Saturday, May 21, 2011

My comments on WBAI's 50th Anniversary celebration

Aside from the bland stuff that takes up so much of the station’s precious airtime these days, one glaring difference that distinguishes the old WBAI from the current one is the absence of documentary productions. Much of Pacifica’s strength used to lie in the extraordinary work of its producers, mostly volunteers, who worked late into the night and created amazing programs with inadequate equipment and little or no money. In today’s 10-hour tribute to itself, there was hardly any evidence of that. This would have been a golden opportunity for the station to create a comprehensive documentary of its first fifty years, and really demonstrate what it is that made Pacifica stations so special. Instead they gave us a lot of giggling and inanities as groups of elderly white staffers swapped painfully shallow compliments interspersed with sound bites that could have been retrieved from last week’s air checks, except for the dated references.

The anniversary celebration began at 11 AM with a lady named Janet Coleman (I think she has a show there) telling the listeners about Louis Schweitzer, the remarkable man who in 1959 gave the station to Pacifica and continued to support it even when some staffers (including Steve Post and Larry Josephson) falsely accused him of censorship. Others, who knew it to be untrue, shamefully remained silent. Sad to say, censorship was soon to be implemented at WBAI, but, ironically, by some of the finger pointers themselves. I won’t go into the details here, but it was a mess and I have a rather large file that tells the story.

Getting back to yesterdays on-the-air "celebration," Ms. Coleman’s review of Lou Schweitzer’s background and the circumstances that led to his making that generous gift could have been quite interesting if the facts had been straight, but she had it mostly wrong. I was amazed when, later on, Bob Fass—who has been at the station for almost all of its 50 years—compounded the misinformation re Schweitzer. Whatever smattering of renown this old group has managed to attain is owed to Lou, but most of them have lost sight of that, and the few who haven’t are apparently playing the “hangin’ in there” game. 

The group got Julius Lester on the phone and paid him empty compliments. He was among the first African-Americans to have a regular program on the station, but he often showed an intolerance that wasn’t exactly in keeping with Pacifica's principles. One evening, as I entered the control room to thread up a tape for the next show, Julius modulated into his street speak and declared to his listeners, “I’m tired of talkin’ to white people—I ain’t takin’ no more calls from white people.” Then he cut off his microphone and revved up an Aretha record. As I was exiting, I turned around and asked, “What will you do if your wife calls?” Julius never spoke to me again. Not long after that, something that was said on his program sparked accusations of antisemitism, complete with angry demonstrators at the front door. Julius has since converted to Judaism and done very well for himself in the hinterland. 

To be fair, there are some excellent voices on BAI’s air today, but—except for Earl Caldwell and Ibrahim Gonzales, they were not heard from during the backstroking celebration. There also was no mention of many extraordinary people who gave WBAI life a few years back—the forgotten foundation. For a brief moment, the old-timers stopped talking about themselves and turned to race and ethnicity. When somebody wrongly claimed to have been BAI’s first black audio engineer, no one corrected him—that distinction actually goes to Tom Tracy, whom I brought over from WNEW when I became station manager. They also forgot Joanne Grant, a black lady who became the first female News Director, and the wonderful Taña De Gamez a Spanish lady of great intellect who authored many books and whose weekly program, Latin American World, on more than one occasion brought a call from a network asking for permission to use something she had uncovered. Taña's program was eventually censored and when she complained, they fired her on the ludicrous grounds that her Spanish accent was "difficult for listeners to understand"! 

The self-congratulatory group also failed to mention WBAI’s Programs for Young People, which were superb and unlike anything else offered to children on New York's air. Also no mention of the fact that we offered an amazing diversity of authoritative speakers on the air, in the fields of politics, arts and sciences: Andrew Sarris was our film critic, John Corigliano our Music Director, his volunteer assistant was a shy young lady named Yoko Ono. Gunther Schuller had a regular program, as did Ayn Rand and Marian McPartland. Jazz programs were conducted by the likes of John Coltrane, Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Condon and Toshiko Akiyoshi, to mention but a few. America’s top jazz writers were also regulars. We adapted and produced great plays, challenged convention by taking up tabu subjects and excelled when it came to documentaries. “This Little Light”, for example, was an extraordinary series of reports from the heart of the Civil Rights struggle. We received an unsolicited $10,000 grant earmarked for civil rights coverage. fIt came from something called the Taconic Foundation with instructions not to credit them. That’s not a lot of money today, but we used it well back in the Sixties and I invested some of it in wireless microphones, a pioneering move that allowed our reporters to covertly tape conversations with bigoted officials who otherwise would have refused interviews. There also was no mention yesterday of Marcia Thompson, a wonderful, brave staffer who went home to Tuscaloosa Alabama one Christmas and secretly recorded an outdoor KKK meeting as well as discussions of race that took place in her family living room. Marcia’s father was the local Chief of Police, which made it all the more interesting. We received requests for permission to air her programs from the BBC, Danish Radio, and a little old lady in Detroit whose husband had given her an FM station. 

This is the sort of thing they should have been talking about, not themselves. They also should have played excerpts from some of these great programs, but this was not really about celebrating WBAI. That is such a shame.

Following this post, we move back to 1965 and WBAI's fifth anniversary. We didn't have fifty years to look back on, but I think we used the first five quite well. Please click on the images to make them readable—a second click will further enlarge them..

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