century to the 19th. The enslavement, he says, continues in North Africa today, where Arabs still hold black Africans in bondage. Cheatwood, who’s just written The Butcher’s Grand Ball, a book on the subject, asserts that 200 million African people have been killed in the slaving “holocaust.”
From the microphone in WPFW’s Chinatown studios, Cheatwood’s voice casts a radio penumbra 180 miles wide, reaching to the Eastern Shore and West Virginia, north to Gettysburg, Pa., and south to Culpeper, Va. We, Ourselves host Ambrose Lane urges the audience to phone and comment on “Brother Cheatwood’s” views; the listeners are enthralled by the guest, thanking him and asking how they can learn more about this suppressed history of slaving. Halfway through the hour-long broadcast, the sole challenger to Cheatwood’s thesis tells him that blaming groups like “the Arabs” or “white Europeans” does nothing but divide.
Cheatwood responds bitingly. “I am not in the business of making people comfortable,” he says. “It is not an issue of trying to blame people or vilify. Villainy is something that comes out of the Caucasian world anyway.”
The show proceeds, as a different caller alleges that recent murders of black children indicate that “our children are being specifically targeted for genocide.” Cheatwood riffs off that observation, claiming that America’s treatment of slaves and Native Americans was the Nazi model for the extermination of the Jews.
People who won’t accept his Afrocentric spin on the slave trade, Cheatwood continues, hope to blot out history. “They say, “Why don’t we just put all of this in the past and get on with our lives. It was a long time ago,’ ” he remarks. “First, it hasn’t been a long time, and second of all…they want us to forget about it while they continue to celebrate it, whether by way of Thanksgiving or their other holidays.”
Signing off, host Lane invokes an idea familiar to WPFW listeners, an idea that has kept the station on D.C.’s air for 16 years. “Remember the Bill of Rights, and what we are about here in terms of freedom of speech.”
At WPFW, freedom of speech still means freedom to offend, to provoke, to confuse, to incite. Founded 16 years ago and part of a five-station network owned by the California-based Pacifica Foundation, nonprofit WPFW marches to its own syncopated beat, fulfilling a mission that is unapologetically Afrocentric and politically progressive. Funded largely by listener contributions and operated by 200 volunteers, WPFW tells Washington—particularly black Washington—the things that the mainstream media doesn’t. It’s a place where programmers from a wide range of the District’s ethnic groups can play their music and discuss their politics, where every species of leftist—from garden-variety liberal to black nationalist educator to unreconstructed socialist—can find a soapbox.
“You don’t have any other stations making the airwaves available to the voices of African-Americans and others the way that WPFW does,” says WPFW talk-show host and former General Manager Lorne Cress-Love. “If it was left up to television, I would not know that I existed. There is nothing that I see on the television that speaks to me and my contributions.”
WPFW renounces the cultural homogeneity of the mainstream, too, broadcasting a wide variety of progressive jazz, international music, and poetry instead of single-format “urban contemporary” or “hit radio.”
But despite WPFW’s First Amendment absolutism, it is the community radio station that most of the community ignores. Only a scant 116,000 listeners tune in, down from an audience of more than 150,000 a decade ago. Besides that decline, WPFW is facing unprecedented financial problems and is riven with internal chaos.
Listening to WPFW is like eavesdropping while the neighbors bicker. The fight is exciting, vigorous, and disturbing, but ultimately the family is talking to itself.
The WPFW family feud exploded on Friday, Oct. 1, after Acting General Manager Tom Porter was passed over by a search committee for the job as permanent GM. Porter’s friend Leon Collins had left the GM spot in February to take the top job at a public TV station in Houston, and when Porter didn’t get the nod, he decided to go down flaming. Already the program director and host of a daily talk show called Morning Conversations, Porter announced his resignation on the air and accused the Pacifica Foundation of suppressing black, hetero sexual males who dared to speak up. Assist ant Program Director Cheryl Thompson and Membership Director Will Winter quit along with their boss.
Pacifica was cheating WPFW listeners, Porter told his morning audience. “The top of this organization at this time has no interest for freedom and democracy and equality of people of color,” he declared. “The presence of people of color does not necessarily mean the presence of the proper ideological or philosophical perspective.”
