Free speech has taken on new meaning at Pacifica radio's political talk show "Democracy Now!" with host Amy Goodman suspended this week without pay by her bosses yet continuing to do the show. The program, which airs locally on Pacifica's KPFK-FM (90.7) and examines political, social justice and environmental issues from a far-left perspective weekday mornings, has been in reruns since last week.
That's when Goodman, her engineer and two producers said threats and intimidation from staff and management at their flagship station in New York made them feel unsafe, so they began broadcasting from a studio elsewhere in Manhattan. But instead of the live shows Goodman says she has been broadcasting--in exile as she describes it--Pacifica has been airing archived episodes of "Democracy Now!" on four of the five stations it owns: KPFK in North Hollywood and those in New York, Washington and Houston.
As part of the civil war within the network, KPFA-FM in Berkeley is the only Pacifica-owned station to carry the live shows, which are also broadcast by such independent affiliates as KFCF-FM in Fresno and WMNF-FM in Tampa, Fla. A dissident group of listeners has scheduled protests in support of Goodman for Tuesday morning outside Pacifica stations. "The way we're looking at it, they're on an unauthorized leave of absence," Stephen Yasko, Pacifica's national program director, said of Goodman's decision not to broadcast from Pacifica facilities. "We're hopeful the staff will return to work."
The struggle over "Democracy Now!"--the progressive network's highest-profile program--is the latest chapter in a years-long saga of Pacifica infighting. In 1999, the general manager and several staffers at Berkeley's station were let go, prompting street protests that led Pacifica to close the station for three weeks and air reruns. In December, Pacifica fired the general manager and other key staffers at its New York-based WBAI-FM and implemented new security measures, prompting Goodman to begin saying she was broadcasting "from the studios of the banned and the fired."
Pacifica managers called that insubordination. After she brought Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader onto the floor of the 2000 Republican National Convention, her bosses termed the move "a stunt" and withheld her press credentials for the Democratic convention. They said she had misused a press pass to get Nader into the hall; Nader says he walked in unfettered.
The conflicts have given rise to an Internet-powered dissident movement, which is pushing for a wholesale change in the board membership of the Pacifica Foundation, which oversees the Pacifica network. The dissidents claim that the current board majority is pushing the 50-year-old radio network too far toward the mainstream.
Board members say they want to remain true to Pacifica's progressive mission but also to increase its audience and improve its technology. Throughout these skirmishes, Goodman and "Democracy Now!" have been a lightning rod. In the spring, "Democracy Now!" was moved to a secondary and, according to Goodman, technically inferior studio at WBAI. At the time, Yasko said WBAI needed the primary studio for its own shows. Additionally, Goodman's supporters say she and her staff have been harassed and threatened, and that on Aug. 10, interim general manager Utrice Leid shoved Goodman during an argument. The following Tuesday, Goodman packed up "Democracy Now!" and broadcast from the studios of New York's Downtown Community Television.
Pacifica's human resources department is looking into the allegations against Leid, said Larry Drapkin, a Los Angeles attorney handling labor issues for the network. "There are differing versions of what occurred. That's why it's important to do an investigation," he said.
Yasko said that during discussions last week that involved Goodman and her staff, representatives of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Pacifica management, an agreement was reached to ensure safety at WBAI. Among the provisions was a new human resources employee to monitor goings on and interpersonal conflicts at the station.
"I don't know what else we can do to assure it's a safe workplace," Yasko said. But Goodman and her staff have no plans to return to the station. "We don't feel safe going back there," said Goodman, who has won several awards for reporting, including coverage of a massacre in East Timor, where she and a fellow journalist were beaten by troops.
Both sides are unsure how the conflict will be resolved or when more listeners will get to hear a live "Democracy Now!" Meanwhile, Goodman hasbegun ending her show by saying she's broadcasting in exile and playing a Johnny Cash version of the Tom Petty song "I Won't Back Down," or Sly and the Family Stone's "Stand!"
"Democracy Now!" can be heard on KPFK-FM (90.7) weekdays from 6 to 7 a.m., with a rebroadcast at 9 a.m.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times