Thursday, May 5, 2011

WBAI's Metamorphosis: Early inkling

As some of you who have followed my posts in the WBAI Issues forum (the so-called "blue" board) already know, I left my position as Manager in 1966 and went to work for the BBC. That job had me commuting between London and New York, spending about a month in each place.  I believe it must have been in 1968 that I returned home and found three letters from WBAI producers in my mailbox. They were Tana de Gamez, Bob Bisom and Barbara Dane. Each had written to me independent of the others, but they all had the same problem: Their were either being censored or their programs were denied air time by Dale Minor. Dale was a terrific producer and reporter who worked with Chris Koch on the extraordinary "This Little Light" documentary series, which covered the Civil Rights movement in such depth and with such insight that no other station could begin to approach it. When I left, Chris Koch was also gone and Dale took his place as Program Director. He had a drinking problem, but it didn't interfere with his work as a producer until he returned from Vietnam. We had managed to scrape up enough funds to send Dale into the war zone, armed with a small (for that time) tape recorder, and little else. He sent back great material—the stories we were not told by mainstream media—but it was a stressful assignment and it took its toll. Dale was drinking more when he returned, and I think the problem was exacerbated by the fact that he now spent more time behind a desk than before a tape machine. He was making more and enjoying it less, and he took his frustration out on people such as the three producers.

The manager who replaced me, Frank Millspaugh (more on him later), was new to radio and his weakness (which included a fondness for mescaline) was being taken advantage of my resident opportunists Steve Post and Larry Josephson. They had a different concept in mind for WBAI, one that centered around them rather than anything Lew Hill had dreamed of. They initiated the celebrity system that now—four decades later—is all but killing the station. I could not believe what I was hearing at 99.5, but it was the sort of shallow, ego-driven, sophomoric nonsense that we had been immune to.

I should point out that the program schedule still contained many hours that were in keeping with the original Pacifica concept, but there was enough of a departure there to raise a red flag. It is, of course, much worse now, which is why I am digging up the history. Anyway, the alarm I heard was compounded by the news of censorship taking place—that was very disturbing. As far as I knew, none of the three Pacifica stations had ever crossed that line, but here were three separate cases and a governing board that refused to hear them. Tana, Bob and Barbara came to me because they knew that I could probably arrange for the board to consider their complaints. That is a long story which I will tell in detail as this blog moves along. For now, let me just say that there was a dramatic confrontation with Dr. Harold Taylor (former President of Sarah Lawrence) and the N.Y. Board and that it bore no results.

Sometimes the WBAI NY Board reminded me of of those sinister thrillers wherein the main character 
has a nightmarish treadmill experience. Taylor was a slick one and I'm still not sure what his game was.
Click on images to enlarge them. 
When WBAI management and board turned down a petition to have an on-the-air discussion of this, the Committee to Win Back WBAI (sound familiar?), along with a couple of faithful, generous listener-supporters, and the Steering Committee of SDS at Columbia University decided to rent the ballroom of a midtown hotel, The Diplomat and have an open forum. Everybody at WBAI and all Board members were invited to attend and participate in the discussion. No Board member showed up (see letter from Harold Taylor), but the WBAI staff was well represented. They even flew Chris Koch in from California and planted Leonard Lopate in a front seat with a tape recorder—the station was going to air it, he said, but we knew better. Our "security" guys (Black Panthers) removed the machine from Leonard and we told him that we would be recording the entire evening and would make the tape available to WBAI provided that they aired it without any edits. That never happened, but I still have the tape (quite lively), which was made on my own machine.

The Hotel Diplomat meeting took place May 8, 1969. The East Village Other, a rebellious alternate to the Village Voice, carried the following article in its May 17th issue, and my response a week later. 

I bring this up to give you a little flavor of an early WBAI battle. I hope that some of you find it interesting and will take advantage of the comment option (below). Unfortunately, I have to approve any text before it is published, but that should not be a problem, whether your comment is favorable or not. I always welcome criticism but I have no tolerance for infantile trolling, so—now that I can—I close the door on destructive silliness, such as we have seen on the blue board.

Please bear in mind that a click on the image enlarges it. 



  1. nice effort - I hope you will be open to hearing some of the more recent history of WBAI - the sexual harrassment by men of other men, the workplace harassment, the mean-spirited and ideological driven behavior that forced many people out of the station, the "Stalinist, Communist" lunatics who have infested the station - the stupid legacy of Samori Marksman, etc. This is the REAL recent history of WBAI!

  2. Thank you for the comment. Yes, I am open to anything that pertains to WBAI, then or now, but frivolous venom is best spewed from a couch, and this blog is nobody's couch. That said, I am sadly aware of the problems you mention and I hope it can be discussed here in an adult manner. The troll of WBAI boards will undoubtedly attempt to come out of the shadow, but she shall not be admitted here. I run a decent place :)