Sunday, September 18, 2011

The final Scraps

Long after I left Pacifica, and having resigned from the BBC to pursue a freelance career as writer and record producer, I returned to volunteering at WBAI as a program host/producer. One of my weekly programs was an hour devoted to jazz, the other was a 15-minute mini version of "The Inside," my old Saturday night audio montage. I named it "Scraps," because of its brevity and hodgepodge nature.

Frank Millspaugh was still the manager and he had all but removed the jazz programs, leaving only one or two. Marian McPartland was gotten rid of (a big mistake, obviously) and brought back. The Saturday Afternoon show that had been hosted by some of the greatest jazz performers in the world was now devoted to folk music. As seems to be common practice today, volunteer hosts who were not on management's A list were often treated shabbily and eventually found their program either shortened or, in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, dropped.

At the end of one of my jazz programs, I commented briefly on what I saw as unfair treatment of music hosts and a general dilution of WBAI's jazz programming. This was, after all, New York City, and jazz formed a big part of its life. My comment did not sit well with Frank Millspaugh, but instead of picking up the phone, he dropped me the following letter:
Clicking on an image should enlarge it, somewhat.

My response was prompt...

I decided to discontinue my jazz program, but I continued producing "Scraps," which now became my sole WBAI contribution. Sad as I was to see WBAI's jazz programs all but phased out, this was a minor complaint. Far more serious were the political right turn the station was taking, the gradual replacement of intellect with inanity, the on-premises drug dealing, and the introduction of censorship. Add to that a building fund that was being drained to pay general expenses and unrealistic salaries.

When many attempts to have Pacifica and Harold Taylor's local Board look into these things failed, I decided to take it to the listener-supporters. Was that the right thing to do? I'm still not sure, but what's done is done. I scrapped my scheduled tape, was it were, and hastily recorded a substitute "Scraps". Frank had suggested that a jazz program is not a place for commentary, an argument that he could not apply to "Scraps"—it was a commentary program, and there was no particular subject.
I have a tape of the program, but no machine to run it on, so here is an old transcript. You will not be surprised to learn that it generated a fair amount of mail and phone calls—more on that later. I have inserted three favorable ones that did reach me following the broadcast. 

Transcript of commentary delivered by Chris Albertson over radio station WBAI-FM Monday, January 27, 1969 at 7:15 PM and Tuesday, January 28, 1969 at 10:45 AM.

Good evening, this is Chris Albertson with “Scraps.” If you have listened to this program in the past, you will have noticed that it is a sort of tape montage in which I make comments with the help of various sounds, music and words. One could, in fact, call “Scraps” a commentary program. Many months ago, on my other WBAI program, “Jazz at Home,” I urged my listeners to support WBAI by becoming subscribers. I mentioned that one could not expect to like all of the station’s programs and that, for instance, I personally found certain programs to be of a quality unworthy of WBAI.

Shortly after the broadcast of this program, I received a letter from the station manager, a letter informing me that I was not doing a commentary program, and threatening to take me off the air unless I stuck to the subject of jazz.

Now, I don’t know which subject station management deems appropriate for “Scraps”, this program may, therefore, well be my last. Be that as it may… there are many things that have needed to be said for a very long time, and I am going to say some of them tonight.

I’m not going to dwell on the current controversy regarding anti-Semitism. To me, this is not the real issue… this is not a valid reason for discontinuing support of WBAI. There are many reasons for not supporting the station right now, but they are all overshadowed by a very important reason for continuing support.  Nat Hentoff, several years ago, in a moment when he was disillusioned with WBAI, mentioned—after a long article criticizing the station—that it is, after all, “the only game in town.” Let’s face it, there’s no other station like WBAI in this area… for this reason, I find it essential that we keep the station alive. I also find it essential that we prevent the abuse of WBAI from within.

I began volunteering here in 1960. I took a sizeable cut in salary to join WBAI as an announcer in, I believe it was, 1963. I resigned as manager of WBAI in 1966, but I never resigned as a supporter of WBAI and the principles for which it stood.

