Amy Goodman didn't know if anyone was listening.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and the host of the muckraking
radio news program Democracy Now! was broadcasting from her studio in a
converted firehouse just blocks from the World Trade Center. She was
hunched over her microphone, intent on painting an audio portrait of the
"horrific scene of explosions and fires," but the truth was she didn't
know if anyone could hear her. The phone lines were dead or temporarily
blocked, and she had already overshot her slated hourlong broadcast
time. More serious, she had recently been banished from her professional
home at Pacifica Radio after a hostile internal shake-up, and she was
only being aired by twenty or so affiliate stations.
Still, as the neighboring businesses evacuated into the streets, Goodman
decided to go on talking. She kept the lines open and the microphones
hot, throwing her voice into the radio murk in case any stations chose
to pick up the feed. "We are not going to draw any conclusions at this
point, just reporting the information of the planes crashing into the
World Trade Center buildings, the plane crashing into the Pentagon, a
fire at the Pentagon right now," Goodman said in her grainy alto, at the
beginning of what would become an eight-hour marathon broadcast that was
eventually picked up by KPFA, the one Pacifica station still airing her
broadcasts. And then, shortly after 10 am, she announced: "It looks like
the south tower of the World Trade Center has collapsed..."
Three and a half years and two wars later, Goodman is still talking into
her microphone, reporting on the big and small crises of the day. She is
still broadcasting from the firehouse studio, still sending her
war-and-peace reports into the media ether, except that these days when
the engineer flips the switch on her microphone, she can expect hundreds
of thousands of listeners to tune in.
In the years since 9/11, Democracy Now! has shape-shifted from a popular
niche radio program broadcast on some twenty-five independent stations
to a multimedia institution beamed each day to some 330 community radio
and television stations (it has also returned to Pacifica). The skeletal
four-person crew has ballooned to twenty-seven full- and part-time
staff, including seven radio and TV producers, two outreach organizers
and, yes, a professional archivist. And the drafty garret studio has
been abandoned for a larger space on the first floor of the firehouse,
which will soon be abandoned for yet another, larger firehouse studio.
On any given day, the Democracy Now! website logs a solid 50,000 visits.
"It's the lifeline for a lot of people," says professor and media critic
Robert McChesney. "I think it's probably the most significant
progressive news institution that has come around in some time."
The story of how Democracy Now! transformed itself from a scrappy daily
radio program into an independent media empire (OK, maybe not an empire,
maybe more of an emerging nation) is in some ways the larger story of
progressive media during the Bush years: extremist President concocts
bogus war, quashes dissent, then "embeds" the mainstream media, creating
a news crisis that sends the information-starved citizenry fleeing to
the indie frontiers for sustenance. But in many ways the story of
Democracy Now! is its own twisty narrative, which progressives will be
analyzing, emulating and debating as they attempt to build a robust
alternative media landscape.
Goodman herself lays the credit--or blame--for the program's success
squarely at the well-rested feet of the mainstream newsmakers who, she
said, leave "a huge niche" for Democracy Now! "They just mine this small
circle of blowhards who know so little about so much. And yet it's just
the basic tenets of good journalism that instead of this small circle of
pundits, you talk to people who live at the target end of the policy,"
she says as she sips double espresso in a favorite Chinatown coffee
shop. Dressed in her customary black vest and cargo pants, her wispy
gray-brown hair hanging to her shoulders, she looks like a journalist in
combat mode, as if she's just come off the war-beat in Baghdad. "I think
the Bush Administration not finding weapons of mass destruction laid
bare more than the Bush Administration," she adds. "It laid bare media
that act as a conveyer belt for the lies of the Administration. You know
governments are going to lie, but not the media. So I think people
started to seek out other forms of information."
Goodman certainly has a point. But the story of Democracy Now! goes
beyond the traditional voice-in-the-wilderness thesis. That's certainly
part of it, but it's also a story about the unsung slog and labor of
"doing" independent media: about organizing and movement-building and an
unusual cross-media collaboration that Democracy Now! launched shortly
And, of course, it is a story about Goodman, who, at 48, has come to be
seen by many on the left as a kind of human megaphone for the collective
progressive unconscious. To these supporters, the slight and intense
Goodman--whose shows range from on-the-ground testimonials by Iraq War
victims to debates on Social Security between Paul Krugman and Michael
Tanner--is one of the lone disciples of a fiercely independent,
muckraking brand of journalism practiced by I.F. Stone and George
Seldes, Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh. "What Amy's doing is trying to
recreate a democratic society where you have varied, independent
perspectives on the world," says MIT professor and political activist
But Goodman also has her critics--people who have clashed with her
strongly held opinions or had the misfortune of being on the opposing
side of a debate. Others find her brand of journalism too "ideological,"
too "reflexively left." "Before she went to Democracy Now! she did some
very good pieces for NPR," says John Dinges, a former editorial director
of National Public Radio and a professor at Columbia Journalism School.
