WBAI’s Ugly Uncivil War

“He knows what he’s doing, because they look at me, judge me as un-intellectual, big, and menacing, because of my size and skin color – as history dictated these stereotypes for hundreds of years,â€? says Program Director Bernard White, referring to history’s racist depiction of Black men.

(Program Director Bernard White guards against people he says have resorted to a campaign that uses racist tactics to oust him).

WBAI 99.5 FM, the popular non-commercial, listener-sponsored radio station that provides a forum for arts, news, and information for individuals, groups and communities who otherwise would have no voice, is in another battle. A cancer which was diagnosed as benign six years ago, has suddenly spread, penetrated the core of the station, and some people believe, threatens to destroy it, even as elections for the board approaches.

Twelve delegates are to be elected for a three-year term. Completed ballots are due by November 15th, 2006, according to the station’s website. The station’s current Program Director says there have been malicious forces employing dirty and even racist tactics to promote the election of a slate that would oust him. Given the recent capitulation of Black owned stations in New York City (they have abandoned talk shows and hard news programs), many people are watching WBAI keenly.

First some history–On December 23, 2000, Pacifica Executive Director Bessie Wash, hired locksmiths to change the locks on the doors of WBAI and instructed security guards to deny admission to all, except hosts and guests scheduled to go on the air that day. Earlier that morning, Bernard White, host of WBAI’s “Wake Up Call,â€? had a rude awakening. A messenger had arrived at his home with a letter of termination and two checks as severance pay. The events of that day became known as the infamous “Christmas Coup.â€?-

White says there were no reasons given for his dismissal, or for the firing of Sharan Harper, executive producer of WBAI’s “Wake Up Call,� and the others. But it was clear – of course not to the station’s many listeners and supporters- what Pacifica national management was doing. “It was an impulse by the national board to reach a more corporate philosophy and bring back to the board another way of trying, I believe,  to nationalize the individual stations into one central control,� says Kathy Davis, Public Affairs Director. “At that time, there was an influence from the Democratic Party, because I remember the politics of Pacifica was further to the left than the Democratic party, which was at that time trying to go to the center to get closer to what Republicans were making financially.�

After the national board succeeded in transforming three stations in Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles, into ones with less politically radical formats, less critical of the status quo, and less community-oriented, it set it sights on the prize—the then $350 million valued WBAI FM 99.5.

“Many of them wanted to sell the radio station, so they [could] make some money,� says White, who survived, and is now the Program Director, referring to the Board members. “It’s not really a bad idea – WBAI could sell for $350 million and you can take $100 million and create a smaller radio station and take the $200 million and buy smaller radio stations.�

Seeing how the Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Houston stations had been castrated awakened White to the impending danger at the time. WBAI’s listeners rallied to the station’s defense—they vehemently protested in defense of their right of free speech on WBAI’s airwave and pressured Pacifica to keep its hands off. White won his job back.

However, six years later, the repercussions of the “Christmas Coup� lingers in the air, as staff have formed alliances; vicious charges and counter charges of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogynism, have been thrown.

“I think what happened, was when the forces that came together – the forces that wanted to corporatize the network came together with the forces that wanted to have Democratic Party control…came together with a more personal level of ego control toward the local level. So, the two forces came together, like a perfect storm of control that overthrew the network,â€? recalls Davis. “Once the station recovered, the forces that once united ended, and what we have now is that we’re left with a bunch of factions that seemed immersed in a perpetual battle with each other over control.â€?

She is describing today’s WBAI.

“It’s a small group of people who were historically on the outside of WBAI and on the outside of Pacifica but since the governance structure of WBAI and Pacifica changed five years ago, these people, because they were better organized and better financed, were able to get on the local station board and in fact the majority of the local station board,� Program Director, White, adds. “And having this majority, they began to pass all kinds of rules and motions that made working at WBAI more and more difficult.�

White Mentioned List-Prog, an organization created two years ago, by members of the local board who want to oust management by playing a critical role in the upcoming Board elections. One of the most outspoken critics of management at WBAI is Steve Brown. Here are excerpts from one of his messages that were e-mailed to listeners and staff of WBAI earlier this year:

“This morning, Monday, 3-13-06, at approximately 10 a.m. and thereafter (according to one eye-witness, who has talked – and two others who are terrified to talk, but may soon change their minds); Bernard received a piece of information [a very interesting piece that I will not yet reveal] that propelled him out of his chair and into the station hallway, frothing at the mouth, shrieking at the top of his lungs, bellowing crude racist insults clearly directed at Indra Hardat (interim station manager) in her office down the hall.