To outsiders, this charge sounds ludicrous. It’s true that Pacifica’s national board, about half of whose members are white, hired new GM Phil Watson. But Watson is a black heterosexual man with impeccable black-activist credentials. And the search committee that recommended Watson to the Pacifica board consisted almost exclusively of WPFW employees, volunteers, and board members—not representatives from Pacifica. Nine of the 10 search-committee members were D.C.-area residents, and eight of them were black.
Immediately following his talk show, Porter suspended the station’s regular programming. Some of his admirers at the station, including Thompson, LaVerne Gill, and Craig Taylor, took the microphones and opened the phone lines. Announcers and callers began lionizing Porter and attacking the Pacifica overseers. The uprising continued for hours as listeners, who had heard only Porter’s side of the story, declared that the station was in peril and berated the “Jews” who control Pacifica. Callers who criticized Porter were abruptly disconnected; scheduled broadcasters were rebuffed by the radio pirates.
Watson and Pacifica Executive Director David Salniker, who were in Houston for a Pacifica national board meeting, learned of the takeover within several hours. They were outraged; Pacifica’s devotion to the First Amendment doesn’t extend to broadcasting the foundation’s dirty laundry. The Pacifica brass feared that the renegades would violate Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules against obscenity and earn the station a fine or the revocation of its license. They also fretted that the radio brigands might make libelous statements and cause the station to be sued.
“We didn’t have anyone in charge, and the responsible thing to do was to make sure that no one did harm,” says Watson. “It had gotten libelous and slanderous. Alternative views were not being presented. People who called to object were cut off. Regular programmers had been preempted by a person who had resigned.”
Salniker and Watson called Porter and asked him to allow regular programming to continue. When Porter refused, Salniker and Watson deputized Pacifica engineer Bob Daughtry to act as general manager, giving him authority to stem the rebellion—by any means necessary. Daughtry couldn’t regain control directly, so five hours after the takeover began, he instructed the techies at WPFW’s transmitter in Northwest to literally pull the plug. The dead air carried through the weekend, until the station came alive on Oct. 4 at 5:03 a.m. after Watson arrived from Houston.
The protest by Porter loyalists would not end. Listeners picketed the station over the weekend and demonstrated sporadically until Oct. 13. Porter supporters organized “WPFW Watch,” a group to monitor the new management, and held a community meeting on Oct. 9 that condemned Pacifica, demanded that WPFW invite Porter back to host his show, and even denounced the shutdown as an egregious violation of Pacifica’s commitment to free speech. In an article for the black weekly News Dimensions titled “Death Squad Dispatched to WPFW,” activist attorney Mary Cox wrote that “the black and white progressive right-wing demanded a change in format and programming.” The appointment of Watson, she argued, was part of a continuing conspiracy to dismantle the black press in Washington.
The tempest in a transmitter is typical of WPFW. Where else but at a progressive organization with an excellent minority-hiring record would the hiring of a black man be viewed as the silencing of black men? More to the point, where else would listeners and volunteers care so deeply about their station that they would seize it to proclaim their grievances? Where else would pulling the plug on mutineers be condemned as a suppression of free speech?
WPFW was the last of five FM stations launched by the Pacifica Foundation. Conceived by pacifist journalist Lewis Hill in the late ’40s, the foundation dreamed of a network of radio stations free from corporate or government influence. Stations would raise operating funds from listeners and serve their communities with daring intellectual and cultural broadcasting.
Pacifica’s first station, KPFA, went on the air in 1949, serving—of course—Berkeley, Calif. Los Angeles’ KPFK followed in 1959. New York’s WBAI hit the airwaves in 1960. Houston’s KPFT joined in 1970. The network’s left-wing advocacy journalism brought the Vietnam War home and served as a national bulletin board for the civil rights movement. Pacifica pushed the boundaries of free speech, too: The New York outlet broadcast George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine in 1973, earning Pacifica an FCC reprimand that it fought all the way to the Supreme Court (where it lost). Pacifica earned its shiniest left-wing merit badge in Houston, where KPFT was bombed off the air by the Ku Klux Klan twice in its first year of operation.
