Sunday, January 15, 2017

The thin line of racism

This exchange began here, so you might want to read some of that first. The following comment and my response (in red) exceeds the space limit of the Comment area, so I have placed it here.

On Jan 15, 2017, at 1:00 PM, Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Mitchel and Marilyn respond to Bates": 

"A clueless, cowardly troll." Nice! Have to disagree; I'm not clueless! 
I grant that you aren't clueless and apologize for jumping to that conclusion. That said, are you admitting cowardice? I find no fault with people wishing to maintain anonymity, but personal attacks throw a different light on my thinking in that regard. By not knowing when you worked at WBAI or in what capacity, I am, you must admit, somewhat disadvantaged, but I'll try, anyway.

I worked at WBAI and served on the national board. I have a pretty good idea about what went on then and what's going on now.
Not knowing when “then” was, I have no yardstick by which to measure that statement. I think most of us know what is going on now, however.

During my many years in and around Pacifica I met plenty people like you who think their devotion to the mission masks their racism.
Race awareness is not the same as racism. I did not take extraordinary perception for me to note that the WBAI I volunteered at in 1961 had an all white-one-Latina staff. Fortunately, the programming did not reflect that racial divide, nor—as far as I could tell—did the mindset of 25 paid employees. It struck me as wrong (inadvertent racial discrimination, perhaps) so I saw staff integration as a top priority when I was appointed Station Manager. Among my first hires was a black news director, Joanne Grant.

It's not all black people you revile, just the ones you don't agree with at Pacifica.
“Revile” is a misnomer. I do disrespect people who knowingly or through ignorance mislead WBAI’s listeners in order to place their own message before the actual facts. At WBAI, this sort of deception is by no means the exclusive province of any particular ethnic group—acculturation is fairly common. whether it is Mimi Rosenberg in blackface or Felipe Luciano telling “y’all” that growing up in East Harlem made him an African “brother.” He wasn’t talking that way years ago when I met him.

As for my alleged revulsion. To maintain that such strong feelings are prompted by my personal dislikes, is an insult to my intelligence. Yes, I was forced to drop out of school at 14, never had a chance to pass or flunk an exam, grew up speaking a relatively obscure language (Icelandic), and didn’t see a black person until I was in my late teens. That said, I had the curiosity needed to gather knowledge from my environments. I am now 85 and I have spent almost 70 of those years working with and for people who don’t look like me. 

I recognized in the WBAI concept a freedom of expression that even the state-owned European broadcast outlets could only approximate. I loved WBAI and people like Lou Schweitzer, who pursued and practiced our country’s fading freedoms. There was no greater advocate of free speech than Lou—he would be dismayed if he heard what has happened to the radio station he saw as a dream realized.

I disagree with much of what I hear expressed on today’s WBAI, whether it comes from blacks, whites or opportunistic teeters. I have always regarded WBAI and, indeed, Pacifica, as a source of truth. Honesty is more important to Lew Hill’s concept than the lack of commercial advertising, although one surely feeds the other. So what you call my revulsion is integrity-based rather than race-based. People who show such disrespect for the listeners upon whom their existence relies have no place on WBAI’s air, nor would they have perennial access to the station’s air if management were doing its job.

Today’s WBAI is rudderless and thus—human nature being what it is—taken advantage of by unscrupulous, self-serving opportunists. You cannot have a radio station so disorganized and ego stroking without ending up with a serious, near-fatal reduction in listenership and income.

But the fact is that the cancer at Pacifica is equal opportunity. Some of the people I worked with many years ago at WBAI are still there; they were venal sociopaths then and they are now. And most of them are white.
Whether they are white, black or in between is immaterial. The problem is that they place personal interests above any real concern for the welfare of WBAI and its listeners. Much of what the station airs is filler, bland music the likes of which can be heard from any number of sources, often presented with authority and genuine respect. Anti-social rhetoric and twisted facts are still spewed on street corners, and book-selling “lectures” are given every day in the big city. It may be more difficult to find bogus “cures” elsewhere, but they should not be pitched on WBAI either. The oft-used phrase, “only on WBAI” does have a ring of truth, but not in any complimentary way.

The fact that some of the people you worked with years ago are still there points to another serious flaw: one that produces stagnancy and hinders the appearance of fresh voices, such as the Pacifica founders envisioned. Sure, we hear new hosts, such as The Blacks, Katie Halpern, Daulton, The Haitian All-Stars, and various imports, but what are they saying? Why are they taking up time slots on WBAI? Nothing appears to be coordinated, management seems oblivious to the fact that New York is an amazing source for new thoughts and artistic innovation. Why should listeners have to listen to people who cannot articulate whatever it wants to say?

