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Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 10, 2010

The state of WBAI (dire)

[I just sent this to Mitch Cohen, chair of the WBAI local station board, to be read at tomorrow night’s board meeting.]

To Mitch Cohen and the WBAI local station board:

I’ve been around WBAI for more than two decades. I started as a frequent interviewee on Samori Marksman’s show in 1987, moved on to regular commentaries on his show a few years later, and then began doing the Thursday editions of his Behind the News in 1995. I’ve watched the station go through considerable turmoil over the years, but the current situation has me more worried than ever. I was very relieved and hopeful when Bernard White and Co. were removed from office. But I’ve lost that feeling completely.

Our financial situation remains dire. Indeed, it’s hard to see how we can go on like this much longer. Not only are we not paying our bills, we’re dragging the whole Pacifica network deeper into the red. In this context, it’s easy to understand the temptation to offer sensational fundraising premiums to raise a lot of money quickly. But this strategy is proving disastrous.

A few words about those premiums. During the last few drives, WBAI has offered a variety of rather embarrassing videos and publications. We’ve now moved well beyond the familiar 9/11 conspiracies. Now we also have miracle cures (which, it wouldn’t surprise me, could put us at legal risk for offering, since they make claims about curing disease that, to put it gently, would be very difficult to prove), stories about chemtrails (the theory that the government, for some mysterious reason, is poisoning us by spraying chemicals from the sky), and most recently, a series of videos explaining how the Illuminati are about 90% of the way to taking everything over (it’s only a matter of time until they plant microchips in our heads and solidify a regime of total control). (Tastes of that stuff here and here.) I’m told, though I haven’t heard this stuff myself, that we’re also hawking the work of Kevin Trudeau, who’s been convicted of credit card fraud and has been fined for making false and misleading claims – and who’s been frequently sued by disgruntled customers. Of professional interest to me are stories about financiers and the Federal Reserve which have no basis in historical fact – and I say this as someone who knows more about Wall Street and central banks than anyone involved with Pacifica. Many of these narratives have deep roots in far-right politics – the Wall Street/Federal Reserve stuff has long been associated with crypto-fascist organizations like Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby (e.g. the works of Eustace Mullins). Trudeau is a big fan of Matt Drudge and the odious Michael Savage.

None of this stuff can be taken seriously by anyone with an ongoing relationship with Planet Earth. For that reason alone, it’s a disgrace that we give it such prominence. The health claims expose us to prosecution and litigation – a legal risk we can’t possibly afford. But, that aside, airing this sort of stuff drives away sane and solvent listeners. Given the recent drop in our fulfillment rate, it seems reasonable to surmise that people who pledge on this stuff are more likely than most not to come through. So this strategy fails even on purely monetary grounds. But by driving away the audience, we’re undermining the station’s future. Do we really want to be known as the nonprofit telemarketing arm for lunatics and convicted criminals?

I’ve shared these concerns with interim program director Tony Bates and he dismisses my concerns as mere “outrage.”

We urgently need to figure out why we’ve lost listeners and how we can build the audience back up. This is not the way to go about it. It’s a guaranteed route to insolvency and ridicule.

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Responses

  1. Doug, your comments are thoughtful and articulate. I appreciate your drive to figure this out. I’m a subscriber to LBO, and give what I can, but I have to admit that when I see people and institutions that are supposed to be on the side of truth and light who seem to hold an entirely different set of opposing values, I’m discouraged. Color me a member of the “professional left” as characterized by Mr. Gibb. I would like to find a context in which I would not experience myself as fundamentally irrelevant to my comrades.

  2. Great post. The ads Google chooses for this are ironic, to say the least.

  3. Mr. Henwood,

    That’s pretty sad news about WBAI. Do you think these developments might have something to do with the pervasive, and at times virulent anti-Semitism of the “Left”? I mean the anti-Semitism that’s disguised as anti-Zionism?
    You probably won’t make the connection, since you’ve circulated anti-Semitic propaganda yourself, but I suggest that the move by WBAI toward people like the Liberty Lobby is not unconnected with this problem.

    Sincerely,
    Deja-Vu

    P.S. The Liberty Lobby! that’s almost unbelievable. The next premiums they’ll start offering will be from LaRouche.

  4. These claims are ridiculous and embarrassing Doug, as you so deftly point out.

    Anyone who takes claims about “the Illuminati” seriously is a complete nut.

