NEW YORK They're going to the barricades at WBAI, the voice of the left on New York's radio dial for more than 40 years.
Listeners are up in arms and the staff is in turmoil after the FM station's owners fired the longtime general manager and two other employees and changed the locks to keep the purged from coming back.
Amy Goodman, the award-winning host of the public affairs program "Democracy Now!", signed off Wednesday by saying: "From the embattled studios of WBAI, from the studios of the fired and the banned ..."
The struggle between WBAI and its parent, the Pacifica network of independent radio stations, appears to be replay of what went on in Berkeley, Calif., where a round of firings at sister station KPFA touched off bitter protests in 1999 that spilled onto the air and the streets.
"It's part of a larger pattern and a larger crisis caused by the fact that the board leadership is really opposed to Pacifica as it existed in the past and is intent on changing its culture, its way of operating, its programming," said Ralph Engelman, a journalism professor at Long Island University and the author of "Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History."
Critics say the Washington-based Pacifica Foundation is seeking to dilute the traditional leftist politics of its stations KPFA and WBAI, plus stations in Los Angeles, Washington and Houston.
Board members say they are not trying to temper Pacifica's politics; they are trying to broaden its audience.
"We initiated a series of studies to see who our listeners were," said Kenneth Ford, vice chairman. "When they did the demographics of KPFA, the profile that came back from the consultants said that the average listener was in the middle 50s, white and male. You need younger and newer blood coming in."
Pacifica was founded in 1949 by pacifists and conscientious objectors. Unlike National Public Radio or PBS, it accepts no corporate underwriting. Of WBAI's $3 million annual budget, a small percentage comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the rest from listeners of 99.5 FM.
More than a thousand of those listeners packed a union hall last week to raise questions about the firings. A demonstration is planned for Saturday outside the station.
The turmoil began when Valerie Van Isler, who worked at WBAI for more than 20 years, was fired by Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash in November after she refused to take a position with the Pacifica national office in Washington.
"It was a complete shock and surprise," Van Isler said.
Then late at night on Dec. 22, Wash arrived at the WBAI offices on Wall Street with locksmiths, who changed the locks to the station and to individual offices.
Program director Bernard White and producer Sheran Harper were fired and several volunteer reporters and producers were banned from the station.
"They won't even let me go in and get my things," White said. "They say if I do that, it will be trespassing and I'll be arrested."
Wash did not return a call seeking comment. Pacifica spokeswoman Angela Jones said the locks "were changed after hours to avoid maximum disruption of the station. It is not unusual when an employee leaves to change locks."
"Democracy Now!" won a Polk Award in 1999 for a story about Chevron's use of the military in Nigeria to protect its interests. The show has courted controversy by doing such things as airing the comments of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
"Many people feel like there's a purging going on at this station," said Goodman, the program's host, "and it is very frightening, between the firings and the banning of people. It's a very chilling atmosphere."
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press