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Radio Survivor's Top Radio Shows – Matthew's #3: Democracy Now!

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s radio/TV program Democracy Now! is, without question, the most successful media vehicle in the history of the United States Left. Launched at Pacifica station WBAI-FM in New York City in the mid-1990s, it is now an independent venture, subscribed to by over 800 radio, TV, and Internet stations around the world. From the perspective of this media historian, Democracy Now! exceeds all previous attempts to spread an explicitly social justice oriented message via broadcast and/or print. No prior effort, starting with the The Masses at the beginning of the  20th century,  has ever come so far in terms of influence and reach.

I listen to Democracy Now!‘s one hour broadcast on a regular basis because it is fast paced and timely, racing to wherever the action is—Haiti, Copenhagen, Washington, D.C, or Honduras. I don’t always agree with the program’s perspective, but I appreciate the effort DN makes to host debates and discussions within the Left about how to move forward, such as its recent debate about how to respond to the Obama adminstration’s health care initiative. The vast majority of community radio style public affairs programs, within and beyond Pacifica, simply ignore these disagreements and tout one line or another, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. DN has far outpaced those efforts in part because of its willingness to embrace a broader perspective.

Here is some of what I wrote about Democracy Now! in my second book on Pacifica, Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War.

When she chanced upon WBAI in New York, Amy Goodman had just graduated from Harvard College and returned to the city. She had been raised in Bay Shore, Long Island, by a family of activists; her mother had spent much of the 1980s working for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze. Her father, an ophthalmologist, had been a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, taking a stand for school integration in a predominantly white suburb.

“I would go to the night meetings,” Goodman later recalled. “A thousand people would be screaming, and I would watch him stand his ground. There were death threats, but he just went on. I think that very much shaped my feeling about what was just in the world.” Now out of school and on her own, she had just finished a series of articles for Ralph Nader and Alan Nairn’s Multinational Monitor on Depo-Provera, the controversial birth-control shot. Goodman was about to enroll in Hunter College for graduate classes in biochemistry when a course on radio production caught her eye. WBAI’s Andrew Phillips taught the class. At the time Phillips hosted a show called “Investigations,” a program dedicated to what radio producers call “actuality” – the sounds of people talking and doing things on tape, speeches, demonstrations, street interviews. Goodman sat in on the first lecture, then talked with Phillips afterwards. The latter knew a true believer when he saw one. He asked her if she wanted to apprentice for him at WBAI. She protested that she had no radio experience. “That’s fine,” Phillips replied. That evening the two walked the mile from Hunter on the East Side to WBAI’s West Side headquarters. Phillips put his new student to work editing tapes for an upcoming program on the fortieth anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. “And I never left,” Goodman later explained.

[I]n the late 1980s, WBAI experienced a significant ethnographic shift. Many of its older white programmers moved on, some lured away by jobs at National Public Radio or WNYC, the city’s then municipally owned station. Into the gap stepped producers determined to reach beyond the frequency’s predominantly white air sound. Prominent among them was Samori Marksman. Born in St. Vincent in 1948, Marksman studied political science and cinematography at New York University before coming to WBAI. In 1977 he began producing interview shows for the station while working for the government of Grenada as a researcher and publicist. His friend and admirer Louis Proyect remembered him “as belonging to the grand tradition of Afro-Caribbean Marxism” exemplified by C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, and Eric Williams. Radical intellectuals of all backgrounds throughout New York cherished his daily interview show Behind the News, on which one could hear Marksman grapple with figures as diverse as the British Labor Party’s Tony Benn or former CIA director William Colby. Long before Marksman became program director at WBAI he exemplified a postcolonial cosmopolitanism that became characteristic of the station’s news and public affairs focus.