The deep racism at Pacifica goes back to its founding, a reflection of the culture in which it developed. Watch "KPFA On the Air" ( for a reasonably good exploration of the roots of the current situation.
Please tell me the basis for your “deep racism” tag. The link you include leads to a singularly uninformative trailer—what was I suppose to learn from watching it?

Pacifica's failed attempt to be everything to everyone leaves led to the current “nothing for anyone” model.
Pacifica was never meant to be “everything to everyone“. It was intended as an intelligent alternative to the pap and commercialism of corporate sponsor-dictated post-WWII radio (AM in those days). The idea was never to indoctrinate, but rather to inspire individual thought and serve as a platform for political ideas and artistic expression not given other outlets.

The late '70s transmitter takeover at WBAI was a white supremacist reaction to an entirely rational effort to survive the end of the Vietnam war years by pivoting to serve an specific underserved audience, the city’s black and Latino population.
Serving the New York area’s black and Latino population is in keeping with the original mission, but serving it at the expense of other ethnic groups is not. With increasing frequency, one hears WBAI’s hosts refer to the station as serving the "community,” but most of them have an alarmingly restrictive concept of what that means. Some have—by design, or not—narrowed the definition down to the city’s black population, others include “brown” people, and we are recently seeing Native Americans thrown in, but anyone else who cannot trace their ancestry to Africa is de facto excluded. I regard that as thinly veiled racism, but—along with the predominance of black-targeted programming—it certainly is a rerouting of purpose. It is only when it comes to raising funds that ancestral discrimination is shelved.

I don’t know enough details to discuss the 1970 transmitter takeover (I purchased and had that transmitter installed, b.t.w.), but the Vietnam war was still raging when Chris Koch and Dale Minor produced the brilliant documentary on the Civil Rights Movement (“This Little Light”). The two historic events overlapped—coverage of one did not replace coverage of the other.

The self-interested refusal of the WBAI staff to support the change set the stage for what we see and hear today. It makes just as much sense today as it did in the late 70s to serve an unserved audience, especially because that audience has not as completely abandoned radio for the Internet. 
We did not measure the listener’s right to be served by the color of his or her skin, or ancestral roots. It made eminent sense to serve anybody who wished to be served. The unwritten criterium was intellect and the curiosity that fosters its growth. Unlike today’s WBAI, we strove to be honest and give more than one side to any argument.

This is not to say that WBAI is listenable (it isn’t) or that the staff is competent (they aren’t). But they’re incompetent because they don’t know what they’re doing, not because they’re black.
Absolutely, incompetence and destructive opportunism comes in all hues. It basically boils down to inept management at the station as well as the Foundation level. Without anyone in authority at the helm, we end up with a pot luck system that is tolerated by most occupants, but, obviously not by the listenership. The latter group has the most effective remedy: tune out. That is exactly what we are experiencing, but loud and clear though it is, Management an Board don’t get the message. 

I encourage you to review blog posts whenever someone couches their critique in terms of race, and ask whether race is really the issue.
Censorship is abhorrent to me, but such posts do come in and I routinely leave them unpublished, especially if they bear no relationship to the topic at hand. Unfortunately, I cannot respond to them of-blog, because I haven’t their name and/or e-mail, but I think they get the idea.

My tenure at WBAI took place in one of the most racially charged environments I’ve ever experienced. The ugly bigotry I experienced then—so well intentioned, justified by the righteousness of the cause—has made the transition to the Internet and lives on in this blog. Too bad.

By its very nature, this blog cannot but reflect the atmosphere at WBAI. Unless I resort to fiction, I’m afraid that’s how it has to be.


  1. I believe this is a better link to "KPFA On The Air":

    It's well worth watching.

    I'm not going to engage on the substance of your response; I'm largely in agreement with your analysis. We part ways at the race baiting.

    There's a lot that needs to be done at Pacifica, and these tired arguments get us nowhere.

    Why are you so fixated on bitter complaints about WBAI management when, at the network level, millions of dollars are left on the table at CPB? Pacifica's problems are national; the local station follies are but symptoms of the malaise.

    1. Any accusation of "race baiting" should be directed at much of what appears on WBAI. Many of the producers (including some white ones, like Mimi Rosenberg) clearly and proudly express distaste and contempt for anyone whose ancestry is not African, Asian, or Native American. Furthermore, the often expressed hatred of Israel's mere existence (and not merely some of its actions) smacks of Jew-hatred (aka anti-Semitism).

    2. Please use the word "racism" correctly. Racism is the belief that one race is inherently superior to another race. I can't fathom the average WBAI on air person thinks that way.
      The proper argument is how does bigotry affect WBAI programming. Is it really inclusive to program to only black and brown skin people? How does that move our nation forward and give equal opportunity to ALL peoples?
      Black people can, and often are racists because they believe they are the ONLY victims of discrimination. I would rather be a wealthy, physically attractive black man or woman than an overweight, blind, white woman.
      See my point?

