In 1960, when I moved to New York from Philadelphia, I remembered the station André Westendorp had spoken of, tuned in, and was quickly won over as a regular listener. Soon thereafter, I went a step further and became a WBAI volunteer. Organizations like Pacifica rely heavily on volunteers and WBAI served as a great square one for anyone wanting to get into broadcasting. Of course, I had already been there, done that, so the attraction for me was Lew Hill’s open microphone concept. It was, indeed, working and offering a great intellectual alternative to the pap that commercial stations filled the air with.
I was still a WBAI volunteer in 1963, when my day job was at WNEW. One day I arrived home to find a letter from the NYC unemployment office, informing me of a job opening. I had registered there during a between-jobs period and it surprised me to find that my file was still active. When I called and told the man that I was employed at WNEW, he said, “Great, you probably would not have been interested in this position, anyway.” I asked him why not and he said it was a low-paying announcer’s job at “a small leftist station.”
“WBAI?,” I asked.
“Yes, so you know about it, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to work there, but we have to ask.”
I told the man that I was already working there as a volunteer, and that ended our conversation. I guess he branded me a Communist, for that was still the temper of the times. Senator McCarthy had died three years earlier and been publicly disgraced some three years before that, but America was still moving in the wake of his hateful witch hunt, and Pacifica was high on HUAC’s list of “subversive” organizations. HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) had been established by Congress in 1934, to monitor “unpatriotic” German-Americans. Twenty years later, it focused mainly on Communists and while it today no longer exists as such, its spirit is kept alive by GOP members who aim their venom at anyone who dares to lift the Norman Rockwell veneer behind which they cower.
To get back on track, I left WNEW and took a serious salary cut in order to join WBAI’s staff as an announcer. Klavan and Finch, the hosts of WNEW's popular morning show, had an ongoing routine in which Gene Klavan portrayed a cartoonish version of various staff members. The character he created for me had a Swedish rather than a Danish accent, as you can hear in the following aircheck fragment from December 28, 1963. It is probably the only time WBAI was mentioned on WNEW.
What a wonderful place WBAI was in the mid-Sixties. Yes, it could become a bit stuffy and there was the occasional tinge of elitism, but even those aspects were a tad above the norm. It was thought-provoking and super expressive, just as Lew Hill had envisioned it. Did it lean to the left? Sure, but that was mainly due to two factors, one being its designated role as an alternative outlet. That, by default, gave WBAI a political imbalance which, in turn, scared off the right and made it difficult to convince people of that persuasion that the microphone also was open to their points of view. You might say that we had a catch 22.
I wanted to create at least a semblance of balance, which I believed could be done without sacrificing the station's role as an alternative outlet. To that end, I tried hard to win William Buckley over, but he politely and firmly declined the invitation. Interestingly enough, he was a regular listener, as opposed to a monitor. Monitors listened, but only to look for excuses to make complaints to the FCC. Among their number was a vigilante group of outraged Catholic clergymen who did their damnedest to have us closed down and went berserk when Leroi Jones read his poetry without beeps. These chronic complainers could have served as role models for the GOP’s tea party ignoramuses (including those on the Hill). Buckley, however, was not of that low order—his intellect and good sense of humor would have appealed to many of our listeners. He told me that WBAI offered much that was to his liking, but I knew that he referred to the cultural rather than political aspect of our programming.
The old WBAI was an amazing place. We occupied three floors of a brownstone on East 39th Street, courtesy of Lou Schweitzer, the teletype machines were in the second floor bathroom and walking sideways became second nature. When artistic and political differences clash in the narrow corridors of such cramped quarters, the result can drive nerves to the edge, but at BAI we somehow always managed to pull back and work things out. Well, there was that one time, but that’s for later.
One could step out of one’s office at BAI and find Ayn Rand dicussing Objectivism with the cleaning man, or bump into James Mason carrying a pile of ethnic recordings that he was about to share with the listeners. Celeste Holm might be climbing the stairs for a studio reading of children’s stories; Gunther Schuller might be there on one of his regular visits, delivering the latest update to Contemporary Music in Evolution, an exhaustive series that underwent an evolution of its own; Bob Dylan might be dashing in to deliver a station break, and if you took a peek at the music department, you might well see Yoko Ono at the file cabinet while her boss, John Corigliano grooved to Cage or Couperin. Upstairs, Charlotte Moorman, an adventuresome musician of eclectic talent could be in the studio stripping for a program of music for cello and balloons. That this was radio never deterred Charlotte from going visual.