"But at some point she became more of an advocate than we were
The reality, of course, is that Goodman's brand of reporting is
unflaggingly political. She covers a hurricane in Florida the same way
she covers an election in Iraq, which is to say, with an eye to
unearthing the forgotten victims or hidden handshake behind the story.
And, as she herself has said, "I don't really think of it as, there's
politics and then there's your life." But while some critics see this
approach as advocacy, Goodman would call it just a matter of "going
where the silence is."
"That is the responsibility of a journalist: giving a voice to those who
have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten down by the powerful," she
wrote in The Exception to the Rulers, the book she co-authored with her
younger brother, David Goodman, published last year. "It is the
best reason I know to carry our pens, cameras, and microphones into our
communities and into the world."
This strain of journalism is not for the weak-willed or faint of heart,
and Goodman, perhaps not surprisingly, is neither. After twenty years in
the progressive trenches, she is one of those quirky combinations of
tough and compassionate, fearless and sensitive, headstrong and
kindhearted. When confronting her opponents, for instance, Goodman can
be relentless, even withering, but her friends sing paeans to her
compassion and loyalty. In the same spirit, she doesn't flinch at the
idea of flying off to a war zone, but the prospect of breaking that news
to her mother makes her pulse race.
Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, a colleague of Goodman's, sums up
this paradox with his own idiosyncratic anecdote. "Amy's not the easiest
person to work with; number one, she never sleeps. She's essentially
always working and basically tires everybody out who tries to keep up
with her," says Gonzalez, who is also a part-time co-host of Democracy
Now! "But Amy can also be very thoughtful to her staff. She's always
bringing in cupcakes for birthdays or taking photos to, you know,
preserve the moment." He chuckles. "Whenever she's at my place, she
spends more time with my daughter than with the adults."
On a blustery afternoon in early March, Goodman sits huddled in the
tin-can compartment of a Long Island Rail Road train, en route to Long
Beach to visit her 108-year-old grandmother. The idea is to have a
chance to talk away from the whir and distraction of the studio, but
even as the train barrels through tunnels and low-reception zones,
Goodman's cell phone keeps buzzing with updates from her producers.
"It's going to be a very interesting show tomorrow," she says, brown
eyes twinkling, after a debriefing on one segment: a debate on the
Democratic Party's decision to recruit antichoice candidates to run for
As Goodman is quick to point out, she is not herself a big fan of being
on the other side of the microphone, at least when the subject is her
own life. She is strenuously private, and personal questions tend to
elicit a polite, pained expression: a suble tightening of the muscles
around her lips and eyes. But she does enjoy telling a good story, of
which she's collected quite a few over the years. And so, as the train
rumbles past the bulky two-family homes of Queens and Long Island, she
slowly begins unraveling the strands of her career, beginning with her
accidental discovery of Pacifica Radio.
It was 1984, and Goodman had just graduated from Harvard with a degree
in anthropology. She was living with her parents on Long Island,
contemplating graduate school in biochemistry, when she happened to
station-surf across WBAI. "I was just completely shocked by this place I
stumbled on," she recalls. "It was just raw. It was all the beauty and
horror that is New York in all of its myriad accents. And I said, What
is this place?"
Not long after, Goodman landed an apprenticeship at the station. She
started out making documentaries, then moved to covering local news
stories, and two years later she was running the WBAI newsroom."For the
first couple of years, Amy was the person I learned everything from,"
says independent radio producer David Isay, who got his start in 1987
when Goodman encouraged him to produce his first radio piece and who
went on to win a MacArthur "genius" award. "She was fired up. We would
stay up all night working on stories. She was basically exactly the same
as she is now."
Goodman grew up in the cozy middle-class suburb of Bay Shore in a
tight-knit, progressive-intellectual family. Her father was an
ophthalmologist who helped found the Long Island chapter of Physicians
for Social Responsibility; her mother was a social worker and teacher of
women's literature and history who also founded the local SANE/FREEZE
group. "I think [my politics] come originally from my parents' concern
about social justice," says Goodman, "and I think also from learning
about the Holocaust as I was growing up, with so many family members who
died. I took to heart that slogan, 'never again,' for everyone."
