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Four Decades of Radical Radio: an Interview With WPKN’s Scott Harris

Scott Harris has been hosting a show at WPKN, Bridgeport’s independent, alternative radio station, for a remarkable 42 years. He began in 1977 with a music show which he transformed a decade later to Counterpoint, a two-hour weekly program chock full of news, analysis, interviews and discussion not heard in corporate media. Along the way, Harris and his colleagues created a second program, the 30-minute award-winning Between the Lines, that is syndicated to over 60 community radio stations and webcasting outlets.

Over the years, Harris has interviewed on his shows many well-known radicals and activists including Noam Chomsky, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Phyllis Bennis, Chris Hedges, Kathy Kelly, Leslie Cagan, Richard Wolff, Kim Ives, Michael Albert, Jane Slaughter, Reverend William Barber, Sonali Kolhatkar, Ellen Brown and Paul Street. Visit the Between The Lines website for more information: . And visit the WPKN website for more information about the station and how you can listen to Counterpoint, Between the Lines and other programming.

Piascik: What are the origins of your interest in radio and when did you first get involved at WPKN?

Harris: I first became interested in radio growing up in Norwalk, Connecticut listening to New York City talk radio like Brad Crandall, Alex Bennett and Long John Nebel, and I very much loved Jean Shepherd for his wonderful storytelling. Later during the 1960s while in high school I started listening to WPKN as the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movement were rising up. I became very interested in the eclectic music genres and progressive politics which were regularly featured on WPKN.

When I went to college in Massachusetts, I got involved in the student radio station during my freshman year and became manager of the station in my junior and senior years. In 1977, I began working for an activist group, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, after I graduated from college and got to know some programmers at WPKN. They introduced me to the program director at that time and I was given a regular show on PKN that same year.

Piascik: What is the genesis of the two programs you host, Counterpoint and Between the Lines?

Harris: I started my first radio show at WPKN doing a blues music show featuring older acoustic blues and more modern Chicago electric blues artists. I later mixed in commentary and interviews on a variety of topics and eventually the show transformed into an all-talk format and which I named Counterpoint. My slot was originally four hours and I later reduced that to two hours to provide more time for other producers.

An extended trip I made to Nicaragua in 1981, two years after that nation’s 1981 revolution, greatly influenced my worldview and politics. Many of my interviews and much of my coverage in the early days of the radio show focused on the Reagan-Bush funded Contra War against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and U.S. support for death squad governments in neighboring El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Several years later, I founded a Sister City project linking my hometown of Norwalk with the Nicaraguan city of Nagarote.

In the days leading up to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, another WPKN producer named Denise Manzari and I, along with other contributors, created Between The Lines, a 30-minute show, to probe the causes and conduct of the conflict. After the Persian Gulf War ended, the program’s producers continued broadcasting Between The Lines, but with a broader focus: providing a platform for activists, journalists and academics generally ignored or marginalized in the corporate media. Like Counterpoint, the program’s primary focus is to provide a substantive progressive alternative to corporate news obsessed with violent crime, celebrities and “infotainment.”

In 2004, we established Squeaky Wheel Productions, Inc., a non-profit organization to distribute Between The Lines and other community media projects. In addition to distributing Between The Lines to radio stations and websites each week, Squeaky Wheel Productions organizes public education events in the U.S. and internationally.

Piascik: What are some of the issues you’ve covered?

Harris: For the last 28 years, Between The Lines has provided in-depth, timely analysis on a wide range of political, economic and social issues including the history and consequences of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria; growing income inequality in the U.S.; coverage of the global social justice movement and related protests challenging the free trade, corporate-driven policies of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund; the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties; Washington’s wars on Central America in the 1980s and attacks on left governments there today; the rise and mainstreaming of white supremacists and political Christian fundamentalism; Palestinian human rights; the struggle for universal health care in the U.S; international grassroots mobilization to confront global climate change; racism permeating the prison industrial complex; police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement; and efforts to repair flaws in the U.S. electoral system.

Piascik: WPKN began as the radio station of the University of Bridgeport but no longer is. Can you talk about the decision by people at the station to become an independent community entity?

Harris: The decision to become independent was forced upon us when the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was poised to take over the University of Bridgeport board of directors. Awash in debt, directors agreed in April, 1992 to relinquish control of the school to The Professors World Peace Academy, an arm of the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, becoming the first American university run by the church.

Dr. Edwin H. Eigel, Jr., the outgoing, non-Moonie president of the college, gave WPKN an opportunity to break away from the college and we created our own 501c3 nonprofit to which UB transferred the license before the Moon church took over.  Eigel also gave us an unlimited lease for our studio space we occupied in the UB building for $1 a year.

Before the Unification Church took over UB, I wrote an article for the local Fairfield County Advocate newspaper about how the Unification Church takeover of fishing fleets in Gloucester, Massachusetts negatively impacted that community.