In short, WBAI was a tiny speck on the dial, but it attracted many of the very people who shaped the era of the Civil Rights Movement and—as Lew Hill would have—deplored that far away, frivolous war. The government did not care for us and most New Yorkers never heard of us, but our little station was the station that could and—against enormous odds—did.
I left WBAI to work for the BBC, commuting between London and New York, but I still listened whenever I had the opportunity. My replacement had been hired under very mysterious circumstances. He had, as it turned out, past ties with the CIA and there were soon subtle signs of change that Lew Hill would not have approved of. I became aware of those changes when I returned from a London trip to find in my mailbox rather desperate letters from three WBAI public affairs program producers: Tana de Gamez, Bob Bison, and Barbara Dane. All were deeply concerned over a new direction that they saw the station take and, because I knew all its members, they asked me to set up a meeting with the local New York board. In spite of the fact that they had made individual approaches and their complaints had a serious common denominator, the board chairman, Harold Taylor, did not see a rather large red flag, so he chose to ignore three startling reports of politically based censorship. Something was happening to Lew Hill’s open microphone.
A local board meeting was coming up and Harold reluctantly agreed to let me attend and present these grievances, but the actual complainants were barred. Suspecting that I might pull a fast one, the location of the meeting was changed three times before finally locking in at a board member's Central Park West apartment. The Board guessed right, but we were prepared, so, about ten minutes into the meeting, the doorbell rang and there, standing in the hallway, was a group demanding an explanation. I have seen faces drop, but never as fast and low as on that occasion.
This was a small, orderly group that included the three censored producers, a delegation from SDS at Columbia University, and members of the newly formed Friends of WBAI listeners group. Among the latter was Alex Munsell, an extraordinary man in his seventies whose financial contribution to the station was only exceeded by his devotion. Alex was a Christian Marxist and while I realize—yes, I know that's a contradictory label, but Alex made it work. One of the perks of working at WBAI was that it inevitably put you in touch with truly exceptional people. Alex Munsell was one such individual, as was Louis Schweitzer, and I will share more memories of them in future posts.
Fast-forwarding again, the censorship situation was never resolved, instead, it took nasty turns and when—while still commuting to the BBC in London—I received a death threat from WBAI's Program Director, I decided that it was time to let go. I also stopped listening to WBAI, taking a very long hiatus that ended last month when my dial ran across 99.5 just long enough for me to catch a late night commentator voicing his disgust with the station's management. Well, I thought, so it hasn’t changed that much. I stayed tuned as the man, obviously aware of and devoted to the station’s original principles, expressed his displeasure with current management and its “snake oil” obsession. What was he talking about? I began tuning in often and, sure enough, there was a preponderance of airtime devoted to chatty morning-TV-type programs with people whose main purpose in life seemed to be hawking alternative medicine. They were selling a book and DVDs that could cure just about anything, and they were doing so in true infomercial fashion. I wondered how far beyond China Lew Hill had spun.
I should mention that they were selling these products as “premiums” for donations to WBAI, but someone other than the station had to be making money on this. It is normal for people to offer goods and services as incentives, but not in unlimited quantities—that takes it into a different realm. I know about these fund-raising marathon broadcasts and have, in fact, been told that I invented them in 1965 (more about that to come, in due time).
I also heard a post-midnight broadcast that seemed designed to put the listener to sleep. It was a man rambling on and on, slowly and with many long pauses, sometimes mumbling to himself and never uttering a useful word. The purpose of the broadcast appears to have been to recite the names of every soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don't know for what purpose, but it really struck me as a pointless waste of precious air time, for it was neither informative nor, of course, entertaining. The program was called "Weaponry" and conducted by someone who seemed to be facing a microphone for the first time, and was intimidated by it. I could not believe that this was WBAI, but it was. Perhaps the time had come for a revision of Hill's open microphone concept—it was clearly being abused.