“Then – and not for the first time in the past few days – he menaced Indra, towering over her in what must have been a deliberately intimidating confrontation, literally screaming into her face, while pumping his fist threateningly back and forth.

“Shortly thereafter, I was told that Bernard’s behavior [and for the same reason] was aped by Errol Maitland (Producer and Engineer at WBAI), also running through the hallway, pumping his fist in the air in anger, appearing to threaten all in his path. One witness describes coming to the station these days as like living in the South Bronx, where rival gangs are shooting at each other and all you can do is keep your head down to keep from getting beaten up, knifed, or shot.�

Brown is currently a board member of WBAI and has been working, free of charge, for non-profit organizations and fund raising for over 25 years. He has raised money for FAIR, CISPES, Mother Jones, and WBAI, to name a few. “He knows what he’s doing, because they look at me, judge me as un-intellectual, big, and menacing, because of my size and skin color – as history dictated these stereotypes for hundreds of years,â€? says White, referring to history’s racist depiction of Black men. “Even if they disregard those statements, which I do, but still, some think that way,â€? he adds, of the station’s listeners.

In 2004, Brown wrote a report of what he described as a “race riot� that occurred at the Local Station Board meetings of June 23 and July 7, that year, and other alleged incidents at WBAI that he witnessed. The report, according to Brown, included these findings:

[] On June 23, 2004 Mimi Rosenberg, producer and strategist for the Justice & Unity political slate, hurled a water bottle at a WBAI volunteer in the audience named Chris Farrell, for protesting Rosenberg’s shouting of racial insults at LSB members. (Rosenberg’s water bottle missed Farrell and hit another member of the audience instead.)  

[] Station Manager Don Rojas did nothing to curtail paid staff members, “who were disrupting the meeting by hurling racially inflammatory language at the board members, and (in two specific instances) attempting to physically attack them.

[] Board member Paul De Rienzo (elected as an independent) reported that Board member Michael Warren (elected on the Justice & Unity slate) physically assaulted him at the meeting and tried to wrench his video camera away, to prevent him from recording the disruptions that were being staged by other members of Warren’s faction.

[] In September 2004, the gay pride flag was torn down from the station – twice or three times, according to Brown.

[] Clayton Riley, WBAI producer, was dismissed on charges of attacking a woman – “not for his obscene language, not for his frequent and virulent anti-white racist remarks.�

[] Producer, Fred Nguyen called me (Steve Brown) a “ Fucking Zionist Pig,� among other things.

In addition to his report, Brown staged a long-term campaign, bombarding WBAI listeners with e-mail messages, according to White.

“I can’t speak for Steve Brown but I have found him to be provocative in his statements and I have found him to have a tendency to exaggerate – but I can’t really speak for him,� says Public Affairs Director, Davis. “But was there a conflict? Yes. Was there an incident? Yes. But that doesn’t describe it. What was described was an emotional characterization of someone who doesn’t work here and there’s no way of knowing what people feel.�

In October 2006, the Justice & Unity slate staged a campaign to combat racism and uphold affirmative action at WBAI and throughout the Pacifica network. The members consist of women and representatives of diverse communities. The group posted the following on its Web site:

[] A WBAI local board member, Steve Brown has engaged in a vicious campaign of widely distributed e-mails attacking Black progressive WBAI staff and managers in the most racist, vitriolic terms. He has singled out for abuse and false charges, and repeatedly demanded the firing of, Program Director Bernard White – who has broadened progressive programming serving all communities over the past four years. Brown’s statements have been so egregious that the local board voted to dissociate from them. But Brown has allies on the local board who supports his agenda, which includes eliminating what he calls anti-white programming (i.e., strong Black community voices demanding/practicing self-determination.)