    Anyone with a brain in his head knows that it is, in fact, The Trilateral Commission that has ALREADY planted chips in our heads and is the force behind TOTAL WORLD GOVERNMENT, and that Obama is simply their puppet. I mean that literally, of course. He’s a puppet. He’s made out of cloth and wood, and operated by strings which are cleverly hidden by the members of the Trilateral Commission.

  5. Doug, your statements are reactionary and reveal you haven’t researched any of this on your own. The disinfo is out there for a reason, for lazy people like you to fight against those actually do the work. No one said anything about planting microchips in the heads of people on the air. But you’ll freely throw around lies and bs to discredit the hard work of others. Regarding “chemtrails” do you know what SRM is? Have you read the white paper studies? Do you know what geo-engineering is? Probably not. Do you know about the company Evergreen, and how they sprayed Corexit 9500 on civilians? Probably not. I applaud the work WBAI producers have done. Maybe you could use the time you spend criticizing from the sidelines and actually look up the material for yourself.
    dave

  6. Dave, I approved your comment out of dedication to free speech and all. It seems that you’re taking examples of the use of dispersants on oil spills, which is pretty revolting, and climate change mitigation strategies, which have been proposed but not carried out, and drawing overheated conclusions from them. I’d say more, but I’m trying to be polite.

  7. Great and well-written piece, expressing the real operations of the lunatic fringe side taking over what remains of the micrometer left. This embrace of quackery and speculative nonsense is an existential threat to that proud tradition of rational opposition- which is why I would advise you to hold onto your integrity and quit WBAI. They are not going to change this direction, pal, and they are not going to give your righteous anger a fair hearing. Run a podcast, muzzle yourself for no one, shill for no Gary Null flimflammery – wrap up your fine memories and chalk it up to forces larger than just WBAI or the current station management.

  8. Doug, what evidence do you have that the proposed climate change mitigation hasn’t been carried out? I’d like to see your research on this.

  9. Thanks for the letter. I briefly chaired the Community Advisory Board for WBAI. I asked the current iPD for the current broadcast guidelines and received no response, and LaVarn responded by canceling our meeting at a Bronx food coop (against CPB guidelines) and flapping her arms about being called the “interim” GM (as opposed to the GM). Before that, I asked why WBAI was running carts featuring Barack Obama backed by exultant pop music and a cheer track. No response. Bottom line: there are no standards because, you see, that would violate “free speech”. Bourgeois/ACLU/Hollywood free speech means “whatever you can get away with, and preferably crap that makes money”. The free speech I’ve always admired is accountable to a community of listeners who valued intelligence, integrity, facts, and common human decency. Still room for lots of debate there, but yes Virginia, there are limits. I’ve been blackballed by folks from JUC and the not-so-Independents, and I’ve worked well with a few folks from both camps… but Mitch’s responses on other boards have been telling. They both mention Gary Null. In fact, when I chaired the CAB, the fact that we held a meeting at the LGBT community center (during Pride Month) apparently signified to some that the CAB was now a conspiracy to keep HIV-denialist Gary Null from returning to WBAI. The fact that WBAI would choose Null over queers, even demanding that we move the meeting from an innocuous location like the community center, shows to whom and to what the station’s current batch of loons-in-charge are devoted. (Hey, there’s a conspiracy theory! It’s all about Null!) And you’re also correct about the quality of “contributor/caller” that these programs attract. During my last volunteer experience, taking pledge calls during one of Tony Bates’s pre-recorded morning rush hour hypejobs about oregano oil cures, folks were calling in begging for discounts to get the miracle cure: three people broke down in tears and hung up the phone as they discovered they wouldn’t get the miracle on installment until they had finished paying off the pledge. The others taking calls that day were complaining that Null wasn’t on the air and that all this talk about single-payer was unnecessary because modern medicine was poison. Quack marketeers on the radio, desperate low-income and perhaps unhinged people on the phone, and stone-faced nuts taking calls. When I complained about the claims being made on rush hour radio about oregano oil, two LSB members angrily defended the quack and the breathlessly fawning and credulous morning host, with Mitch pulling out his radical bona fides, explaining that he had seen oregano oil used in Cuban prisons. This is the chair of the LSB, the one who brags about getting the most votes ever for a WBAI LSB election. As a former listener, volunteer, and financial contributor to WBAI, all I can say is wow – maybe Doug should inquire about getting another radio station to acquire his program. I’d be happy to sign a petition along those lines. He and his listeners deserve better.

