New York City’s Pacifica radio station, WBAI, was back on the air as of midnight this past Wednesday, but the struggle to keep it a community radio station is far from over.
Three and a half weeks after a corporate coup abruptly shut down the listener-supported station, a favorable ruling by a state-court judge effectively put the station back in the control of its staff. But none of the activists who worked to bring about the reversal of the coup are under the illusion that this latest struggle is anywhere near over.
The coup was hatched on October 7 when the Pacifica interim executive director, John Vernile, arrived with security guards and summarily announced that everybody was fired and must vacate immediately. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on the station that morning dismantled studio equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; seized the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments.
In the place of WBAI’s 104 programs, 97 of which are local, Mr. Vernile substituted syndicated programming almost entirely consisting of California shows discussing local California issues. Fine for California but not relevant to listeners 3,000 miles away.
After several trips to court, the judge finally handed down a ruling on Wednesday afternoon. It was a narrow ruling based on interpreting the plain meaning of the Pacifica bylaws, which Mr. Vernile and the minority pro-coup faction on the Pacifica National Board had flagrantly violated. The coup was executed in secret with no authorization, and when the National Board was convened via phone conference in an attempt to provide retroactive approval, five board members had their phones muted and were blocked from voting because the pro-coup faction knew they would lose the vote.
Two subsequent meetings were convened using a different system that didn’t enable muting, with the full board voting both times to reverse the coup. The coupsters tried to claim only the first vote was valid, and the legal proceedings centered on the validity of the votes. In her decision, the judge put stress on the unfairness of blocking board members from voting simply because some disagreed with them. In brief, the judge ruled that the latter two votes were valid, rejecting the weak arguments of the lawyer representing the coup faction (with no board authorization).
The coupsters’ lawyer was reduced to repeatedly trying to raise objections to the WBAI lawyer filing amendments to earlier filings, causing the judge to finally declare “I’ve already ruled on that.” Arguing that the latter votes should be ruled invalid because board members were not notified by phone calls ahead of time — a procedure that hadn’t been used in 20 years and was also not followed in the first vote the coupsters wanted to be counted — is sophistry. That facts or the bylaw couldn’t be cited speaks for itself.
So why isn’t this fight over? Because the takeover, which must have been plotted in secret for several weeks given the multiple points of attack, is only one strand of a plan intended to sell off WBAI and use the proceeds to benefit the remaining stations. Many listeners and staff at those other stations, it must be noted, oppose this action and have showed solidarity with WBAI and its listeners. Further, the 12 board members opposing the coup, who are a majority of the National Board, include at least one director from each of the five Pacifica stations.
As one of the leaders of the WBAI Fightback group that quickly coalesced, Mimi Rosenberg, put it, there is the “white-collar” line of attack and the “thuggish” line of attack. The brutal shutting down of the station represented the “thuggish” strategy. The “white-collar” strategy is an attempt to change the Pacifica bylaws to eliminate democratic accountability. That fight, unfortunately, has only begun.
Under the current bylaws, listeners elect local station boards to each of the five network stations, and those local station boards in turn seat the Pacifica National Board from their ranks. Thus there is accountability to listeners. Such democratic structures are an impediment to corporate takeovers. To eliminate the irritant of democracy, a grouping based at the two California stations, KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles, want to eliminate the local station boards and appoint a new National Board with no democratic input. In other words, a self-selecting board that would be free to impose watered-down, weak-tea liberal programming, most likely from a central source.
A self-selecting board with no accountability would also be free to sell off WBAI. Such an unaccountable board led to the lockout of KPFA in 1999 and the Christmas Coup at WBAI in 2000, triggering a long struggle that culminated in the current democratic bylaws.
The possibility of selling WBAI, despite the pious denials of Mr. Vernile and those backing him, is widely believed by opponents of the coup to be the true goal. Advocacy of a sale, and the scapegoating of WBAI for network-wide financial difficulties, has gone on for years.
In support of that goal, a lawsuit was filed in California state court, seeking to force a referendum to change the bylaws to be put before the members of all of the network’s five stations. Thus far, it appears that this suit will succeed, and listener-members will be asked to vote on this drastic change to the bylaws. This is a well-organized attempt; a petition circulated to force a referendum drew hundreds of signatures, a necessary step under current bylaws for anyone wanting to change them.
People who believe in community radio that is democratically accountable will have to quickly organize, a challenge made more difficult in the New York area because the syndicated, irrelevant programming that had been broadcast over WBAI’s frequency during the coup drove away listeners. How quickly WBAI can attract its past listenership, and new listeners, is an open question. That the station was shut down in the midst of a fund drive — the coup was clearly timed to inflict the maximum damage — adds to the challenge.
Now that the latest votes of the National Board have been declared legal, Mr. Vernile is suspended, and two board members told me there is an intention to fire him. But as despicable as his dictatorial, destructive actions are, this is a fight much bigger than any one person. What is not disputable to any reasonable observer is that immense damage has been done to WBAI. There are few radio stations in the United States that are independent of corporate control in this era of ever-increasing inequality. We can’t afford to lose any of them.