Pacifica, which holds the FCC licenses for all five stations, allows its stations virtual carte blanche in programming. Its only direct involvement in the local station is hiring and firing the general managers and providing financial assistance. The foundation also funds the Washington-based Pacifica News Network, a bare-bones operation that produces a daily 30-minute news broadcast that is aired on the five Pacifica stations and 50 affiliates.
Pacifica had long wanted a Washington outlet as a Capitol Hill watchdog, so it applied for the last remaining FM frequency in the Washington area in 1968. According to WPFW lore, President Richard Nixon hated Pacifica for having brutalized him during the ’50s and had vowed that no Pacifica station would ever darken the District airwaves. But the station’s application outlasted Nixon, and WPFW finally went on the air in early 1977.
“When we first started, we literally had to put this station together from little pieces,” says former General Manager Cress-Love, who joined WPFW the year before it went on the air. “This station was not what the Pacifica Foundation intended when it dreamed up a station in Washington….The idea was that it would be a Washington version of what Pacifica was at that time generally—a predominantly white left-wing organization, media organization. I don’t mean to say that in any way disparagingly.”
Instead, Cress-Love says, the four black employees on the 11-member staff set the station’s tone, focusing WPFW’s broadcasts on the neighborhoods, not Capitol Hill.
“We began to chart the course of what was needed for this city in terms of radio. There was nothing available to the African-American community…in terms of alternative radio,” she says.
The station quickly established its enduring mix of politics and culture, combining 100 hours of music per week—mostly jazz—with shows like Street Law, which translated legal jargon into layman’s terms, and Friends, which addressed gay issues.
When other District stations emphasized jazz during the ’80s, WPFW stayed ahead of the curve by concentrating on avant-garde jazz and introducing Washington’s first worldbeat show. Today, the music schedule includes Brazilian and Caribbean music, blues, gospel, and reggae, not to mention more than a dozen weekly jazz programs. WPFW has also offered on-air writing workshops and even had a dial-a-poem show where would-be Byrons read their masterpieces on the air.
The station also became the leading radio outlet for D.C.’s anti-establishment. Dorothy Healey, the 80-year-old Red grandmother who’s been speaking her mind on Pacifica stations since 1959, rails against the establishment in her weekly Dialogue. Sophie’s Parlor, a feminist/lesbian show that combines talk, music, and poetry, has built its following on WPFW since 1977. During the 1979 hostage crisis, WPFW aired the views of pro-Ayatollah Iranians; the station presented gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iran-contra hearings; and it offered anti-war news during the Gulf War.
“There is a tremendous amount of conservative radio both locally and nationally, but there’s little space on the airwaves for left-of-center views,” says David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. “WPFW is a bucket within a sea of conservative media, but it is a bucket that needs to be there.”
Although WPFW provides permanent sanctuary for leftists of all ilks, it has never strayed from its mission as a black radio station. A talking book for the black community, WPFW connects African-Americans to a living tradition of activism, philosophy, and rebellion. Emblematic of the WPFW tenor is the daily Freedom of Speech program, a broadcast of a recorded talk, usually by a black scholar, politician, or thinker. In recent weeks, for example, WPFW broadcast a lecture in which Dr. Frances CressWelsing, a controversial D.C. psychiatrist who believes that racism derives from whites’ feelings of inadequacy about their lack of color, alleged that white men are bringing AIDS to the black community by sodomizing defenseless, fatherless black boys. Louis Farrakhan is another Freedom of Speech regular, but so are James Baldwin, Jesse Jackson, and Dick Gregory.
WPFW’s Afrocentric programmers construct a media worldview that begins rather than ends with African-Americans. Rejecting a “white” media that they say alternately ignores and demonizes blacks, the programmers celebrate the variety of black Washington’s opinions. WPFW is an alternative only if it browses the entire marketplace of black ideas, they say, not just the mainstream.