[] Another WBAI local board member who also sits on the Pacifica National Board, Patty Heffley (a slate-mate of Steve Brown when they ran for election), subjected an African-American colleague from WBAI, Lisa David, to racist ridicule, claiming she was only interested in serving on the national board to obtain “free food, free flights, and free hotels.�

[] Yet another local board member, Paul De Rienzo, was suspended by the board after a succession of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and personal attacks on other board members, including calling respected community activist Father Lawrence Lucas a “lame ass� and a “loser.�

When The Black Star News reached him by telephone, Brown had this to say: “What you have at the station is factitious. One of the board members who was a part of List- Prog, Berthold Reimers, a Haitian Black, and African American, was called Nigglet, a house nigger, because he didn’t agree with the Justice and Unity slate. And those people who call others house niggers, nigglets and Zionists are hurting the station. Bernard is 100 percent right politically, I agree with him. But he wants to keep his job. When he says that I’m being a racist he doesn’t defend it. He’s very prominent in the progressive community but most people don’t realize that good politics and bad character goes hand in hand.� Reimers, CFO at HIP, could not be reached for comment by press time.

“It wasn’t about Black or White,� adds Gary Null, an ex-host at WBAI, who was terminated in 2004. “It was about anyone who challenged them was called a racist.�

“These people have never once made a racial statement. Remember, these are people who supported Bernard. You mean they just became racists? Gee, that’s an interesting genetic twist, isn’t it? But today, I woke up and decided that I (referring to Steve Brown and his allies) woke up one day and became a racist. It’s a process that starts early on in life. These people have been a part of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. Bernard and these people are playing the race card and that is not a proper and ethical thing to do.� Null is a best selling author, lecturer, educator, environmentalist, health food advocate, and a winner of numerous awards in radio.
“White people like to define racism for us,� retorts White. “Steve Brown and Null were business partners and they had a dispute. Steve Brown did public relations for Gary Null, during a period when he was making lots of money for WBAI and they correlated that into an empire where they both made millions of dollars off their relationship with WBAI. And when Gary was removed from the air, they began to be seen together publicly and Steve Brown made public statements of which, he was going to make sure Gary Null gets back on the air. So they began to run and buy candidates to take over the local station board.�

“None of that is accurate!,� Null replies, when contacted for this report. “I would like for Bernard to produce hard documents to the contrary,� he adds, and describes his relationship with Brown.  “We were members of a group that owned a restaurant together. And when the restaurant was sold, the group disbanded, but we weren’t enemies. Steve Brown has given enormous amounts of money to WBAI. He has been a tireless campaigner for WBAI. I stood up for Steve Brown, not because of any special friendship, but because of [the] principle that I couldn’t listen to people being attacked without them being able to defend themselves – and for that I was taken off the air.�

In 1988, Gary Null’s “Natural Living� series was rated the number one show on WABC radio, and during his tenure at WBAI, he raised nearly 30 to 40 percent of its revenue.

“They were separating the world between them and everyone who disagreed with them,� Null continues. “The fact is, that they were much like George Bush, ‘You’re either for us or you’re against us.’ And during the coup, Steve Brown and others demanded that I come on board and bring my audience. And I said I couldn’t do that, because I found that both sides were wrong, both sides were using their power on the air and off the air in management to continue flaming the fuel of this anger. There was deceit and the worst Machiavellian machination going on. But what I did do, is that even though, Bernard and company was bombasting me, I’m the only person who brought Bernard, Ken Ford and another member of the board together with the dissenters on 92nd street at my studio, over there, for a day of reconciliation.� Null claims White brought agitators at the meeting, where they hurled racial epithets at the dissenters and Ken Ford.