I should mention that I had flashes of déjà vu as I listened to Ron Daniels’ program, Night Talk. His political observations and interviews reflect experience and foresight, but he is only on late at night, once a week. On the plus side, there is also David Rothenberg, a true renaissance man who has been an asset to WBAI for close to fifty years and today has brought his vast knowledge of theater into his social consciousness mix. David founded the Fortune Society and brought to the station its first regular examination of prison conditions and the need for after care. Then there is Earl Caldwell, the veteran columnist, who is heard regularly on WBAI and still has meaningful things to say. And let us not forget Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, which is never to be missed if one wants to keep up with what is really happening out there. If the station offered other programs of this caliber, or even close to it, I did not happen upon them, but it is clear that not all is lost, for there obviously are people on WBAI's air who see what has happened and do their best to stem the tide of mindless blather. Finally, let me mention Bob Fass, who has been on WBAI longer than anybody. I re-hired Bob about 45 years ago—after my predecessor, Joe Binns, had taken him off the air—and now he comes on Thursday nights, but he is stuck in a timewarp. His show was as enlightening as it was unique back in the Sixties, a hub to which young rebellious thinkers of the day flocked, the place where Arlo Guthrie introduced Alice’s Restaurant and Paul Krassner made outrageous, stinging observations. Flower children often shed their petals and showed their thorns on Bob’s show, and that envelope was steadily being pushed in the faces of our vigilante regulars. But that was then and what once was fresh and provocative has now been reduced to nostalgia. Listening to Bob's current show served me as a reminder that, cherished as many of the memories are, I do not long for the old days as they were, but rather to hear the spirit of those days applied to the broader horizon of the present.
Adding to its unfortunate assimilation, WBAI also has the annoying practice of playing—back to back and over and over—Madison Avenue-inspired promos for some of their most brainless shows. On more than one occasion, I heard them urge attendance to an event that had already taken place. These spots are mostly aimed at increasing subscribership, which is good, but they are as ad-world corny as anything AARP or the coal pushers have come up with. In the distant past, John Corigliano would compose classy little promotional songs in every musical style imaginable, and subscription encouragements were inevitably accompanied by a product description—listeners were reminded of WBAI's unique offerings. The programs were the incentives, not snake oils, cure-all booklets or self-serving DVDs.
In short, what I heard during a couple of weeks of listening was alarmingly similar to what the rest of the FM dial has had to offer over the years, the very mixture of hucksterism and hokum that made Lew Hill see the need for alternative ear fare. Commercial stations have, with regularity, traditionally aired obligatory "public service" announcements to show that they are "community minded". As I listened to the station's watered-down programming, it struck me that the occasional program of substance is WBAI's current equivalent of such announcements. I don't know if the station still sends out monthly program guides, but I seriously doubt that it does—there is precious little to list, mainly chatter shows with mindless hosts taking mindless calls from the same people, over and over again.
Granted, I have reintroduced my ears to WBAI randomly and for a relatively short time, but long enough to conclude that the station has lost its status as alternative radio. As I noted previously, there are exceptions, moments when the old spirit returned and I did not long to move to another frequency. For example, I heard a good, well presented rap mix one night, but I might have heard that elsewhere. A couple of nights ago, my attention was caught by an absorbing bio-documentary about The Wailers, narrated by Bunny Wailer, but I don’t know if it originated at WBAI or Pacifica. That brings to mind another major change: original programming used to be Pacifica's strength. Considering the perpetually low budget, Pacifica stations produced an amazing number of important documentaries over the years, but that practice has all but ceased as precious airtime is filled by mundane call-in shows and pop music, with few exceptions. To be fair, it was easier in its early years for WBAI to separate itself from sponsor-driven broadcasters and speak with a truly distinct voice. It was, after all, listener sponsored, beholden only to its subscribers and Pacifica's raison d'etre. Well, WBAI is still listener sponsored and the audience that gave it life and maintained it for so many years has not gone away entirely. It has, perhaps, tuned out, but it is still there, listening to the BBC, WNYC, WFUV, and even WKCR. The dumbing down of WBAI and, perhaps, Pacifica itself, could easily lead to it becoming once again a commercial station, not like the one Lou Schweitzer so lovingly ran, more like the ones he so generously sought to balance against. I do not for a minute think that, were he able to hear WBAI today, Lou would not deeply regret having made a gift of it to Pacifica.