WPFW, says Janis Hazel, chair of the station’s community advisory board, can liberate black Washingtonians by inviting them all to the table. “WPFW is a reality check,” Hazel says. “[Black Washingtonians] listen to the station to find out [that] they are wanted, that they are a welcome part of the community, and that they’re not public enemy No. 1, as the Washington Post would represent it.”
“People don’t know the zillions of contributions that we have made to this country,” Cress-Love says. “No one knows that because there is no media addressing that. We [at WPFW] try to do that. We don’t do half of what we should. We shouldn’t even be playing music. We should be doing nothing but talk, nothing but information.”
The black nationalism of Farrakhan and others has earned WPFW a reputation with some as the “I Hate White People” station. But Hazel insists that broadcasting the views of leaders like Farrakhan is essential.
“Mr. Farrakhan’s message to the African-American experience about the Muslims and how they contribute to the fiber of our community—you just don’t hear that on other stations,” Hazel says. “Mr. Farrakhan was welcome on our air. He is a vibrant and respected member of the African-American community, and his views should be espoused and heard in a forum that is accessible to everyone.”
Incoming General Manager Watson concurs: “You are going to get some harsh anti-white, anti-Semitic things on WPFW,” he says. “But in the Freedom of Speech slot you are going to get people who are speaking because it is freedom of speech.”
E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, emphasizes that Welsing and Farrakhan represent strains of black politics that WPFW cannot and should not ignore. “If you are going to have a progressive station, it’s going to intersect at some point with black nationalism,” Miller says. “These [nationalists] are critical to a certain perspective, and if you take them away, things fall apart….It is not necessarily racist. It is pro-black. The dialogue is being directed to other black people.”
Maintaining that range of black views on WPFW is one of Watson’s priorities. The departure of Porter’s Morning Conversations show reduced the station’s “strong black male” perspective, Watson says, and prompted a late October meeting with a group of listeners who wanted that viewpoint back on the air.
“A delegation was here asking me, “Are you chauvinist? Are you going to make sure this station has the chauvinist point of view?’ ” Watson says. He promises that such a program will soon fill Porter’s old 10 a.m. position.
Blacks talk to blacks through WPFW, but the station also cracks a window for others to eavesdrop. Besides the white listeners who tune to WPFW to hear music they can’t hear elsewhere, “there are a lot of white people who listen to this station so they can understand Afrocentric behavior and Afrocentric concepts,” Watson says. “They want to know. That is one of our roles. They may not like what they hear and they may not support you, but they listen.”
WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad, who wrote for the Chicago Defender and edited the Nation of Islam’s national newspaper in the ’70s, brings black advocacy to WPFW’s morning news program, Audio Evidence AM. When Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly summoned the National Guard to fight crime, the station pre-empted regular programming to cover the issue. The overwhelming opinion of Muhammad’s callers: D.C. doesn’t need a police state, it needs economic development.
“WPFW has the potential to alienate people. And sometimes we manage to live up to that potential,” says Muhammad. “But we do it in good faith and we hope that people won’t be permanently displeased with things that we feel sometimes must be said.”
The Things That Must Be Said also include the WPFW take on foreign affairs, though in this realm the station may be less likely to offend. For example, a talk-show host arranged a phone interview with the mayor of Port-au-Prince when he was in hiding; another day, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide addressed D.C. Haitians from WPFW’s studios. Local Somalis regularly appear on the station to speak about the crisis in their country, while a recent African Perspectives discussed the bloody civil war in Burundi, an event that’s poorly covered in the United States.
But the calculated outrage of WPFW has outraged surprisingly few. The FCC maintains a complaint file on every broadcaster, and a review of the WPFW file reveals that only a handful of listeners have complained to the feds in recent years. In May 1993, a listener wrote that a commentator was anti-Semitic, racist, subversive, and anti-American. A year earlier, another listener objected when Papa Wabe, the programmer of a reggae show, played “Crucifixion,” a song by Jamaican dancehall star Cobra advocating the execution of lesbians. A 1991 complainant took issue with a song containing “very racist terms about whites.” Another writer protested in March 1991 that an announcer had called for rioting, and also denounced a caller who demanded the bombing of a bus filled with white girls. In 1989, a letter writer expressed indignation at talk-show host Jessie McDade’s suggestion that listeners purchase guns and bulletproof vests and take “it” to the streets.