Piascik: You begin each episode of Counterpoint by stating that it’s dedicated to covering issues not usually discussed in the corporate media and from points of view generally excluded there. Could you elaborate on why this is important and what it means in practice?

Harris: Our station’s mission includes the important priority to broadcast sounds and ideas not heard elsewhere, something I take very seriously. Following in the tradition of other producers, I focus on providing air time to progressive activists, journalists and academics who get little time or attention from corporate media. It should be noted that WPKN programmers have an enormous amount of freedom to program virtually anything and everything they want, as long as it doesn’t break FCC rules and regulations jeopardizing our license.

When I began airing political interviews in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was rare that any of my guests were also given any attention in mainstream corporate outlets, either newspapers or TV or radio.  With the internet now providing many more platforms for progressive journalists and activists, it’s much easier to access progressive and radical points of view online. However, while large corporate outlets such as NPR and MSNBC who have brands that supposedly skew to liberal views, most of my guest list still are rarely heard there.

Piascik: Outlets like NPR and MSNBC pay far less attention to people’s movements and campaigns such as the wave of teachers’ strikes last Spring, the new Poor People’s Campaign and organizing against police violence, in favor of non-stop coverage of Trump and Russiagate. Has this created an even greater need for the work you and your colleagues do?

Harris: It has become urgent that independent media outlets cover and place in context the disastrous Trump GOP policy agenda.  Russiagate is a sexy story, as it pushes emotional buttons, but meanwhile there is severe damage being done to labor unions, the environment, climate change policy, criminal justice reform, civil rights, the Endangered Species Act, national park and land preservation, consumer protection and safety regulations and  of course health care, which isn’t being covered with much depth.

Apart from trade issues and some GOP displeasure with his irrational tweets, Trump is for the most part following the decades long GOP playbook on cultivating support for racist, xenophobic immigration policies, opposing universal health care, deregulating corporations to the detriment of the majority of Americans and providing trillions in tax breaks to the wealthiest  based on the bogus and disproven trickle-down theory.

There is also the feckless way in which the Democrats fail to effectively challenge voter suppression, voter purges and gerrymandering that makes one feel as though either the Democrats are grossly incompetent or they’re secretly in league with the GOP.  Corporate media does little to examine the conduct of both major political parties and discuss the extreme flaws in the U.S. winner-take-all electoral system that shuts out third parties and new ideas.

Piascik: You’re making an important distinction between what passes for left corporate media and real alternative, radical work like what you and others at WPKN do.

Harris: I once spoke to a woman at one of our Between The Lines events who said she gets all of her news and views from MSNBC, and didn’t think that independent media was that vital anymore.  I reminded her that NBC does very little coverage of specific topics that could jeopardize their corporate sponsors like Big Oil, API, the insurance companies. Examples of this include climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia human rights, FCC issues of monopoly ownership of media and net neutrality, to name just a few.

I also told her that a corporation like NBC has a fiduciary responsibility to its stockholders with the main priority of maximizing profit, and if and when the need arises they will fire their hosts, shift their political slant and change formats in a flash. This actually occurred when Phil Donahue was fired for his stand against the Iraq war and primetime host Keith Olbermann was eventually forced out as well.

Piascik: As media ownership is concentrated into the hands of fewer and fewer corporate behemoths, some of which like Sinclair are extremely reactionary, what do you see as the future for shows like yours and stations like WPKN?

Harris: The mindset that all media is “Free” is an enemy of listener supported outlets like WPKN and other non-commercial stations across the U.S. Broadcast media is experiencing a dramatically changed landscape where many millennials listen to their own podcasts they themselves program. Our job is to create radio programming in formats that will be attractive and accessible to a new generation.

Piascik: You and your colleagues regularly host panels at the large Left Forum conference held annually in New York City. Do you see a relationship between journalism and activism?

Harris: Organizing public forums and the like helps us connect with our audience and supporters. Certainly information, discussion and debate is vital to political activism and organizing of all stripes. It’s part of our mission to organize events that strengthen the public’s understanding of critical and sometimes complex public policy issues.

Piascik: Are you also involved in progressive organizations and campaigns?

Harris: I attend many different political events and support various progressive campaigns but generally attend as a journalist to bring the message and story to our audience on Counterpoint and Between The Lines.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am the founder of a sister city project with a town in Nicaragua that we started in 1986, the Norwalk/Nagarote Sister City Project. I’m no longer the president of the group, but still serve on the board of directors. The group began during the Contra War, and since the war ended has focused on youth education projects. We opened a community center that holds regular after school classes and provides scholarships, we have a model organic farm, and are now building a new pre-school. Anyone who’s interested can check out our website.

We’re very proud to be one of a handful of Nicaragua sister city groups that continued on beyond the Contra War days when everything about Nicaragua was so politically charged.  With the unfortunate current political crisis in Nicaragua, we’re trying to find our way through a very dangerous environment in order to limit the harm to our staff and students.

 

More articles by:

Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who writes for Z Magazine, CounterPunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

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