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Coup at WBAI?

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:38 p.m.

Make what you will of the call letters WBAI, and there were an optimistic few who believed they stood for Whites, Blacks, Asians, and the Indigenous. That may have some validity in terms of the diverse population at the Pacifica station, but it hardly bespeaks of the presumed unity there.

The divergent and sometimes hostile views at the station erupted again when the station's general manager, Tony Riddle, received a message from Grace Aaron, the interim executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, threatening to take control of the station's transmitter that sits atop the Empire State Building.

That threat prompted a firestorm of reaction from staff, volunteers and a coterie of longtime supporters of the publicly supported, nonprofit station. Riddle said there was no truth to the transmitter being commandeered during a recent interview, though Aaron had sent him an apology for not contacting him first about any possible changes. "The transmitter is still in our control," he said. "To make any change, they have to go through our engineers and that has not been done. I will be meeting with Grace later today [Wednesday] for lunch and we will iron out some of the concerns we have."

There were rumors that Aaron might be arriving early to the station to meet with staff, but by noon, she still had not appeared, and several staff members and some demonstrators, arriving to pick up signs protesting a possible takeover, were on hand.

"To get to the core of things here, you have to separate the facts from the factionalism," said Esther Armah, an on-air hostess. "Yes, there is a sense of loyalty here, but it is rather bruised." Station engineer Errol Maitland believes the problem around the station is simply one of a faction doing all it can to supplant the current leadership.

"There are some people here who are totally opposed to Bernard White as the program director, and they have been trying to remove him for years," he asserted.

White, who recently underwent surgery, may be returning to the station as soon as he has properly recovered, said Riddle.

Program producer Ayo Harrington sees politics and the failure of restructuring the station as key problems, to say nothing of the inability to facilitate getting premiums to people who pledge during the station's fundraising drive.

Mounting deficits was another issue spelled out in Aaron's memo, and Carolyn Birden, a Pacifica National Board member, placed much of the trouble at the station on the financial woes. "Recently, we lost more than 3,000 listeners, and mainly because of their dissatisfaction with pro- gramming," she said.

Jose Santiago, the station's news director and union shop steward for AFTRA, says there's nothing new about the current problems. "They are the same ones we had six years ago, and we failed to solve them then, and now they are back again," he said, referring to the failure of leadership in dealing with some basic issues of "hiring competent" people.

"There's too much cronyism [and] nepotism," Santiago continued. He was also disturbed about what he perceived as a failure to employ more Latinos.

But whether Aaron's appearance with her crew will resolve any of the longstanding "factionalism" is probably a long shot, and she will be met with more questions than she has answers for, including a few from Leslie Radford, Pacifica national board director.

"You say you are going to WBAI to do an assessment, mail out premiums, repair equipment, enhance the website and give a boost to WBAI, and you follow this with a long discussion of the station's short-term financial distress," Radford said in an e-mail. "How do these activities and changing the locks address the immediate risk that Pacifica will lose the station offices and the broadcast tower at our New York sister station? Do you have any other plans, even contingent plans, than those you have announced in your statement? Will you assure the membership that you will take no other actions of consequence during your visit?"

Stay tuned!