The thin complaint file could mean that few of WPFW’s listeners regard its viewpoints as offensive—or it could mean that almost nobody is listening.
It’s an undisputed fact that WPFW’s audience has dwindled. According to Salniker, WPFW had the largest audience of any Pacifica station in the early and mid-’80s, drawing more than 150,000 listeners per week. But the Radio Research Consortium (RRC), which compiles ratings for local public radio stations, says WPFW’s weekly audience was only around 116,000 this summer.
Washington boasts the strongest market for noncommercial radio in the country. WAMU-FM (88.5) General Manager Kim Hodgson offers figures showing that 7 percent of the D.C. audience is tuned to public band at any given time, versus about 3 percent in New York. But Washington is also one of the most competitive public radio markets, and WPFW has been increasingly squeezed out. Most listeners tune to WETA-FM (90.9) or WAMU, each of which attracts a weekly audience of about 350,000 listeners. Even WDCU-FM (90.1), the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) college jazz station, draws almost as many listeners as the Pacifica station, even with its smaller broadcast range. WETA and WAMU’s listeners also tune in more often than do WPFW’s. The RRC reports that in any given 15-minute period this summer, about 3,200 listeners set the dial to WPFW; the comparable figures are 23,100 for WETA and 16,400 for WAMU.
With the exception of WDCU, which has sought to unseat WPFW as a jazz leader, the competition ignores WPFW. WAMU’s Hodgson says his station shares very few listeners with 89.3, and Larry Hicks, program director at WOL-AM (1450), a small but influential African-American talk-radio station, says he doesn’t view WPFW as a rival.
The trend in radio broadcasting is toward filling very specific niches. People who want headline news know to turn to WTOP-AM (1500). For classical and NPR news, spin to WETA. For sports, try WTEM-AM (570).
“Radio has always been format. So if you like rock ‘n’ roll, you can turn on your radio and there is rock, 24 hours a day,” says WPFW blues programmer Bill Wax. “WAMU is the perfect example of that….They used to have much more bluegrass, but they’ve moved further and further away from that. They realized that if you like talk, you probably aren’t going to like bluegrass.”
“WPFW is the antithesis of that,” Wax continues. “ ‘PFW is all over the map. A little of something different for everyone if you can find it. People have a hard time with that in radio.”
Wax is right. WPFW’s pileup of blues, news, and views is confusing to radio listeners who’ve been taught to expect an unvaried environment. Are you interested in hearing both an Angela Davis speech and an interview with a Native American dancer? Are your musical tastes so diverse that you like soca and reggae and jazz and salsa and bebop and gospel? Such an audience does exist, and for them, WPFW is a horn of plenty.
But that variety, so beloved by loyal listeners, is a drawback to building a mass audience. Whenever other stations pinch its most popular programming—as when WDCU went to jazz format—many WPFW listeners abandon the station. WOL’s talk radio also may be appropriating the WPFW audience.
News Director Muhammad levels accusations of intellectual laziness at listeners who defect or don’t give WPFW a chance. “They don’t have to have the schizophrenia about when not to listen and when to listen and get outraged because we’re saying something they don’t like. So they just listen to WDCU and don’t hear us at all.”
Listeners who encounter WPFW while dial-surfing the liberal arts and politics ghetto at the left end of the FM spectrum may also be alienated by the station’s amateurism in what has become a slick medium. The station, which has only five full-time paid employees, lacks the resources to attain the polish of WAMU or WETA. Dead air punctuates WPFW broadcasts, and programs run beyond their time slots. Though some of the volunteer announcers are smooth and professional, others pepper their interviews with “um” ‘s and “ah” ‘s, and ask questions more suited to cocktail party small-talk than to hard-hitting public affairs. For every Malcolm X address on Freedom of Speech, there is a boring rebroadcast of a Congressional Black Caucus press conference. Ambrose Lane may score a provocative interview with Kiarri Cheatwood for We, Ourselves the same week he labors through an interminable 60-minute chat with the niece of a dead Ghanaian activist.