To reiterate, many stations—even commercial ones—are today broadcasting the kinds of programs that used to give Pacifica its identity, a sane voice in a media wilderness. That these stations have caught up speaks well for a broadcasting industry that remained silent when WBAI was the subject of a Senate investigation and the issue was free speech. It also speaks well for the pioneering nature of Pacifica—obviously, the industry was tuned in when we thought they weren't, but WBAI should not regressively go bland just because others have caught up.
So, what happened? Why has the station succumbed to innocuous programming, with only token reminders of its important past? What has happened to the Pacifica and local boards, how did they lose control? how did they lose sight of Pacifica's raison d'etre? It is a fact that these boards have always carried dead-weight members, many of whom never listened to the stations, but, in the long run, detrimental suggestions were always overruled and Pacifica maintained its course. In the mid Sixties, a couple of West Coast board members suggested that WBAI be sold and the money spent to better the rest of the network, i.e. KPFA and KPFK, the two West Coast stations. There was a Pacifica Board meeting the following week, so I left for the Coast early to spend some time lobbying the individual board members. Someone had made an offer of a million dollars, but, even in 1965, that was a bargain price for a commercial frequency located in the middle of the dial in the country's largest market. Even if the price had reflected market value, selling WBAI would have been a big mistake—it was the newest Pacifica station, but its location alone made it the most important one. Fortunately, I found sufficient agreement among the Board's members to kill the notion. WBAI was worth fighting for back then and that hasn't changed. I don't know what is going on there, internally, but I hear references to "gag orders" and hostile take-overs, none of which sounds promising. Perhaps the answer lies in getting rid of the current local board. From what I glimpse, it is just the latest in a succession of boards that either somehow failed to "get it" or have an agenda that does not include opholding Lew Hill's founding principles. It does not take much insight to detect that the current WBAI is without direction, but I hear talk of local board elections, albeit they seem to be going by the Karzai rule book. In my days with Pacifica, the board was self-perpetuating, which was not good and would have been disastrous were it not for term limits.
Term limits went out the window when Frank Millspaugh, who had been an outrageously ineffective WBAI manager, became a board member and somehow succeeded in staying beyond them. Millspaugh was hired by Pacifica President Hallock Hoffman under very mysterious circumstances and the station's deterioration can be traced back to that point. His failure to grasp the principles of Pacifica became abundantly clear early on, but he was not ousted until many years later, when infighting reached a boiling point.
There have been serious upheavals on both coasts in recent years and it would appear that things are still in a mess, at least in New York. Ironically, WBAI is now advertising itself as “community radio”, a tag that becomes increasingly inappropriate. The fact is that the station should be serving the community, but not by feeding it pap with the occasional nutritional morsel. New York is a rainbow community, the old melting pot nomenclature still applies and it is appropriate for WBAI to program with ethnic diversity in mind, what I do not regard as appropriate is the level of that outreach. Does management somehow see the city's black and hispanic population as being on a lower intellectual level? That's what the current programming indicates to me—what is the point of giving Andrea Clark a couple of hours to play Mancini and make small talk? She calls herself "sister from another planet" and makes one wish she would go back there. I listened Friday and it was embarrassing, she never completed most of her sentences and said absolutely nothing of substance. Then there is a Kathy Davis, who does psychic readings! If that sort of thing does not insult the average WBAI listener's intelligence, the station has indeed found a new, far less demanding audience. There was a time when many of WBAI's voices could not have found an outlet on other frequencies, because their message was too off-script. Today's BAI offerings—with noted exceptions—would also be rejected by most other stations, but for sadly different reasons: they would insult the intelligence of their listeners.
When WBAI's management was handed to me, the station was far from perfect. That can also be said of the WBAI I left behind, but I hope I left some improvements in my wake. For one thing—contrary to what Steve Post wrote in a book of fiction—the station's signal was increased just before I left, and the antenna moved from a relatively low rooftop location to the Empire State Building. Also, I inherited a WBAI that was as white as a GOP lobbying group. I quickly changed that, starting with the news director, Joanne Grant, a black woman. It's not that the mid-Sixties WBAI management and board was overtly racist, I think it simply did not occur to them that they were discriminating, and that was a catch-22, because qualified black people often did not apply for jobs that they didn't think they could obtain. I am reminded of a call I received shortly after becoming manager. It was from New York's PBS station, Channel 13.