Marksman’s tenure also signaled the emergence of a new audience for Pacifica’s second frequency: Caribbean immigrants. By the 1980s New York City had become “the Caribbean cross-roads of the world,” in the words of anthropologist Constance Sutton. Over 324,000 women and men hailing from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, and a dozen other Caribbean countries lived in the city, according to government census data. WBAI’s latest generation of programmers took note of and inspiration from their presence. African-American producer Valerie Van Isler traveled through the Caribbean for WBAI, producing features on Grenada’s ill-fated New Jewel movement and democratic struggles in Haiti. Robert Knight and the public affairs show Undercurrents won a Polk award for his coverage of the U.S. invasion of Panama.

Goodman thrived in WBAI’s atmosphere of diversity and political commitment, switching off with Robert Knight and Marksman as news director for the station. In 1991 she and Alan Nairn traveled to East Timor, barely escaped with their lives, and won awards for an eyewitness account of a massacre on the island. Then in 1992 Goodman teamed up with Bernard White, a droll, witty producer who excelled at live talk, to co-host the station’s morning program, Wakeup Call. The show both reported the news and championed causes, among them the case of Moreese Bickham, incarcerated in Louisiana’s Angola prison since 1958. Tipped to Bickham’s plight by independent producer David Isay, Wakeup Call told his story, that of a man who defended himself against armed Klansmen, only to be convicted of murder and placed on Louisiana’s death row. Heart attacks induced by terror just hours before his two scheduled execution dates had saved Bickham from state-sanctioned extermination. White and Goodman publicized his plight and urged WBAI listeners to call authorities for a reconsideration of his sentence. Upon his release, Bickham came to WBAI and thanked the staff over the airwaves.

For years, Pacifica had been shopping around for some kind of national daily public-affairs show to prove the viability of the concept. In 1995 the network briefly distributed an interview program hosted by economist and syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux. Publicist Tony Regusters produced the show out of WPFW. Malveaux brought fire and erudition to her work, but she had little patience with the poor studio conditions Pacifica had given her. The experiment lasted three months. At the same time a former governor of California accepted KPFA’s invitation to host a news and talk show at 4 p.m. Jerry Brown titled his offering We the People. Although the program invariably featured a guest or two, most of the hour focused on the rambling meditations of the host. One Pacifica staffer privately referred to the segment as “I the People.” WBAI and KPFK picked up the program. The show lasted for some time, ending when Brown ran for mayor of Oakland.

In the midst of all these fits and starts, Pacifica asked Goodman to produce a national show on congressional politics. It was early 1995. The Republican Party had just swept Capitol Hill, enabling Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Right-wing talk show hosts hailed his “Contract with America,” for the most part a glorified array of privatizations and budget cuts. Goodman moved to Washington, D.C., and accustomed herself to the daily routine of a national reporter. By the end of the series she was seething with anger. She covered House committees where Representatives spent most of their time discussing ways to fiscally penalize states where women on welfare had “too many” abortions. “They wanted to go after women on welfare,” Goodman later recalled, “keep down the number of children that they have, but at the same time they didn’t want to encourage abortion. And so they started to discuss why women have sex.” Ways to cut social services, especially for poor women, were always high on the agenda. Meanwhile Gingrich had figured in a minor scandal. In January of 1995 television reporter Connie Chung had just interviewed his mother. When Chung asked mom what her son thought of then First Lady Hillary Clinton, she got hesitation at first. “Why don’t you just whisper it to me,” Chung pressed, “just between you and me.” A “bitch,” came the smug reply.

On Goodman’s final day in Washington, March 3 of that year, she had not intended to go to Gingrich’s daily press briefing. But the crescendo of anti-woman legislation coming out of D.C. had become too much for her, as had the silence of most of the press on the subject, especially at Gingrich-related events. “It seemed like there was a kind of agreement, a protocol, between the press and the Speaker,” she explained. At the last minute she rushed over to his media appearance. Dressed in sneakers and jeans, she positioned herself next to the television camera so that she would be heard but not seen; the focus would be entirely on Gingrich. Goodman raised her hand and charged that Congress had over the past two years essentially declared “war on women.” Then she got down to specifics.

“You fired the first salvo when you called the First Lady a bitch,” Goodman continued. “So why don’t you apologize?”