And the station talks incessantly about itself. On-air personnel rhapsodize about their station. In his first month, Watson delivered two “State of the Station” broadcasts and appeared on at least three WPFW talk shows, making the outlet sound more like a radio club than a mass medium.
Actually, WPFW programming is less scattered than it sounds. Many popular shows have been aired at the same time for years, and a program guide published by the station gives listeners an idea of what to expect. But only WPFW donors receive the guide, and the station hasn’t published a new once since early 1993. Since then, the station has gone through three general managers and replaced at least 10 regular programs.
The absence of a program guide is just one of new GM Watson’s complaints about how badly former managers ran the station. “There has been no program guide produced for six months, yet they promote it on the air for the fund drive,” says Watson. “They didn’t even have a program guide in the budget. I have to redo the budget to find money to produce a program guide.”
Watson enjoys guiding visitors through WPFW’s three floors of offices to highlight—or lowlight—the station’s disarray. On the second floor he enters an office that, through malign neglect, has degenerated into a storage room. Piled on tables, scattered on the floor, stacked every which way in cabinets, are tape reels. Tapes of speeches—Noam Chomsky, W.E.B. DuBois. Tapes of interviews—Todd Gitlin, Shoshone Indians. Tapes of music—Marian Anderson, jazz festivals. No one has cataloged the tapes. No one has boxed them.
“I’ve got tapes, I’ve got tapes,” Watson sighs. “I’ve got tapes. I’ve got tapes. I’ve got tapes.”
The scene repeats itself in three more rooms. Watson opens a tiny door in a corner of the record library, revealing a narrow closet. Inside it sit more forgotten tapes.
As Watson enters one of the station’s four studios, the door smashes into a tape player. He points at the lights. Only one overhead works, emitting a sickly yellow light through a dirty metal screen. The next studio is wonderfully bright, but the lights shine directly into the eyes of whoever’s at the mike. The same lights cast a shadow on a tape-editing machine, rendering it impossible to operate precisely.
The disorder is evident elsewhere at the station. An off-air monitor designed to record the station’s broadcasts gathers dust in an office. No one can remember when it was last used. In a recent excavation, Watson found a sound board that had been reported stolen; it had been buried beneath a pile of trash. Many phone calls to WPFW go unanswered or vanish into voice-mail hell. The station hasn’t conducted organized training for its 200-odd programmers in years, Watson says, incredulous that only three of them can work the station’s $40,000 digital tape-editing machine.
“There haven’t been people here who care about managing. They care about programming,” says Watson. “Because the air is so alluring, people who come in to do the management become programmers, and they forget about the managing.”
Porter, now teaching communications at UDC, defends himself against charges of mismanagement.
“I am sure that I have been demonized. They say I’m impatient. [That] I wasn’t equipped to deal with slow learners,” Porter says. “I am not a special-ed teacher.”
“They shouldn’t beat up on me,” he adds. “They shouldn’t talk about me. That’s not going to help ratings.”
Both Porter and former GM Collins agree that bad management is not at the root of WPFW’s troubles. “It was not designed to be an income-producing station. It was designed to be a volunteer-based advocacy organization,” Collins says. “WPFW has always been undercapitalized and it always will be, and it’s very difficult to manage on limited resources.”
Watson acknowledges that difficulty, but he’s confident that he can overcome it. Once he stops inventorying WPFW’s problems, he gushes with ideas on how to fix them.
With his fleshy, handsome, bearded face, Watson radiates charisma and egotism. On this Wednesday morning, he’s dressed in black from head to foot—black oxford shirt, black jeans, black canvas shoes—and full of ideas about black radio. Meetings follow one after the other. He spends five minutes with Askia Muhammad and Ambrose Lane to devise a new noontime talk show. In two minutes with a music programmer, Watson authorizes a promotion for a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert. One minute Watson is with an old friend, a former convict who wants to record prison inmates and broadcast the interviews. The GM approves the idea and rushes the friend out the door.