A favorable response to my final program.
I use the past tense, because I no longer feel that WBAI is upholding the principles upon which Pacifica was founded. During this recent controversy, I have heard a great deal of talk on this station about the First Amendment and Pacifica’s principles. The very people who now see fit to remind us of these free-speech principles have just spent two years violating them.

A couple of weeks ago, when Don Schlitten and Ira Gitler, two faithful, long-time volunteer program producers, found that some of their weekly programs had arbitrarily been dropped, they discovered this by reading the Folio—they were never officially informed of it—they decided to discontinue their services to the station altogether. They discussed this in their last program and that program was not rebroadcast as scheduled… this is not what I call free speech.

This program, incidentally, will probably not be rescheduled for tomorrow morning, Tuesday. It might be, but I really doubt it. You are hearing it now simply because management is expecting another “Scraps” program and nobody has had time to check the tape. I admit that I am taking advantage of this, but I think this is very important.

There are many Jewish people who now urge the station to cancel Julius Lester’s program. I don’t agree with them at all, and neither does the management of the station, it seems. “It’s a free-speech station, “ they say… we must air all points of view.” They say something else when that point of view is critical of them.

There are many skeletons in WBAI’s closet and the station’s management knows how important it is to keep that closet door closed. I say the time has come to open it—perhaps not completely, but at least ajar.

The Pacifica Board is well aware of the deplorable situation that exists inside WBAI—I have made them aware of this, if they didn’t know it before, but, as one prominent member of the Board told me, “the Board is ineffective,” and he is quite right. The attentive listener must be aware of the steadily declining quality of WBAI’s programming… gone are the truly exciting documentaries that distinguished WBAI just a few years ago. At a time when so many vital issues need to be clarified and discussed, WBAI is devoting only 12 hours a week—not counting rebroadcasts—to public affairs programming. This is an average based on the February Folio and it does not mean 12 hours of public affairs programming produced at WBAI—that figure is much lower and no programs are really “produced,” I mean, going out and recording a lecture is not producing a program. That’s 12 out of 152 hours. When one considers that 45 hours a week is given over to the mostly inane rambling of the station’s three “star personalities”—and we all know who they are—whose programs have gone high on the lists of pop record promoters, it tells us something about the nature of their programs. It is quite clear that WBAI has changed its course.

WBAI has always needed funds, but never before has it so grossly abused the listener’s money. WBAI has, in fact, become a playpen for a chosen few who need to have their ego boosted and who are, incidentally, receiving some shockingly high salaries. These salaries become particularly shocking when one considers that the current staff—with a few notable exceptions, interestingly enough among the lower-paid employees—spends a minimum of time at the station, and rarely listen to it.

Another positive reaction to the last "Scraps".
WBAI has had over two years in which to prepare a move to a new location. It hasn’t moved, it has asked you for money for a “building fund” and you have given it money, but where is it? Why, with more subscribers than ever before, is the station broke? They certainly are not spending a great deal of money on programming… Oh, they’ll tell you about the Washington Bureau and a proposed Harlem Bureau, but that’s nothing, that’s peanuts. They are spending an excessive amount on salaries… excessive because the listener gets nothing in return.

I happen to be very fond of the current output of folk-rock music, but I can hear it on WNEW-FM and several local stations—I can hear it without the sophomoric patter of WBAI’s “in” group… so, who needs it on WBAI?

If I sound angry, it’s because I am…I am angry because WBAI has become a toy…I am angry because I see it from two sides. I see the hypocrisy, I see the exploitation of listener-supporters. I see an alarming departure from the principles that once made one proud to be a part of WBAI. There was a dignity and an esprit de corps that made WBAI very special… there was a venturesome spirit that often led to some of the most exciting and meaningful programming heard anywhere. It was all done with love and a strong belief in high principles… it was done with very little money.