In this raging uncivil war, even the reason for Null’s eventual termination is bitterly disputed. “There was a period where he was stepping outside of his health role that he was playing and he started doing something a bit more political and he called it, ‘Hidden Agendas,’� White explains. “Where he would do investigations of various things outside the health realm and he brought on, in the aftermath of Waco, Texas, some of these people who were members of various militia groups. Because they had an anti-government stance, he brought them on, but these were people who proclaimed that nothing happened in Europe. That there was no so-called Holocaust in Europe. That only a handfull of Jews were killed. That it was a big Jewish conspiracy, so when Amy found out about that, she decided we needed to talk.�

Amy Goodman is host of the station’s extremely popular “Democracy Now� show. White, Goodman, and the late Samori Marksman, then station manager, had a talk with Null and he agreed to focus his attention back on health and discontinue his “Hidden Agendas� show, White says.

“Amy stopped pitching for him, but the amount of money that he raised went down vociferously with each drive. And then, he started doing programs about UFOs – and he started back up with ‘Hidden Agendas.’ It’s all on tape,� White continues. “It didn’t stop there too. He started talking negatively about the radio station and telling people that they should not subscribe to WBAI – that we were racist, homophobic, insensitive to women, anti-Semitic. And his listeners listened to him and they stopped pledging to the point, where one day, he’s doing a fund drive, he was on two hours, and he only raised $250 for that entire two hours. So I thought that we weren’t using that noon hour to the best of our advantage.�

“Let him prove it! That is not true!� Null exclaims, to The Black Star News. “None of what you heard is true. Fact, it was the station that was promoting the premium done by a Holocaust denier, not me, I wouldn’t ever allow anyone on my air time. I’m far too much meticulous of a researcher to allow that.�

A premium is an item that is purchased from the station, for instance, CDs, DVDs, books, and other items, which is the lifeline to the station.

“Secondly, I didn’t want Amy Goodman pitching with me,� Null continues.  “I asked Valerie Van Iser to have her stop. She only pitched with me a couple of drives. She was manic, and I said to Valerie, ‘I didn’t like pitching with her, my audience doesn’t like her, and she’s over the top and in your face.’ And look at the money I raised after Amy Goodman. It went up and not down.�

Null also disputes White’s characterization of the meeting between him, White and Goodman. “And the reason for that meeting, was that I was doing a show that had nothing to do with Waco. It had to do with Unsafe Skies, and the man who came on to talk about a book, who had written a book, why our airline industry needed reform and greater supervision. So when I went into the office, Amy did all the talking and no one else said a word. And she said that ‘you did a show with this man on Unsafe Skies.’ ‘That’s correct!’ ‘And you know that he was a right-winger.’ But I said, that it was immaterial. We did a show not on his politics, but we did a show on his facts – the study on the safety of the airline industry and his facts brought out by FAA documents. But that was not the point, she said, ‘We don’t allow any right-wingers on this show and anything that is political is my turf – not yours.’â€?

Goodman could not be reached for comment for this report by press time. White, however, didn’t hesitate, when informed of Null’s comments. “You’re dealing with a pathological liar,â€? he says, of Null. “Samori ran the station and did most of the talking – and when she was asked to speak during the meeting, she spoke,â€? he adds, of Goodman. “And when I spoke, I said, I was surprised that he felt that way. He’s a consummate liar and it’s a shame. He tells these lies and he doesn’t recognize them. When Amy was pitching, they made a bunch of money. Yes, she is high-pressured on the pitch. Yes, she has a high pitching style but the money came in like crazy. But he can’t prove what he’s saying, because we got the figures – unless they were wiped off the computers.â€?

White adds that even people who’ve worked with Null have been shafted. “He treats his workers bad. He takes their work and turns them into books and he doesn’t give them credit,� he says, referring to research. “I found out about that, because they used to volunteer for the station and told me, ‘This guy never gave us any thing. On the other hand, Dr. Majid Ali gave us things and even paid for shipping and handling fees on his premiums.’ It just got to the point where he talked so negatively about the station that he outlived his usefulness at WBAI and we put on someone who could do much better.�

After his 2004 termination, Null filed a lawsuit, which is pending, against WBAI. Elections for the board are in a few weeks and that’s the topic that’s on the mind of everyone who cares for –in their own manner of course— WBAI.

“They figure that if they can control the leadership of this station, or the station manager, or the program director position then they’ll be able to do the kind of house cleaning thing they would like,� White says.

Soon, the outcome will become clearer.


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