A few minutes later it’s Watson who’s running. He’s forgotten to deliver a package to the third floor, so he grabs it, tucks it under his arm like a football, and sprints down the hall, out the door, down the stairs, and then back up. He returns to his office in full stride and begins explaining a listener-demographics chart.
The radio mutiny that followed Watson’s appointment painted the Pacifica Foundation as a gang of power-mad white Jewish liberals bent on throttling black voices. No direct accusations were hurled at Watson, perhaps because he’s nobody’s Uncle Tom. Watson’s most recent job was running the Democratic National Committee’s radio operation during the 1992 campaign, but he’s been a warrior of black radio and black radical activism for 30 years. He worked for the Chicago Freedom Movement, which organized the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effort to integrate Chicago housing in the mid-’60s. He established Pacifica’s Watts bureau, the network’s first foray into the black community, in 1969. Watson put Howard University’s WHUR-FM (96.3) on the air in 1971. You might even say that Watson created WPFW: As its manager-designate from 1967 to ’70, he filed some of its original FCC applications and campaigned vigorously to guarantee that the station focused primarily on black Washington rather than on the federal city.
“My agenda for 30 years has been the ownership of media by black people,” Watson says. “I truly believe that at this time I am the best thing that could happen to the station, and it is the best thing that could happen to me.”
But Watson, despite a vocal sympathy with the station’s politics, says he’s a technocrat. He lards his speech with management jargon like “vision” and “empowerment.” He does not need to blaze a new political agenda, he says; his only task is to persuade Washingtonians to pay attention to WPFW’s provocations and pleasures. The station has the programming and a huge potential base of listeners, Watson says. But nobody knows what WPFW is. Organization, aggressivetelemarketing, and public relations must replace the corrosive anarchy. The station should publicize itself by hanging a sign outside the building; it should garner attention with press releases and remote broadcasts in the community. He suggests that WPFW establish an African-American network to transmit its news shows via satellite to other black-controlled stations in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.
But unless more Washingtonians begin tuning in, WPFW won’t solve its greatest problem of all: It’s broke.
About $400,000 of its annual $650,000 budget comes from listeners and matching funds from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). (The CPB money is a sore point with Pacifica purists, who are rankled by the government money even though it is provided regardless of program content.) Pacifica has repeatedly bailed WPFW out, giving the station $750,000 over the last five years. KPFT, the Houston station, has also taken Pacifica emergency aid to the tune of $130,000 over the same period.
Pacifica founder Hill believed that his stations needed donations from 2 percent of the market to be viable, but the stations don’t come close to that figure. New York’s WBAI, whose signal can be heard by 10 million, attracts a weekly audience of about 170,000 people. But only 18,000 of them—less than 0.2 percent of the audience—give money, according to the foundation’s 1991 biannual report. Houston’s KPFT, reaching a metro region with a population of 4 million, had only 70,000 listeners in 1991, and less than 5,000 of them—hardly 0.1 percent of the market—were donating members.
WPFW membership is equally limp: Only 7,000 of the 4 million potential listeners—about 0.2 percent of the market—have donated the $35 or more required to join the station.
Unlike WAMU or WDCU, which are ultimately backed by universities, WPFW “has to make its nut. The rent. The lights…all the things it takes to keep the station on the air,” says blues programmer Wax. “That means at WPFW, so much of the focus is on survival that it never really has a chance to develop growth of an audience and programming beyond what [it] can do day to day.” The station had only $300 in the bank when Watson became GM, says Assistant Manager Jimmie Jones. In late October, Pepco threatened to cut electricity to WPFW’s transmitter because the station owed $2,000. A poorly negotiated lease sticks WPFW with the elevator maintenance bill; because the station has repeatedly promised but failed to settle its account, the repairman won’t fix the lifts.
WPFW remains dependent on Pacifica’s subsidies, says the foundation’s Salniker, because it hasn’t sought sustained listener support. Though listener contributions at all Pacifica stations rose more than 30 percent between 1989 and ’92, they rose only 12 percent at WPFW.