Now, of course we weren’t faultless in the old days of WBAI. We made many mistakes——but we cared and we tried to do what we felt was best for the station. Once, in 1965, when we felt that management was not acting in the interest of the station, the staff—with only two exceptions—resigned in protest. I was one of the resigners, and we did it because we loved the WBAI and this was the only way we could show it. There are no resignations now, even though the situation is far worse. There are no resignations because few on the staff care enough.

WBAI has, for some time now, faced a financial crisis. They have reminded us of this constantly. Management has put the blame on the UFT, saying that many UFT members have dropped their support, because the station did not seem to favor Albert Shanker during the recent school crisis. This is utter nonsense. Even if all the subscribers who are UFT members or sympathizers should cancel their WBAI subscription, it would take a year for it to have full effect—all teachers did not become subscribers during the month of October! And now the station is blaming the Jewish subscriber for enlarging the financial crisis.
The fact is that WBAI’s support began slacking off long before most people had heard of Oceanhill-Brownsville. It began slacking because the station stopped fulfilling a need. WBAI’s programming is its product, and when a product becomes inferior, the consumer no longer buys it—it’s that simple.

Something must be done to improve WBAI’s product. It will obviously not be done by the current crew, but it can never be done unless the machinery is kept going. Therefore, WBAI must continue receive your continued support… the fire that was WBAI has been reduced to a flame, but it must not be extinguished.  Let’s keep it lit and, if you are really concerned, if you really want this once vital voice to roar again, demand responsible management that will provide the kind of programming that is so urgently needed in this time of national and world crisis…. Demand it! After all, to hear what Steve Post had for dinner is neither worth your time nor money.

Interesting comment on the then new Lite WBAI.
When a member of WBAI’s management tells a concerned program participant that he doesn’t care if the newscaster reads from the New York telephone book as long as he or she gets “that NBC sound,” he is sadly reflecting the current attitude from within. This actually did happen.

I must admit that I have been hesitant to voice openly my criticism of WBAI. I have been hesitant because, being the former manager, my intentions could very easily be misunderstood. They might be misunderstood right now, but I can keep quiet no longer.
On the other hand, as the former manager and one who knows the inside workings of the Pacifica Foundation, and has contact with members of the Board and staff, I command a better view of what is happening. For this reason, I have often been approached by concerned staff members and volunteer program participants, asking for advice: What can we do?  Will you talk to the Board,” and so on…

Well, I have spoken to two prominent members of the Board, once in the presence of the current station manager. I have been promised that something would be done to correct the situation, but—so far—nothing has been done. And now I appeal to you, availing myself of the free-speech platform upon which the Pacifica Foundation’s stations were founded, and which WBAI’s current management finds it inconvenient to support.

I could say a great deal more, I could reveal far more shocking skeletons in WBAI’s closet, but I could not do so without the risk of doing the station lasting harm. The station is innocent. It has been abused and the time has come to clean house—it is not too late, but soon it might be. Support WBAI to keep the facilities alive. I urge you to do this and to give some hope to the small group of truly devoted program participants and staff members who somehow manage to continue in spite of the almost overpowering frustrations created by an irresponsible power group.

There are many good people on Pacifica’s Board. Their problem is that they are generally businessmen who simply do not have the time to listen and who are kept in the dark by WBAI management. The current controversy might make them listen to WBAI, I hope it will, and I also hope it will be an alarm clock.

Before I leave you, let me emphasize the fact that my critique has nothing to do with the current controversy. My sympathy does not lie with the people who yesterday picketed the station. In fact, I feel that Frank Millspaugh, the station manager, should have been much firmer than he was. I feel that, when handed the demands of the picketing group, he should immediately have rejected them instead of awaiting the Pacifica Board’s decision. There is no question but that Julius Lester mkust be allowed to continue his weekly program. The station manager should have laid his own job on the line defending Lester’s rights. If the Board decided otherwise, he should have been prepared to resign in protest. He has, instead, left the door open.

The charges I have made are strong and serious. I make them now because I feel that this is a time when much attention is focused on WBAI, even by people who have long since given up listening to the station. This is a time when the listeners and the Pacifica Board must, once and for all, decide what WBAI should be.  If it is to be a vehicle for Larry Josephson, Bob Fass, and Steve Post… then let it be that and stop talking about high ideals, free-speech principles, and past Pacifica policies.

