Dec 1 2000

Pacifica Management Moves to Undermine WBAI’S Independence

In a move reminiscent of last year’s attack on Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley, the Pacifica Foundation told WBAI-New York’s long-time general manager Valerie Van Isler that it is removing her from her position. On Tuesday, November 28, during what was supposed to be a routine evaluation, Pacifica‘s executive director Bessie Wash informed Van Isler that she was being reassigned to a newly created position in Washington, DC. Van Isler, who has been at the helm of WBAI for 10 years, said she wanted to remain at the station, and was told that she would therefore be fired.

Pacifica, a network of community-supported radio stations, has long been torn by charges that its national board is bent on taking the network in a more timid, ratings-driven, commercialized direction. Listeners, as well as staff at some stations, have organized protests against the board’s continuing centralization of power.

Van Isler had been told to report to her new position, “executive producer of national programming,” in Washington, DC, in January. Though she had recently brought WBAI into the black, Van Isler had locked horns with Pacifica management over the airing of a speech that Cuba’s Fidel Castro delivered in New York on September 8.

According to a station insider, Van Isler was also upbraided by Pacifica management for WBAI‘s coverage of the Palestinian Right-of-Return March in Washington DC on September 23. According to the source, Pacifica management admonished Van Isler after receiving a complaint from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a presidentially appointed agency that provides funding to the Pacifica Foundation. Van Isler had also clashed with Pacifica officials recently over the network’s treatment of Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.

Pacifica plans to replace Van Isler as early as Monday. WBAI management and staff were shocked by the sudden decision, which Pacifica has yet to formally inform them about. Pacifica has not yet named an interim General Manager. [See attached letter from WBAI Management Team to Pacifica Executive Director Besse Wash.]

Pacifica‘s latest move is reminiscent of the 1999 removal of KPFA‘s general manager Nicole Sawaya, general manager at Pacifica‘s KPFA-Berkeley, which led to protests by thousands of listeners and volunteers, the arrest of staff and the closing of the station for several weeks.

The firing of Van Isler follows other attacks on Pacifica staff and programming, including the transfer of Pacifica news director Dan Coughlin,who like Van Isler was forced out of his position after airing a 30-second headline about a protest against Pacifica. Pacifica has also recently threatened to fire Amy Goodman, co-host of the network’s flagship national newsmagazine, Democracy Now!, who recently filed grievances against Pacifica for censorship, harassment and gender harassment.

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To: Bessie Wash, Executive Director, Pacifica Foundation

From: WBAI Management Team

Date: November 30, 2000

Re: Actions proposed against station manager

It has come to the attention of the WBAI management team that Pacifica‘s executive management is in the process of an attempted removal of the station manager at WBAI. We find it incredible that you would even contemplate such a move because such behavior is a clear contradiction to the document that you authored and circulated throughout the network, Pacifica in the New Millennium: Community Radio with Vision.

In this document you spoke forthrightly about the need to change the culture of Pacifica as it related to personnel. You wrote:

“We intend to improve policies and procedures that assist employees to air concerns and receive thoughtful, responsive and fair replies. We also intend to put into place mechanisms that promote respect and teamwork. This includes responsiveness, dialogue and better communications.”

We saw these proclamations as a necessary and welcome departure from the philosophy and actions of previous administrations and are anxiously awaiting their implementation.

However, the actions you are now proposing are a direct contradiction to what you told us you intended to do. We took you at your word and it appears that you have violated our trust. We believed that we were headed in a new direction and here we are back in 1998 — a time even the most inexperienced observer would agree was a management and fiscal disaster that threatened the very framework of Pacifica. Your proposed actions tend dangerously toward a replication of that awful time.

Another reason we find your proposed actions unconscionable is because they would destroy all of the hard-earned goodwill and positive energy that we have built up with our listenership over the last several months. As a result of what took place in Berkeley, we began to lose membership (and income).

Our listeners began to lose faith in Pacifica. It was the efforts of this management team that promised to repair that damage by renewing the trust that was lost through no fault of our own.

Your non-consultative and ill-advised proposition to immediately install an”interim manager” at WBAI is as untenable as it is procedurally out of order, inasmuch as Valerie van Isler is–and we expect her to remain for the foreseeable future–our station’s manager. It is unclear to us whether you have followed personnel guidelines in this matter, as well as in your claim to be opening a “search” for the position. Even if it were your intention to change management at WBAI at this inopportune time, any person sent hereunder such circumstances would almost certainly be unable to function in an effective manner, given the mistrust, the opposition, the community ill will and the confusion implicit in your proposal.

This management team demands an audience with you regarding actions proposed against our station manager and, therefore, against our station. This meeting should take place as quickly as possible. We are proposing Friday,