While Goodman says she's "generally a shy person," she's made her
career, at least in part, on hand-to-hand verbal combat, throwing
rhetorical left-hooks at everyone from former Democratic Senator Bob
Kerrey to Newt Gingrich, of whom she demanded in 1994: "Why haven't you
apologized to American women for calling [the First Lady] a bitch?" Her
most notorious run-in, however, was with President Clinton, who called
in to WBAI on Election Day 2000 as part of a get-out-the-vote push for
Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. The President had no doubt been expecting
the usual brief and chatty star treatment, but instead he got a
thirty-minute grilling about NAFTA, the death penalty and sanctions
against Iraq, among other topics. "Now let me...now, wait a minute," he
finally spluttered. "You started this, and every question you've asked
has been hostile and combative..."
Responded Goodman, "They've been critical questions."
For Democracy Now! fans, this episode ranks among the all-time greats,
the indie-news equivalent of the M*A*S*H finale. But for Goodman the
most "pivotal" story of her career was the story of East Timor, the
small island nation north of Australia that was invaded by the
Indonesian military in 1975--with an approving nod from Washington. Few
reporters cared, or dared, to go there, but in 1990 Goodman headed over
with fellow journalist Allan Nairn because, she said, journalists should
cover what it means to be "at the target end" of US foreign policy.
In November 1991, during a second trip, she and Nairn were nearly killed
in a massacre of at least 271 Timorese. It was, Goodman said, the most
horrifying moment of her life. "To be there as these soldiers opened
fire on innocent people and gunned them down, and ultimately
understanding there was nothing we could do to stop it, that it was only
getting word out that could make a difference..." she says, trailing
For Goodman, the Santa Cruz Massacre, as it came to be known, became the
signal example of "going where the silence is," and in many ways the
last thirteen years of her career can be tied to that moment, when the
abstract horror of war became real for her. When she returned home,
Goodman linked up with Timorese activists and their allies, and set
about trying to tell the story to both mainstream and independent media.
Some critics took issue with this activist style of journalism, but it
won her praise in other quarters. What happened in East Timor "probably
comes as close to genocide as anything in the late twentieth
century...but it was impossible to get anyone to hear about it," says
Chomsky. "Amy brought it to public attention."
In early February 1996 Democracy Now! went live for the first time over
the airwaves of Pacifica, the country's largest progressive radio
network. But a more significant marker for the purposes of this story
might be early September 2001, when Democracy Now! made its first leap
beyond radio into the multimedia world of television and beyond.
It was a few days before 9/11, and Goodman had just been forced from the
studios of WBAI, the local Pacifica station, during what is commonly
known as "the Pacifica crisis"--a period of several months of fierce
debates over the mission and management of the network. In the scramble
to keep broadcasting on affiliate stations, she had landed at the
firehouse, a small limestone castle of a building owned and operated by
Downtown Community Television. The independent media collective also
rented space to Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a cable access channel,
and in early September a MNN producer had the notion of switching on the
TV cameras and videotaping Goodman's radio broadcast. The idea was to
air the show on MNN once or twice a week.
Then came 9/11: All of a sudden Democracy Now! was the closest national
broadcast to Ground Zero. "About two days after September 11, I was
sleeping at the firehouse and Anthony Riddle, then the head of MNN,
called," recalls Goodman. "'We'll go live with the show today,' he said.
'The camera will go on; we'll flick the switch.' And then it just
The news that Democracy Now! was going live on TV and needed volunteers
traveled quickly through New York's lefty grapevine, and before long a
group of refugees from the topsy-turvy post- 9/11 world began appearing
at the bright red doors of the firehouse. I was one of those refugees, a
stray who showed up during the confusion of mid-September and ended up
staying for nearly a year. It didn't seem to matter that I had no radio
or television experience (heck, I didn't even own a TV); such was the
nature of the times--or the desperation--that on my first day in the
studio I was plunked behind one of the cameras and told to shoot.
Eventually I began helping produce the program.
Those early weeks of Democracy Now! TV were a surreal, and occasionally
comical, brew of trial, error and improvisation, served up daily against
the backdrop of the steroidal news cycle (War! Anthrax! Patriot Act!).
While the radio portion of the show remained strong--Goodman was adamant
about that--the television component was very much a spit-and-glue kind
of operation. The set, for instance, was little more than a black table
backed by a wall of newspaper clippings meant to convey "serious news
program" while also reducing the glare from the lights. The show's
billboard, which was intended to identify the program for the audience,
was written in masking tape against the control room window. And when a
guest couldn't come in to the studio but had to call in to the program,
as was often the case (this was still primarily a radio show), the crew
simply trained its cameras on the telephone--for five minutes at a time.