On the other hand, if it is to be what it originally set out to be— a station whose purpose is to encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community; to contribute to a lasting understanding between nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between such groups; to promote a study of the causes of religious, philosophical, and racial antagonism; and to promote the full distribution of public information… then I say that WBAI’s programming must be reevaluated and the attitude of staff and management closely examined.

Thank you for listening. This is Chris Albertson and these have been “Scraps.” Goodnight.

Several cards and letters came in as a result of my poorly worded but honest attempt to point out what I saw as a looming threat to the WBAI. Unfortunately, I only received the first batch, because Millspaugh was quick to issue an "intercept Albertson's mail" order, but I was told by sympathetic staffers that most mail was in my favor. Of course, tampering with my mail was a violation of federal law, but Millspaugh and co. never let that sort of thing get in their way (drugs were not only used but bought and sold on the premises, and Steve Post routinely stole and took home LPs). Now, as I look back on all this, over forty years later, I think my decision to share my apprehensions with the listeners may have been a bit rash. I think I did the right thing, but I probably went about it the wrong way.

There were, predictably, listeners who saw my broadcast as a case of "sour grapes," but that didn't bother—time spent working at Pacifica stations condition one to such knee-jerk reactions. When people who don't know you have to justify in their own minds the fact that your do not share their enthusiasm for something, or someone, they tend to attribute it to jealousy. When I first criticized Wynton Marsalis—having originally given him positive reviews—some readers of Stereo Review were convinced that I wanted his Lincoln Center office job. It never occurred to them that reviewing his music unfavorably would be a rather dumb way to fulfill such a desire. And the beat goes on: a couple of posters on the WBAI Listener Forum have suggested that my current remarks regarding mismanagement of WBAI are nothing more than an attempt to be rehired! At 80, and given the current that's all I would need to be declared a mental case!

Did I want my old job back when I made that last broadcast? Absolutely not. I had left WBAI to work at the BBC, another institution that I admired, and in 1969, when I laid my "Scraps" on the table, I had moved on and returned to the jazz scene as a writer and A&R man. What some people don't seem to fathom is that I had left WBAI physically, but it remained as important to me as it was eight years earlier, when I first volunteered to work there. I saw it being taken down a new and disastrous path, so how could I keep quiet about it?

As these recollections show, I didn't just sit back. As you can hear for yourself, the efforts of a dedicated group of WBAI supporters could not stop this runaway station. It did not start with Bernard White, Utrice, or any of the other characters who keep popping up in discussions  regarding the state of WBAI. What many of these people did in later years, the warring factions, back-stabbing, board meeting fisticuffs, bad-mouthing, etc. has roots. This is my account of some of the events that shaped what I see as the steady demise of a grand experiment in broadcasting. There is a prelude to what I am telling you here, a pivotal happening that became known as the Chris Koch incident. It has never been told without outrageous distortion of the facts, but I will eventually get around to it. You may have read something about it in a deservedly short-lived book of fiction by Steve Post or in a later piece written by alleged Pacifica "historian", Matthew Lasar. I hope you can dig those stories up, because I want you to hear both versions and decide for yourself who is telling the truth.

Several years ago, I think it was in the early '70s, while the events were still fresh in my mind, I decided to commit to paper my recollections of this crucial period in WBAI's moral decline. Fortunately, I had retained many pertinent letters and memos containing details that might otherwise have faded, so my narrative essentially served to provide continuity.  Pardon the redundancy and bad writing—time has improved my command of English:

Before someone points it out, I know that my blowing the dust off this early episode in WBAI's turbulent history will seem like petty payback, but I do so for two reasons: to correct some of the misinformation that still surfaces from time to time, and—mainly—to give those who follow the station's trials and tribulations a vantage point from which to better view what is happening today.

There is much more to come, but please be patient with me, for I also have to work for a living.