WBAI Listeners Rally for Pacifica, Amy Goodman
by John Tarleton
New York CityStanding on a lone, gray milk crate with their backs to the wall, speaker expressed support at last night's rally in front of WBAI (99.5 FM) for Amy Goodman, the host of Pacifica Radio's critically acclaimed morning news show Democracy Now! A crowd of about 150 people was on hand.
Recent disclosures that Goodman, whose show is Pacifica's most popular program, has been forced to accept stringent new work rules helped spark Wednesday's protest. Same-day protests were also held in front of Pacifica member stations in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston and Washington, D.C.
Pacifica, the nation's first listener-supported radio network, was founded in 1949 in Berkeley, California by Lew Hill, a World War II conscientious objecter. Long a bastion of left alternative thinking, Pacifica has been engulfed since the mid-'90s in a protracted leadership struggle between a national board which wants to move the network toward more upscale mainstream programming and grassroots activists who insist that it remain faithful to its original mission.
"If we are going to fight for democracy in the world at large," said Leslie Cagan, one of the six dissident members of the Pacifica National Board, "we must start here at home and build a movement committed to building democracy inside of Pacifica."
New Work Rules
Under new rules promulgated by Pacifica Program Director Stephen Yasko, Goodman must provide Yasko each Friday with a list of possible shows for the following week and a short status report on each. Also, Goodman must provide the topics for at least three shows in the coming week, subject to Yasko's approval. In addition, the national office is imposing two new producers on Democracy Now! while requiring that all volunteers who assist with the show be dismissed. Finally, Goodman must clear in advance all speaking engagements with Pacifica's national office. Failure to obey these rules could be grounds for her immediate dismissal.
"Essentially, the rules make it impossible for Goodman to continue producing the hard-hitting, breaking news that Democracy Now! is famous for," said Steve Rendall, senior analyst for FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a media watchdog group. "It seems clear that Pacifica is trying to force Amy out of her job."
Rendall announced at the end of the rally that supporters of a grassroots Pacifica would meet October 30 at 6:30 p.m. at DC 1707, 75 Varick St., to discuss further organizing.
Contacted afterwards, Valerie Van Isler, station manager at WBAI for the past ten years, said that Democracy Now! will be unaffected by the new rules and continue to be on the cutting edge of American journalism.
"We fundamentally support Democracy Now!. Always have. Always will," said Van Isler. "It is one of the stellar and most outstanding programs Pacifica has ever produced."
Goodman, who is the recipient of numerous journalism rewards including the 1998 Polk Award for the radio documentary "Killing and Drilling: Chevron and Nigeria's Military Dictatorship", responded to the new rules on October 18 by filing a grievance through her union charging Pacifica with "harassment, gender harassment and censorship".
Goodman emerged from WBAI just before the 6 p.m. rally began. She was greeted with loud cheers ("Democracy Now! Democracy Now! Democracy Now!") by her supporters and remained until the end of the event. But, upon the advice of her lawyer, she did not speak.
"When Journalists Ask Hard Questions, We Need to Support Them"
Norman Siegel, director of the New York ACLU, said Goodman was the best interviewer he had ever encountered. He voiced concern about the possible chilling effect that the new work rules could have.
"When journalists ask hard questions, we need to support them," he said. " Or, they won't be around to ask those hard questions."
Paul DeRienzo, host of a late-night talk show on WBAI ("Let'em Talk"), said Pacifica's actions were politically motivated. Several Pacifica board members, he said, have close ties to the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore Administration.
"The Democrats are freaking out that Ralph Nader may cost them some key states," DeRienzo said. "It's obvious what's going on. They don't like the fact that Amy has allowed Nader and other third party candidates to be heard on the airwaves."
DeRienzo said he expects this strategy to backfire.
"This is going to cause the split between the Left and Al Gore to grow wider," he said. "They have picked up the proverbial rock and dropped it on their foot."
Van Isler, however, denied that Democracy Now! is being subjected to election-year political pressures. "That's their speculation, not mine," she said of the protesters.
The Gag Rule
Patty Heffley, of the Coalition for a democratic Pacifica (CdP), one of the three groups currently pressing lawsuits against the Pacifica board, said that hundreds of longtime employees and volunteers at the five Pacifica stations had been systematically purged over the past five years. She called on producers and programmers to break Pacifica's gag rule, which forbids employees to discuss the network's internal affairs on the air.
"They should ignore that gag rule," Heffley said. "The listeners are the shareholders in Pacifica. They have a right to know what's going on. It's their money that has built this network for the past 50 years."
Heffley chided Goodman's ongoing silence about the Pacifica crisis, comparing her to Martin Niemoller, the renowned German pastor who was persecuted by the Nazis after all his potential allies had been picked off.
"She's been silent on this for five years. She's never spoken out," Heffley said. "She's a very special programmer. She's done great work supporting people all over the world in democratizing their lives. You have to ask, 'when's she going to speak out?'. She's been asking people to do what she hasn't been willing to do so far herself."