Sunday, November 18, 2012

A backward glance: Triumph and termites

It was almost three years ago that I decided to see what was happening at WBAI. The station was about to turn 50 as a Pacifica outlet, and I had been a part of the 25th Anniversary celebration in 1985, but I no longer tuned in, because it had become a painful experience. WBAI's programming was already showing signs of abuse in '85—breaches of principles and good taste that I had seen coming in the late 1960s—but it was still what Nat Hentoff once called "the only game in town." I don't remember details of the extended 25th year celebration, so I assume that nothing shocked me, as it did when I tuned in 25 years later.

I had my jazz blog up and running then, and—although I knew most of its visitors would not have heard of WBAI—I decided to go parochial, because what I heard this time at 99.5 was truly disturbing.

Let's fast-forward to the recent Sandy disaster, the Pacifica Archives gave WBAI listeners a wonderful taste of the kind of intellectual and worldly quality the station once exemplified. Michael G. Haskins and others seized the opportunity to raise money, giving the archive programs as examples of what WBAI has to offer, and of the station's uniqueness. It never ceases to amaze me how these people so shamelessly try to sell listeners on WBAI's past while they at the same time seem determined to bury it.  

I know that some of this blog's visitors have taken a peek of the WBAI-related posts on my jazz blog, so you may already have seen this review of the 50th anniversary, but it belongs here and I think it reflects the unhealthy attitude that keeps pushing WBAI farther away from Lewis Hill's concept.

WBAI's 50th Anniversary Program
Sunday, January 10, 2010

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 by 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 while 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.
They still had the right idea in 1985. (click to enlarge)

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 residue of WBAI cling-ons has managed to attain is owed to Lou, but most of them have lost sight of that and the few who seem not to care as they play their game of survival. They 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 (after Charles Hobson and A. B. Spellman), but he often showed an intolerance that wasn’t exactly in keeping with the Pacifica norm. I recall having to enter the control room one evening to set up a tape for the next show. He was on the air and obviously bothered by a call from a listener, so he modulated into his street mode and declared, “I’m tired of talkin’ to white people—I ain’t takin’ no more calls from white people.” His microphone was off as I opened the door to leave, so I turned around and asked, “What will you do if your wife calls?” Julius never spoke to me again. Not long after that, something said on his program was deemed antisemitic and sparked a very serious situation. Julius has since converted to Judaism and done very well for himself far from New York. 

To be fair, there are still excellent voices on BAI’s air today, but—except for Earl Caldwell and Ibrahim Gonzales, they were not heard from during the back-patting celebration. There also was no mention of many extraordinary people who breathed life into WBAI during its formative Pacifica years—they are the forgotten foundation upon which the station built its reputation and without whose early input this group of celebrants might well be pushing pencils or flipping burgers.

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 around 1965, 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 Taña 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"! There also was no mention of WBAI’s superb children’s programs, which were unlike anything else offered on New York's air, or of the fact that we had amazing expertise on the air in so many fields. Andrew Sarris was our film critic, John Corigliano was our Music Director, Yoko Ono was one of his volunteer file clerks, 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 Aliyoshi, 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. That was a pioneering move, and a necessary one, for it allowed our reporters to covertly tape conversations with bigoted officials who otherwise would have refused interviews. Neither was there mention of Dale Minor's amazing shoestring budget reportage from Vietnam—great journalism that arrived in well-worn manila envelopes by way of a WBAI- friendly Pan-Am stewardess and scooped the network coverage. There also was no mention yesterday of Marcia Tompkins, 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. Marsha’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 for their anniversary. 

This is the sort of thing they should have been talking about as they celebrated the first 50 years, not themselves. They also should have played excerpts from some of these great programs and invited alumni like Marcia and Dale to share their recollections, That would have shown the right spirit, but this was not really about celebrating WBAI. This was a vacuous meeting of the self-absorbed.

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