  2. I would not care if there were Mimi, etc. but give me just one producer on WBAI who espoused a point of view contrary to that, one point of view which revels in the fact that white people built this country, and NOT on the backs of black slaves. Black slavery, albeit horrid, was a minuscule fraction of the textile industry, an extremely small fraction of America's and the USA's wealth and global prestige. They don't have the balls to permit that.


    1. Antebellum slave-produced cotton exports were ~50% of all US exports, essentially all cotton provided to northern mills, and 70% of all cotton used by British mills.

      That said, the American railroads were built with Irish and Chinese labor, and the coal mines were principally Irish labor – all of which were brutally exploited by contemporary more-affluent standards.

      Most of the capital for all this, of course, came from Europe – American industry was not built by its own bootstraps, nor by divine intervention.

      If I may offer a thought or two: It’s ill-advised to fall into the emotional trap of competitive claims of exploitation, suffering, and disadvantage based on the long-ago which ought be remembered, but ought not be held as the source of one’s identity.

      As to whether it is in fact ill-advised, simply look around.

      ~ ‘indigopirate’

  3. The staff reaction to the proposed changes at WBAI which led to the occupation of early 1977 was principally a reaction to the proposed change to a quasi-commercial format which would have led to the elimination of most existing slots and, thus, to most existing producers and on-air personalities.

    The fact that folks like Julius Lester, Delores Costello, and Pepsi Charles were strongly supportive of the occupation and strongly opposed to the proposed changes, which were generally seen as a money-grab by Percy Sutton’s commercial interests, rather strongly suggests that racism was less than an overwhelming factor.

    ~ ‘indigopirate’

  4. Yesterday at 4:45 pm I was listening to a MLK speech from about 1957 reviewing the bus boycott. After it had played a long time, as soon as King started saying that he felt there were many whites of sincere good character, the host started playing music over it and quickly dialed it down. Not sure who that host was - his name starts with B. LOL.

  5. Instead of Julius Lester, How about Julius LaRosa?


    1. LaRosaWasFired—Lester should have been Instead, he converted to Judaism. :)

    2. What were the issues with LaRosa and Lester?

      ~ 'indigopirate'

    3. I have no idea, Indigo. LaRosa was fired on the air by Arthur Godfrey—Julius Lester had a show on WBAI after I left as manager. He was a central figure in the station's dispute with the teachers' union. A hypocrite who switched to black street talk when too many white complaints came in. Married to a Jewish woman, he eventually embraced Judaism.

      I think KGT was simply doing a Julius switch—whatever that may be. Care to enlighten us, KGT? :)

    4. Ah. The name LaRosa sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn't know it, and should have looked it up [duhs self].

      I can't speak to and have no opinion on Lester with respect to his personal conduct, but I'm aware of his and WBAI's role in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville controversy. Personally, I'm inclined to think that the airing of such feelings as those in the then-infamous student poem in such controversies is what WBAI/Pacifica ought be about with respect to news and public affairs. It's the same principle as being willing to hear out the KKK, and let the words and the spokespeople represent themselves, and the audience draw its own conclusions.

      ~ 'indigopirate'

    5. I agree that Lester was right to read the letter. Re your KKK analogy, I saw an ad for KKK LPs containing their hate messages, so I ordered and aired them. We also did a brief series of programs with tapes of the Klan, secretly recorded by our Folio editor, Marsha Tompkins during a Christmas holiday spent in her family's Mississippi home. Marsha was wonderful, perfect mindset for the WBAI that was.

      The listener was left to make up his or her own mind—that's as it should be.

    6. I like that you confronted the listeners rather than coddled them. That's the way it should be - face the reality rather than hide from it and only being told what to think.

      Sorry, but in my view, you can't hate the bigots if you don't face what they say via personal exposure.


  6. World of Jazz ... Actually a pretty good show . Not really my cup of tea , but none the less pretty good . One of a few black hosts that is not telling us how he is being oppressed every 3 minutes.
    Sticking to his kniting ,kinda refreshing for bai.

    1. I agree. Dwight Brewster obviously loves and likes to share the music—he also performs it, has broad taste when it come to genres, and makes every program a learning experience for himself as well as his listeners.

      Racism does not come into play on The World of Jazz and that. in and of itself is, as you point out, refreshing. Unlike Joyce Jones, he knows better than to play snippets of a performance, which is insulting to artist and fan alike.

    2. However, if you really like jazz, you should tune into WBGO at 88.3, the Newark-based public radio station devoted entirely to jazz and blues.

    3. WBGO is very commercial when it comes to its "playlist."

      I spent several years as a jazz DJ—what they play should not reflect the calculated taste of a program director.

      When I made the program decisions at WBAI, our DJs included such knowledgeable people as Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, John Coltrane, Marian McPartland, Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Condon.and Lou Donaldson. They played recordings from their own collections.