Wednesday, July 11, 2012

16. My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI


WBAI (99.5 FM) is a radio station that you can either love or hate, or maybe love and hate.  Soon after I returned to New York in 1963 I began listening to it and have been listening on and off – but mostly on – ever since.  Now situated on the tenth floor of 120 Wall Street – as they put it, “in the belly of the beast” -- it has a transmitter on top of the Empire State Building that lets it reach listeners within a radius of nearly seventy miles.  Affiliated with the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, it has sister stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington D.C.

WBAI is unique.  Listener-supported, it has no commercials whatsoever, claims to give a voice to the voiceless.  I listen faithfully to the popular 6 p.m. newscast, with its distinctly progressive point of view, but the station also offers programs addressed specifically to blacks, Latinos, gays, Irish and Asian Americans, Muslims, Jews, atheists, indigenous peoples, feminists, labor activists, hackers, opera buffs, fans of old radio, health and nutrition advocates of an unorthodox stamp, and most recently, Wall Street Occupiers and their supporters.  Those who want coverage of sports, fashion, stocks, and the weather will have to go elsewhere, but whatever is wrong with the world --  every sin that capitalist society is capable of, and then some – you will hear discussed and denounced on this station.  Many of these issues you will find mentioned only briefly in other media, if at all.  If you think you are well informed, I invite you to identify the following list of items, all prominently discussed on WBAI.  Please, no cheating – you can look them all up later in Wikipedia.

1.  GMO
2.  Dennis Kucinich
3.  Glass-Steagall
4.  free-range chicken
5.  Codex Alimentarius    
6.  prison industrial complex  
7.  Gary Null
8.  fracking
9.  Koch brothers
 10.  Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

If you can identify half of these, you are fairly well informed.  If you can identify all of them, you are remarkably well informed.  If you know few or none, don’t feel embarrassed or annoyed, since it simply demonstrates the limitations of conventional media and the need for WBAI.

So why do I love thee, WBAI, let me count the ways:

1.  Your championing of imprisoned activists like attorney Lynne Stewart, black journalist Mumia Abu-jamal, and Army private Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks.  I may or may not agree with them, but I want them to be kept in mind and discussed.

2.  Your unusual, even unique, cultural programming, as for instance, at various times in the past, a twenty-four-hour nonstop presentation of Wagner’s Ring; a four-and-a-half-day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and a similar nonstop rendering of Joyce’s Ulysses.  What other radio station would have undertaken such epic projects as these?

3.  Your willingness to challenge arbitrary rules, as when, informed of a proposal to ban all drug-related music from the air, you presented every bit of music that could be considered drug-inspired, including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”  And your broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s routine featuring seven “dirty” words banned on TV, provoking an FCC lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the FCC.  (Some of those words have since been allowed, depending on the context.)

4.  Your unusual on-the-spot coverage of significant news stories, as for instance the 1968 SDS takeover at Columbia University, the Vietnam War, and most recently the Occupy Wall Street movement.

5.  Your courage (or is it chutzpah?) in speaking truth to power, as when President Bill Clinton phoned the station in 2000 and for a half hour faced a relentless barrage of questions by veteran WBAI journalist Amy Goodman.  Never had our Chief Executive been so grilled in public.  He referred to Amy as “combative” and “disrespectful,” but answered with amazing precision, using no notes or staff backup – an encounter that left me in awe of both participants.

I could go on and on, but you must get the idea by now.  So why do I at times hate thee, WBAI?

1.  Your relentless discussion of everything wrong with the world – environmental disasters, political corruption, police brutality, corporate misdeeds, etc., which in the end leaves me discouraged and depressed, not because I don’t believe you but because I do.  Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

2.  Your fervent embrace of every conspiracy theory ever conceived of, without a single exception that I’m aware of (the Kennedy assassinations, the Martin Luther King assassination, the World Trade Center collapse, etc.).

3.  The irresponsible pronouncements of some of your program hosts, as seen in the puerile name-calling that some of them indulge in – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is a “Nazi groper,” J. Edgar Hoover a despicable secret cross-dresser (since refuted by a biographer), etc.  And Radio Free Eireann’s justification of Lord Mountbatten’s 1979 assassination by the IRA, declaring that he was a soldier and died a soldier’s death – all of which ignores the death, on the same occasion, of three others, including his fourteen-year-old grandson and another youth.  If such “collateral damage” is justified, so is the death of some three thousand in the World Trade Center attack.  These pronouncements are the sins of individuals, but they cast a bad light on the station.

4.  Your necessary but dreary fund drives, asking, begging, pleading for money – so many of them, and so lengthy.

5.  Your internal strife, so baffling to outsiders, with allegations of verbal and physical abuse, lockouts of individuals, and even disruptions of programming.

As regards #4, yes, I do give money – not a lot, but regularly every year.  If only all the listeners would do so!  But I also flee to WNYC and its more mainstream coverage, including some fine programs and some silly ones, unless, of course, they too are in the midst of a fund drive.  They do have corporate donors, but they give them limited exposure.  The last alternative is to turn the radio off and read the shrinking and ever more expensive Times.

As regards #5, the New York Times has called it “an anarchist’s circus,” though I’m inclined to say creative chaos, or maybe chaotic creativity.  As evidenced by several WBAI-related websites, two factions are fighting fiercely for control of the station: the hard-liners vs. the compromisers.  The hard-liners want the station to adhere to what they take its mission to be, promoting a far-left political agenda, whereas the compromisers argue that the station, given its precarious financial situation, must broaden its listener base and not risk alienating potential supporters by too extreme a political stance.  More than one refugee has described the station’s atmosphere as “toxic.”  So exasperated was I at one point, that I stopped contributing money to the station – for a while.

That “for a while” says it all.  Whatever my annoyance, always I go back.  Because WBAI is challenging, irreverent, unique.  A love/hate relationship, all right, but for me the love outweighs the hate.

A comment on the times:  My bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the country, has just admitted losing $5.8 billion (billion, not million) so far this year.  When reports of these problems first surfaced last April, the CEO, Jamie Dimon, dismissed them as "a tempest in a teapot."  All right, maybe not a tempest, just a perfect storm.  I have already commented on this sad affair (vignette #14, 7/1/12), but am determined to view this noble institution in the best of light.  On the counter at my local branch there is a jar full of lollipops that are absolutely free.  When I asked an employee if people really took them, he assured me that they did -- so much so that they have to refill the jar twice a day.  "Kids or adults?" I asked.  "Both!" he declared with a grin.  So you see, my bank persists in spreading joy to the populace.  More power to them!

Thought for the day:  The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Coming attractions:  The Union Square Greenmarket, and Upstate vs. Downstate.

                                                                               © 2012  Clifford Browder


  1. Cliff, this is a wonderful blog post about WBAI. I agree with most of everything here, except your depiction of rationales of the two factions. Some of it is personality-driven, but NONE of it is about whether to compromise or to go hard-line! I'll have to get into that another time, though ...

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. It took a while to find this post, need to have much easier navigation from the homepage ....

    Mitchel Cohen
    Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

  2. A wonderful blog, and your piece on WBAI has the objectivity that is largely missing from the station's offerings these days—but, of course, you are well aware of that. I am placing a link to your blog on my jazz-oriented, more personal Stomp Off blog, and a link to your WBAI post on my other blog, which is dedicated to matters involving the station.


  3. Pretty good survey, overall. Here's another angle you might want to look at: