Why 802 Members Have a Stake in Saving WBAI

Member To Member

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Tim Ouimette

As union members, we all know the sting of slight and not-so-slight injustices in our jobs, be it “can you stay for another half-hour?” (for free) or “how about if you overdub that?” (in lieu of another player) – and the list goes on and on. We experience these slights every day and frequently ask ourselves, “Is it worth making an issue out of this? Will I alienate the contractor, bandleader or anyone else politically sensitive?” We can speak frankly among ourselves, with tacit understanding of the all-too-familiar, but when it comes to non-musicians – friends, strangers or even family members – they sometimes glaze over as if to say: “You musicians are always complaining, even though the rest of us have got to go to real jobs.”

When musicians are forced to strike, the almost universal response in the “popular” press has to do with “greedy musicians shutting down Broadway” (that’s a sort of New York Post tone) or the more infuriating let-them-eat-cake tone of the New York Times, which boils down to “how will we be able to go to the opera? what an inconvenience!” At best, possibly an NPR program may discuss the issue in a “balanced” way (news-speak for drawing no parallels to any other social struggle or to the generally downward economic trends experienced by working families since the Reagan years).

But there is an alternative: WBAI, a radio station located at 99.5 FM that has been championing the rights of labor for the past 40 years, with the only weekly pro-labor show to be found anywhere in broadcast media. WBAI has consistently been in Local 802’s corner, giving President Bill Moriarity ample time to explain our position when a strike does occur, or when the union launches a major campaign like the one now under way to win justice for jazz artists. And their producers allow the union a true luxury: a forum longer than a 10-second sound bite.

It is for this reason that I was completely alarmed when, at about midnight on Dec. 23, Utrice Leid, a WBAI producer, and Bessie M. Wash, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, the national board controlling WBAI and four other community-supported stations, changed the locks at the station and summarily fired Bernard White, program director and host of the popular Wake Up Call, a morning show, and Sharan Louise Harper, the program’s producer and a shop steward for UE Local 404. Also fired was Valerie Van Isler; Pacifica had announced plans to remove her as station manager a month earlier.

Leid refused to give a reason for these actions, saying cryptically “They know what they did,” and insisting that the situation was “an internal matter.” Guards were placed in the hallways of this listener-supported station, on the grounds of supposed “security threats.”

The Pacifica Board has been on the warpath against local stations for the last few years, diluting the award-winning Pacifica Network News and, about a year and a half ago, firing the station manager at KPFA in Berkeley, Calif. They closed down that station for 23 days, until listener protests prevailed. The tactics in the attempted Berkeley coup were similar to those subsequently used at WBAI: firings without cause, lockouts, etc.

Why is this so important that I, a professional musician and not a community or political activist, should find myself writing this article? The answer is simple: WBAI is the last place in the media for truly free speech, with 50,000 watts smack in the middle of the FM dial. When I am on the road and I listen to local radio, I notice a “vast wasteland” of thought – but what I really miss is WBAI, a station that accepts no commercial advertising and no underwriting.

If you think that underwriting is just a benevolent act of “neutral” corporations, listen to WBAI for five minutes and then go listen to WNYC, a station that takes money from bioengineering firms and pharmaceutical companies. Then ask yourself if indeed there is “no difference.” Without this independent voice, New York City – a town so smart it elected Rudy Giuliani twice – would undoubtedly become part of that same wasteland.

As we look toward four years of George W. Bush – who from the makeup of his cabinet is about to party like it’s 1899 – we are without a doubt headed for lots of union-busting, scapegoating of poor and working poor families, tax cuts for the “second yacht” set, race-baiting, saber-rattling, Scalia as Chief Justice, the NRA arming the anti-abortionists (gratuitous facetiousness) and whatever else these slimy crypto-fascists can get away with.

Will the media stand up and explain the implications of whatever diabolical policies are coming our way? Will they do investigations and expose facts without fear for their lucrative careers? Do they even know how the rest of us live? I think you get my point: WBAI, with any flaws it may have, is a station beholden to no one. For the increasingly corporate-minded Pacifica board, this is extremely threatening. There is also the ominous fact that an internal memo circulated between board members last year indicated a longer range plan to sell off the two most effective Pacifica stations. WBAI’s spot on the dial is estimated to be worth upwards of $150 million.

This is a critical time to stand up! What we don’t know can hurt us as union members, as citizens, as parents, as human beings. You can help. There will be rallies in support of the station, there are web sites to keep you informed, etc. If anyone would be interested in performing in a group under the banner of Local 802, at a rally or function, contact me at For background on the struggles at Pacifica, go to or