  10. wow…chemtrails? as for that stuff – the information is all out there in the published academic literature. you don’t need to get information about global warming or toxic chemicals in the workplace from “independent” or “out-of-the-mainstream” researchers – just look up any respectable mainstream academic journal!

    and any radio station that hawks “miracle cures” or “exciting investment opportunities” has joined the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh radio programs.

    the uneducated and credulous out there will give anyone credence if that person is doing “independent research” or if “mainstream scientists won’t touch it!”

  11. So, if Pacifica goes down and the stations have to be sold, that would be several hundred million dollars.

    Who would get that money and who would control it?

    Just wondering…

    I volunteered with KPFK some years back. Their internal politics were gibbering lunacy then, and it’s clearly gotten much much worse.

  12. I agree with your sentiments about the premiums. I can’t listen to the fund drives anymore. I try to listen to them for a few minutes then I have to turn the radio off or switch to NPR (which I don’t even like but at least I can tolerate, unlike the fund drives). I want to hear real issues and political theories that are presented and discussed by intelligent, educated and articulate people on the left. Is that too much to ask for?

  13. Julie H.’s question is important: “I want to hear real issues and political theories that are presented and discussed by intelligent, educated and articulate people on the left. Is that too much to ask for?”

    The answer is, Yes, that is too much to ask for. Why? WBAI’s audience is rapidly aging and the Left is deader than a doornail. Issues and theories without any hope of application only applies heat to already boiling brains. You can see what happens when the dialectic between theory and action breaks down: behold the universities. In the absence of any movement to seize power by and for the working class majority and take on the major social justice and environmental issues of our time, academia obsesses over refining their language and controversializing the obvious. Postmodernism is just one example of the fact-free, irrational, and inhumane cul de sacs in today’s universities. There are no serious considerations of issues and ideas if there are no serious organizations to come to conclusions and carry out actual struggles against real power. It’s not a parlor game. (Henwood’s show provides some dim hope in these times, as he’s able to locate some people who, in spite of objective political conditions, can still provide some analysis…)

    Aging WBAI listeners (now at about 60 years old- average), seeing no hope for social movements – or frightened that local community self-determination may mean that they would have to abandon their “we’re the universal and you’re the particular” leadership roles – are now turning to the false promises of living forever and pain-free. They’re old and hopeless, and they’re willing to listen to soothing voices about miracle cures. And politics as useless drama means we can abandon any reason and focus on baroque narratives, as ultraleft meets ultraright. Any attempt to bring in the under-50 set is met with extreme hostility. To quote a certain LSB chair, when I suggested that a new wave of younger people could diminish and wash away the factional bickering… “That. Is. Not. Your. Job.” Yes, really, with the periods and all: he is that threatened by the prospect. As they used to say about Bernard White: “If he can’t have it, nobody can.” Bottom line: the 60s people won’t relinquish the station to the next generations, they won’t pass the torch, they’d rather continue the “Jews vs the Blacks” battles from the 1960s/70s. WBAI is simply not a serious venue, and it’s even threatening other movements, not to mention distracting and alienating leftists. It’s worse than worthless. Turn it off and hop on board the Flotilla to Palestine or something… there’s too much work to be done.

  14. I’m a younger listener of Henwood’s show via podcast. (I’m 25. We’re out here.) It’s the only WBAI program I listen to. It’s been disheartening to view the deterioration of the station from afar.

    I would encourage all fans of Behind the News to donate directly to Doug and subscribe to the excellent LBO. I, for one, can’t in good conscience donate to WBAI itself anymore.

  15. […] Behind the News, a left economics show on Pacificia affiliate WBAI in New York. He just sent an open letter to the chair of the WBAI board about the station’s disintegrating situation. He’s been […]

  16. Well, a big part of the problem is Mitch Cohen himself. He is an incredibly egotistical “activist” with a small cult of personality around himself. Anything Mitch is involved with, you can be assured it is run for his and his cronies’ benefit.

  17. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Mitch, but on WBAI issues, I’ve got mostly good things to say about him. I haven’t seen any of this egotism you talk about. In fact, he seems quite level-headed in navigating incredibly turbulent seas.

  18. Stephen,

    Generational-ism is just part of the ruling class tactics of division. Very old and well worn. But apparently it works for (or on) you.