Rather than cultivating a contributing audience, Salniker says, WPFW has pursued “quick fixes”—money-making schemes that, by Pacifica standards, are crassly commercial. According to Salniker, WPFW sponsored a bingo game in the late ’80s to raise money. The game turned no profit, and WPFW even had to pay $17,000 to settle a lawsuit brought when the station failed to pay the rent for the bingo parlor. A 1989 WPFW proposal to permit corporate underwriting also threw the anti-capitalist foundation into turmoil. Ultimately, Pacifica permitted WPFW to announce the names of business donors on the air, but would not allow sponsorship of particular programs by particular businesses. (Even limited sponsorship raises some eyebrows within Pacifica, and for good reason: During the most recent WPFW fund drive, for example, one WPFW announcer thanked by name the restaurant that had provided lunch to station volunteers at least four times.)
Pointing to the success of KPFA in Berkeley, which thrives on an annual budget of about $2 million, Salniker insists that WPFW can raise at least $1 million from the Washington audience, three times what it collects now.
But many at WPFW dismiss Salniker’s comparison of Washington and Berkeley. “When you start talking about contributions from African-Americans for things in the public trust, you have to look at the inequities of African-Americans’ personal pockets,” says WPFW Community Advisory Board Chair Hazel. “You’ve got a Berkeley community that is comprised of….people who have more money than government employees here in Washington.”
Watson, as usual, blames mismanagement. “This is a rich, vibrant marketplace,” he says. “There is no reason for [WPFW] to still be on the tit after all these years. It is a kind of laziness, a lack of focus.”
Since WPFW depends so heavily on listener donations, the station’s on-air fund drives are essential. Here, too, Watson says, the station has faltered. When Watson arrived at WPFW, for example, he found 200 cards for phone pledges made during the station’s summer fund drive abandoned in an office. The station had collected nothing from the 200 pledgers because notices reminding them of their promise were never mailed. In fact, add Watson, WPFW has actually received only 54 percent of money promised during its last 10 pledge drives.
WPFW’s listeners suffer—endlessly—the impact of the station’s financial disarray. The most obvious punishments are the pledge drives, which are interminable: 10 days each, four times a year. They’re as long as the Great Flood. WAMU, by contrast, holds semi-annual three-day fund drives that collect hundreds of thousands of dollars more than WPFW’s ultramarathons.
WPFW’s most recent drive, which ran from Oct. 23 through Nov. 2, felt like a lengthy dental appointment. Three days of fund drives is bad enough—imagine 10 days of haranguing, 21 minutes per hour. Think how frightened you’d be to turn on your radio and hear an announcer say that the fund drive started nine days ago and will continue “nonstop until we reach our goal.” What if they never reached their goal? Could the drive last forever? In January, before some of these pledge checks are even cashed, WPFW will be groveling again, a Chinese water torture of phone number repetition: 783-3111. 783-3111. 783-3111….
What if WPFW’s problem isn’t mismanagement? Instead, what if WPFW is fighting a losing battle against the All Things Considered homogeneity of our media? WPFW celebrates the unacceptable, the profane, and the radical, but the intellectual independence it demands is anathema to Americans. As Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, America is a nation that espouses free speech publicly, but persecutes those who challenge the conventional wisdom.
WPFW, though, offers a constant challenge, a real political and cultural alternative to the mainstream. Cable companies may be promising us a 500-channel TV toy store, but it’s hard to imagine that even one of those channels will provoke so readily as WPFW, or will explore the difficult issues that the station loves to wrestle with.
And even though WPFW may be broke, its die-hard volunteers and listeners won’t compromise: Thought, not demographics, rules the station. The WPFW champions—among the last true believers in intellectual engagement—believe that their station succeeds by being sharp, contentious, and fascinating, by voicing the concerns of the voiceless, by playing the music that’s not played elsewhere—not by racking up ratings points.
“We at WPFW are really not concerned with people being sympathetic to our mission. We are interested in the truth,” says Hazel. “The truth is spoken with regards to racial inequities [and] political disenfranchisement. I don’t want sympathies. I want the truth. I want it expressed in an open forum. That’s what WPFW does.”
But Washingtonians have to hear that truth in order to respond to it. After all, if WPFW broadcasts what other stations won’t—but no one listens—does it make a sound?
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.