"It looked like a televised radio show," says Goodman, with a good deal
Still, for all the kinks and knots, Democracy Now!'s early TV adventures
hinted at a larger possibility: a collaborative, independent news
program that used all the available public forms of media distribution
to break through the static of the mainstream noise machine. "What
Democracy Now! understood was this need for a multi-platform
strategy--and by that I mean distributing your program on television,
cable, analogue radio, satellite radio, Internet, MP3s, etc.," says Dan
Coughlin, executive director of Pacifica and Goodman's first Democracy
Now! producer. "At a time when the old media are dying, this is
something that most independent progressive media are going to have to
For Democracy Now! this strategy has consisted largely of building
alliances, knitting a motley jumble of independent broadcasters and
public-access stations into a smooth, cross-media collaboration. The
first of these alliances--with the progressive cable network Free Speech
TV and the public access collective Deep Dish TV--grew quite naturally
out of previous projects; both organizations had worked with Democracy
Now! to produce a daily telecast during the Democratic and Republican
national conventions in 2000, and both had been looking to air a daily
news program ever since. When Goodman reached out to them in September
2001, they readily agreed to distribute the show.
But Democracy Now! has also done its share of wooing stations, and it's
done this in a rather unconventional way: by hiring organizers who work
with local activists to lobby their public broadcasters to air Democracy
Now! This tactic reflects perhaps as much about Democracy Now!'s
movement-style credo as it does about the rocky public-access terrain,
but it also seems to be savvy strategy. Since hiring its first organizer
two years ago, Democracy Now! has recruited more than 200 radio and
Still, despite the focus on cultivating new stations, Democracy Now!'s
most significant relationship remains that with Pacifica--though this,
too, has changed over the years. In January 2002, following the
court-ordered settlement of the Pacifica crisis, Democracy Now! returned
to its old slot in the network's schedule. Then in June 2002 Goodman
reached an agreement with Pacifica to turn Democracy Now! into a
separate nonprofit organization that would continue to broadcast on the
network but would also be free to build up its TV program. The deal
generated some grumbling at the time from those who felt that Democracy
Now! was abandoning Pacifica, but Goodman and Coughlin maintain that the
move has been "tremendously successful" for both the network and the
program: Pacifica continues to provide the show with $500,000 in
operating support, while Democracy Now! continues to raise some $2
million for the network through quarterly fund drives. (Democracy Now!
raises the rest of its $1.8 million budget through contributions from
its TV broadcasters, Link TV and Free Speech TV, as well as through
foundation grants, individual donations and sales from its online store.
It does not accept commercial or corporate sponsorship.)
Meanwhile, as all this was unfolding, the television program was making
its slow journey out of the technical Stone Age into modernity. In
January 2002 Goodman hired a director to begin whipping the program into
visual shape, and eventually she added three TV producers. The resulting
changes have been gradual but unmistakable, as five-minute phone shots
have given way to in-studio guests, Reuters video feeds and, yes, a
TelePrompTer. "It's been a process, because I'm all about the packaging,
and they are all about the content," says the program's director, Uri
Gal-Ed. "From the beginning there were elements in place, but we
basically created a TV show from scratch."
Shortly before 9 o'clock on the soggy evening of March 28, Amy Goodman
strides onstage at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan
amid an explosion of whoops and applause. She is the last in a line of
speakers for an event billed as both a fundraiser for WBAI and the
launch of the paperback leg of her book tour, and Goodman has sold out
the several-hundred-seat house.
"AAAMY!" hollers a fan from the nosebleed seats.
Goodman's indie-media star status had been building since well before
9/11, but it's begun to approach critical velocity during the past year,
as she's traveled the country to promote Exception to the Rulers.
Goodman has dubbed this second leg the "Un-Embed: the Media Tour," but
in many ways it has been less of a book tour than a "free the media"
organizing drive. Each event has been an occasion for Goodman to exhort
her audience to "be the media," as well as to raise money for community
broadcasters. To date the events have raised more than $1 million.
To skeptics, this tour is perhaps little more than the standard
self-promoting book junket--fronted by an author who happens to have the
stamina of the Grateful Dead. But in many ways this effort--particularly
Goodman's call to "take back the public airwaves"--is what has set
Democracy Now! apart from its sibling media outlets, giving it the
texture of a movement as well as a radio and television show. Because
what Democracy Now! has recognized, perhaps better than most progressive
news outlets, is that without the strength of a grassroots movement it's
tricky--perhaps impossible--to create a robust, independent media; and
without an independent media there is little chance for free, unfettered
reporting. And, of course, without unfettered reporting, well, there's
not much hope for democracy.
"I see the media as a huge kitchen table that stretches across this
country, that we all sit around and debate and discuss the most
important issues of the day: life and death, war and peace," Goodman
says, winding toward the end of her speech at the Ethical Culture
Society. "Anything less than that is a disservice to a democratic
"Democracy now!" she adds, punching the air lightly with her fist. And
then, with a sudden, self-conscious smile, she steps back from the
Lizzy Ratner is a reporter for the New York Observer
© 2005 The Nation