Gingrich became furious. The two snarled back at forth at each other. “To the best of my knowledge, I never said what you said I said,” he responded.

“Are you calling your mother a liar, then?” Goodman asked.

The broadcast hit the Pacifica network like a fireball. I was visiting KPFA when the piece aired. People stood around the halls and talked about the exchange. Some thought that Goodman had come off as a bit juvenile, a criticism that would follow her over the years, even from colleagues who admired her. “She is earnest to a fault, with little patience for folks who may have a more nuanced stance on certain issues than she does,” commented journalist Danny Schechter. “She has only fastballs, and she throws at the head,” observed Time magazine’s Steve Lopez.

But most Pacifica listeners quickly came to identify with Goodman’s intense, insistent tone. They could see themselves standing in Goodman’s place, asking the same angry, obvious questions that most journalists never ask. The Gingrich confrontation did not just report the news, it made news, and not just at Pacifica either. “Gingrich Can’t Ditch Bitch Remark,” ran one headline after the fight. Soon right-wing talk show hosts were talking about Goodman, demanding that she apologize for upsetting the Speaker of the House.

What Amy Goodman’s critics and supporters both missed, however, was that her style represented a decisive break with earlier Pacifica public affairs broadcasting. Since the late 1960s, most Pacifica programmers had shunned any kind of on-air contact with the Right, arguing that the network’s resources were better used airing rarely heard voices from the Left. Indeed, KPFA listeners sometimes complained when the station broadcast a presidential State of the Union address. Goodman emphatically rejected that stance. She constantly pushed to get government officials, right wing ideologues, and corporate flaks on the air so that she and her favorite progressive activists could pelt them with critical questions. Nothing better characterized her approach than her telephone dogfight with Bill Clinton. In November 2000 the President thought he would pleasantly surprise New York radio stations by calling in urging listeners to vote. Chances are that if he had called WBAI in 1977, staff would have hung up on him. But when Clinton phoned in to give what he thought would be a routine thirty-second “get out and vote” pitch, Goodman rushed to the receiver, turned on the tape recorder, and challenged him for thirty minutes on everything from welfare reform to the embargo against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

“You are calling radio stations telling people to vote,” she began. “What do you say to people who feel the two parties are bought by corporations and that at this point their vote doesn’t make a difference?” Whatever problems anyone had with Goodman’s tone, no one could dismiss her work as the Left talking to itself.

Shortly after the Gingrich fight, Pacifica development staffer Julie Drizen asked Goodman to continue the program indefinitely. In early 1996 the two came up with a title, Democracy Now!, and an on air slogan that reflected the show’s sassy spirit: “The Exception to the Rulers.” Larry Bensky signed on as a political commentator. Columnist Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News joined as co-host twice a week. Almost immediately the show began making waves across the community radio system. In early 1997 WRTI in Philadelphia unceremoniously dumped Democracy Now! just as it prepared to air commentaries by controversial Pennsylvania deathrow inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a police officer.

But most community stations enthusiastically stayed with Democracy Now! – once they joined. The trick was getting them to join, which meant getting them to apportion an hour every day for the show, which meant getting at least three or four volunteer hosts at each station to move aside. “We all feel very strongly about how good a program [Democracy Now!] is,” a manager for radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin, told a reporter for Current magazine. “But our commitment by mission statement is to provide as much local access as we can, to provide our community with a window to the airwaves.”

Within Pacifica, then executive director Pat Scott pushed hard to make sure that all five network stations ran the program. Then in December of 1997 the foundation launched its own satellite service, a less expensive alternative to NPR’s Public Radio Satellite System. Pacifica’s new service distributed Democracy Now! and 17 other programs, including a half-hour Pacifica Network News. Soon dozens of community radio stations began affiliating. In 1998 Pacifica listed 56 community station members. By 2000 one audience research analyst estimated that Pacifica radio alone reached approximately 800,000 people a week – with affiliates, the total came to about one million a week. Some Pacifica stations played Democracy Now! twice a day. KPFK ran it twice every morning. Amy Goodman and Pacifica quickly became synonymous.

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