  19. Stephen’s reporting in these comments is first-rate and penetrating – and as a complete outsider, this is all fascinating and symptomatic of vast and sad issues.
    The caving of the Left into the black hole of folkish quack medicine is not recent, and has been with it since the justifiably anti-Big Medicine upsweep of that blip of time in the 60s. The globalresearch and Stephen Lendmann and Danny Schechter podcasts were or are all on brutally awful tin-foil fraud pills and survivalist baking supply vendor “networks,” leading to some truly jarring comedy radio – was am/I hearing ads from the very people who wouldn’t mind shooting me for sport?
    Michael Hudson bust in after being on hold during a break to advertise these snake oil products to slap around the host for forcing him to listen to such claptrap. But where else is the money going to come from to sponsor our brave interrogators of the truth than from that America’s only product, that of Buncombe & Persiflage?

  20. purple – You’re all-or-nothing statement is interesting and indicative of the non-starter conversations common to the factionoids of WBAI. I’m not calling for Logan’s Run. While on the CAB, I saw the analysis of WBAI’s listenership, and even the over 60 crowd concluded that newer and younger listeners were needed. Most of the oldsters will CLAIM that it is WBAI’s biggest problem over the next 10 years. The audience is literally dying, and the paying ones are moving to Florida. But getting new and younger listeners is impossible unless something changes… and change is a threat. purple’s statement suggests an issue that I wish the CAB had tackled – that is, how do people use the radio? as sonic wallpaper that they want to listen to all day? or do they tune in to a few choice programs as part of a weekly routine? The all-I-listen-to-is-WBAI sonic wallpaper crowd (found in both factions) may be at the core of the problem: they simply will not tolerate any deviation from some idee fixe. I remember a JUC speaker on YouTube explain that many years ago he listened to a set of programs – he listed three or four weekly shows – and then he said, “There was nothing for me to listen to.” He listed 6 hours of weekly program, but “there was nothing to listen to.” What?! You need 168 hours of 24/7 you-you-you reflected back into your ears? Are you kidding? Read a f-in’ book! But, you see, I think some people want WBAI to be THEIR station, and only THEIR station. That’s why “level-headed” Mitch obsesses over Gary Null and champions marketing dubious health advice, that’s why he rejoiced when a guy with a satellite radio show named Paul Fischer returned to talk about himself a couple times a month. It’s what’s comfortable… for him. The hippies won’t let go, they can’t even cope with the fact that they’re gonna die someday. Why pass the torch when you can give yourself a Viking funeral, set the station on fire, and disappear heroically under the waves? There, I said it: we’re watching people purposefully destroy the station and possibly the network – some for possible personal financial gain, some because they want the station to die with them.

  21. Doug, I’ve listened to your show for a few years now, and am deeply unhappy with WBAI, especially that stunt of holding your programming block hostage last week. I’m fairly certain WBAI has been fundraising for nine out of the past five months and preempting massive amounts of programming.

    WBAI mgmt should note that I’m in the 26-40 demographic and male.

    It would be one thing if they sandwiched whack-job conspirinoid material–something I enjoy and indulge in from time to time–into the programming… maybe. While there might be some value in a Church Committee 2K10 digging up nasty bits of malfesance related to to GWOT, most of it is of, as mentioned, extremely questionable provenance, hailing directly from the Far Right or worse, Lyndon LaRouche’s fascist-flypaper-for-leftists criminal blackshirts. And to be paranoid about paranoia, I have little doubt that some hot topics in the conspiracy theory world (chemtrailheads, I’m looking at you) are either official disinformation or deliberate hoaxes designed to destroy credibility. But the most telling part is selling miracle cures. It’s one thing to buy a bottle of affordable fish oil for daily consumption and you’d probably be better off for it; it’s another to claim it cures cancer on the bottle. Confidence schemes and fraud do not a healthy station economy make.

    At some level, I’m not surprised, considering how reactionary the New Left was, it was only a matter of time before it completely folded into the paleocon shibboleths and alienated, middle-class hangover from the US’s progressive era.

    But this is all a digression. WBAI sucks and right now looks like a sinking ship. Have you considered alternatives–I’m assuming you don’t get paid by WBAI–like doing it as a podcast, or maybe WFMU? Losing Behind the News would suck more than Sandra Bullock’s career.

  22. […] Doug Henwood, still a progammer at Pacifica’s WBAI, went public with his own horror report.  Read it here. I like Doug. He’s good guy and quite smart and he means well. But he’s about ten years […]


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