"We need to borrow one of your Negroes," the voice said.
That, at least, has changed for the better.
WBAI could keep abreast of changing times without sacrificing Hill’s vision, because the basic principles are not outdated. What Lewis Hill, Eleanor McKinney and others envisioned in Berkeley in the late Forties meets today’s intellectual needs. It is not necessary to talk down to people—nourish the mind and everybody will get it.
There are, obviously, holes in my knowledge of the current WBAI—or, for that matter, Pacifica—so I welcome corrections as well as opinions. I am also curious to hear if the deterioration I detect applies to Pacifica's other stations, there are now five in all. If you have a comment, you can either post it below or go to the guest book located in the column on the right. I would really like to hear from you.
Finally, I apologize for my repetitive rambling, but WBAI is simply too special for me not to be concerned.
Afterthoughts - Posted Christmas Eve, 2009.
Since posting this little rant in the first week of November, I have been listening to WBAI regularly. They have now had their local board election and, from what I gather, the outcome promises positive change. The misplaced "Weaponry" guy (Wisker) is still there, half asleep, and there is a silly couple (their names escape me) who have nothing of importance to say, but love to tell us about their little health problems. Also on the down side is a program by one Shelton Walden, a self-proclaimed Conservative with a nice voice but little of substance use it for. He is impatient and exceedingly rude to callers who don't agree with his often shallow viewpoints. I find it amazing that some of the hosts who really have nothing to offer the intellect or our natural need to be entertained, have been wasting the station's precious airtime for many years. There has clearly been a managerial vacuum. The other night, a lady from the West Coast, who appears to be a commuting interim manager, dropped in on Bob Fass' show and unwittingly demonstrated how sorely WBAI needs qualified, forward-thinking people at the helm. When a caller suggested that hosts not be allowed to grow stale on WBAI's air, this woman either did not understand the validity of the caller's point or she chose to ignore it. Bob's Radio Unnameable is now little more than a relic of the station's rebellious past, but I think of it as a cornerstone of sorts, and if anyone deserves tenure at WBAI, it is Bob Fass.
On the positive side, the station currently offers terrific Hispanic music, played by knowledgeable people, and a jazz program by a lady who nicely combines music and interviews, but she seems to be on trial. Bear in mind that WBAI's jazz hosts were at one time the most knowledgeable on any air, ranging from such writer/historians as Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Martin Williams and Ira Gitler to an impressive list of performers that included Coltrane, Jimmy Rushing, Donald Byrd, Eddie Condon and Blue Mitchell, to name but a few, and weekly shows by Dave Lambert and Marian McPartland (the beginning of a new career, one might say).
I have heard many good things in the past month and a half, including the morning program, Wakeup Call, which precedes Democracy Now, and Talkback, an afternoon call-in show with Hugh Hamilton, who is well informed and an excellent host. He is heard at 3 PM Monday through Thursday and his professionalism and authoritativeness is maintained by Caldwell in that spot on Fridays.
Good News, as it were...
There is commendable use of telephone reporting and, in general, the news coverage is better and more professional than it was in my day, although we did manage to send Dale Minor to Vietnam, from where he sent us stories that you could not hear on any other station. By the way, so shoestring was our budget that Dale's tapes were sent to us unedited (with his handwritten directions) via a PanAm stewardess!
Please note that I did some updating and tweaking on 11/13/09, 12/24/09 and 12/27/09.
UPDATE: March 5, 2015: My impression of WBAI's "progress" has changed radically since I added the above afterthoughts. Mismanaged by incompetent opportunists, it's air dominated by rank amateurs whose only objective appears to be that of holding on to the time slot granted them years, sometimes decades, ago, this is a station that no longer meets the standard and directions upon which Pacifica was founded. Most listeners have abandoned WBAI as it flounders cluelessly through a miasma of mediocrity and a small faction of misguided self-servers attempts to turn it into a third-class black station.
If you want to read more about the slow death of this once-so-proud radio station, go to my dedicated blog.This link will take you to Part I of this post.
If you have a serious interest in the past and present goings-on at the stationI, you might want to check out my WBAI-dedicated blog.