This Just In: We're Fired

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On election day, with a certain relative of his running for the U.S. Senate, the Commander in Chief surprised New York radio stations by calling with a genial get-out-the-vote message. But Clinton's goodwill wagon lost an axle when he called WBAI in Manhattan and was put on the air with Amy Goodman, host of a Pacifica Radio program called Democracy Now!

Goodman, an award-winning rabble rouser whose show is carried by 30-some stations, does not have a change-up. She only has fastballs, and she throws at the head. For 30 minutes she kept Clinton dancing and ducking, at one point accusing him of being responsible for the genocide of 5,000 Iraqi children monthly through U.S. sanctions. It was vintage Pacifica Radio, the hell-raising, corporate-bashing voice of the left for a half-century, with stations in Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, in addition to WBAI and the flagship KPFA in Berkeley, Calif. But that voice is now being muffled in a way that would embarrass the sandal-wearing founders of the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, some of whom now stage their sit-ins in the next life.

Dreaded capitalists have commandeered the ship, speaking the bottom-line language of Arbitron ratings and floating the idea of raking in millions by selling a station. They literally changed the locks and barred several employees from the building at WBAI last month, after doing the same thing two years ago at KPFA. The irony is richest at WBAI, where the program director and others were fired without warning on Dec. 22 in "the Christmas coup." So much for "Democracy Now!"

"Many are calling it a political purge," says Goodman, who's been feuding with management over what she regards as attempts to turn her bark into a yip that would be more palatable to more listeners. She has lamented the firings on-air, and 300 loyal listeners marched last week demanding that the commercial-free and listener-supported station be returned to its rightful owner--them.

And therein the divide. Some of the 18 members of the national board want centralized control of a network that would reach a broader audience and rival National Public Radio in prestige. That was never a goal when the board was thick with community activists from the five local boards, who were committed to local programming unavailable in the mainstream press. But national-board members are now recruited from the business world instead of the protest lines, and although they consider themselves progressives, their wiring is different.

"Pacifica has 800,000 listeners, and after 50 years of being on the air, that's just not good enough," says board chair David Acosta, a Houston C.P.A. Vice chairman Ken Ford, an engineer with the conservative Housing Trade Association in Washington, says the challenge is to honor the social-justice mission while Pacifica grows. "But we are a corporation. It's nonprofit, but we have to operate as a business."

To Palo Alto, Calif., board member Tomas Moran, it's operating more like a totalitarian government. Moran is among six dissenters who insist they're being locked out. Matthew Lasar, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who wrote a book about Pacifica, says the longtime advocate for openness and democracy is running itself "in a way that could be described as secrecy and fiat."

The retooling comes after a consultant sniffed that Pacifica's impact has gone from "insignificant to irrelevant." If they paid this guy 25[cents], they were robbed. What's irrelevant is the numbing prattle of indistinguishable loudmouths who populate ratings-driven broadcast media.

Everything is numbers today. The weekend box office. The President's approval ratings. The quarterly profits. For 50 years, there was one place where numbers did not exist as a measure of success or as validation of purpose. Pacifica broadcasting can be tedious at times, with its tie-dyed version of truth and justice. But the voice is indignant, probing and unapologetic, and in the age of megamedia conglomerization, an alternative view is a necessity.

And I say this as someone who went on WBAI last year knowing I'd be a punching bag. I'd written a screed about misguided support for convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and was attacked on-air as a lazy corporate-media hack. They were wrong, of course. But they were damn good at it.