Top Menu

Can Al Jazeera save Pacifica radio?

The Washington Post reports what everybody involved in the Pacifica radio network has known for years, that the foundation’s staff are in conversation with Al Jazeera to broadcast the service over its five listener supported stations. I don’t know whether the discussions are going anyplace, but it’s obviously a great idea, so of course it has drawn fire from both the right and the left.

On the right, Newsbusters is running the obvious headline:

“Taxpayer-Funded Pacifica Radio Planning to Air Al-Jazeera Audio.” Pacifica—which owns five listener supported radio stations in Berkeley, New York, Washington, DC, Houston, and Los Angeles—gets $1.6 million in Corporation for Public Broadcasting money, the article notes. The implication, of course, is that your tax dollars will fund this terrorist evilmonger network from Hell that aired bin Laden dispatches after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

The fact that Al Jazeera also broadcasts interviews with U.S. State Department and Israeli officials and journalists isn’t mentioned. Why would Newsbusters want to do that?

Then there are a host of objections raised by Steve Brown, long associated with board governance at Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. In fact, the WashPost article is almost entirely based on Brown’s public criticisms of the possible deal. Based on my conversations with previous executive directors and board members, however, I can confirm that Pacifica has had a longstanding interest in some kind of arrangement with Al Jazeera, and has been trying to pursue the matter for about four years.

I really hope Pacifica can get this going. The network urgently needs to draw in a younger, more diverse audience, and it’s never going to be able to do that on its own. This is just the kind of outside-the-box breakthrough Pacifica needs.

Brown raises the following objections to the proposal, with which I respectfully disagree.

“I do object to the secrecy and lack of member input on an issue that could have dire consequences for the foundation. Do Pacifica’s negotiators—whoever they are—have the knowledge, skill, and experience to negotiate such a contract? Who are they? What are their credentials?”

The question of negotiation skills is a legitimate one, given Pacifica’s unwieldy system of democratically elected local station boards (and which, last time I checked, Brown supports). This system allows candidates to become part of Pacifica governance based on relatively few station subscriber votes. But the payoff for getting Al Jazeera audio on the five Pacifica stations is so potentially big that it outweighs any risks in the negotiation process.

“Al Jazeera is a totally government owned and funded broadcast entity, and the government that owns and funds it is among the most repressive on earth.”

Yup. If you’re looking for objective coverage of the situation in Qatar, Al Jazeera is not the place to go. It does, however, offer a fresh, complex, and original perspective on the rest of the world, one that lots of new folks might tune into Pacifica to hear.

“Another question is: Will Pacifica have the right to follow any Al Jazeera newscast with commentary, rebuttal, or elaboration of its own choosing? Will other Pacifica broadcasters be allowed to comment negatively on whatever Al Jazeera says, since there is a ban on bad-mouthing other Pacifica programs on the air. This in itself is not a minor consideration.”

Any attempt to stop Pacifica programmers from reacting to Al Jazeera broadcasts would be stupid and futile. They would openly defy the order. Were they disciplined for so doing, they would easily rally listeners to their support. It would be a huge brouhaha, and management would lose.

“It is not even surmise, but an absolute certainty, that if we broadcast Al Jazeera – without appropriate official comment and disclaimers—or even with appropriate official comment and disclaimers—support from many and perhaps most of our Jewish listeners could vanish overnight. Even though the decision to broadcast Al Jazeera is (arguably) legally and morally correct.

Let us be realistic. Jewish listeners comprise many of our major donors, and even among ‘ordinary’ donors they contribute far more than their numerical representation. So we could be looking at another ‘Skokie incident.’ (For PNB members too young to remember, this was a 1977 lawsuit in which the ACLU defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold a march through the Jewish residential village of Skokie, Illinois.)”

It’s just a tad unfair, I think, to compare Al Jazeera to a bunch of goose stepping schmucks from the suburbs. As for Pacifica’s Jewish listeners, if they’ve stuck around for the last twenty years of hooray-for-me-I’m-an-anti-Zionist rhetoric on various Pacifica shows, they’ll probably experience Al Jazeera’s far more sophisticated approach as a breath of fresh air.

“Although Pacifica management may have the legal right, I do not think it has the moral right to sign a potential bombshell—such as this contract is likely to be—without passing it by the membership, or at least the 5 LSBs in executive session. For once we sign, we are bound—for better or for worse.”

If the people who supposedly run Pacifica on a national level can’t take any risky, bold chances without submitting them to the organization’s five Local Station Boards, the network is doomed. I hope that, somehow, the people allegedly in charge of Pacifica can get to the other side of this project. If they can’t, it is yet another indictment of the foundation’s excessively democratic and wasteful system of governance.


Just one dollar a month makes you a patron of Radio Survivor. Help us through our Patreon Campaign!


, , , , ,

3 Responses to Can Al Jazeera save Pacifica radio?

  1. TakeBack WBAI September 10, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I thought you might be interested in hearing what the former General Manager of WBAI has to say about Steve Brown’s Al Jazeera letter. As posted on our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/takebackwbaiorg/89438391508

    – Former General Manager of WBAI ANTHONY RIDDLE dispels the myths created by STEVE BROWN’s racist email on Al-Jazeera. Here is a brief excerpt of Riddle’s statement followed by:

    1. Riddle’s complete 9/10/10 letter to the WBAI Local Station Board

    2. link to Washington Post article based on Brown’s 9/7/10 email

    3. complete… text of Steve Brown’s 9/7/10 email to the Pacifica National Board and his undisclosed list

    RIDDLE: “Perhaps the worst aspect of the letter is it clear stereotyping of not only Muslims and Arab countries, but Jewish and non-Jewish political beliefs:

    “He baits us with fear of “Sharia law” governing Pacifica. This is patently ridiculous. All contracts of this type note the court of jurisdiction. If he was afraid it didn’t, he could have written a note to Englehardt pointing out the need for this.

    “He does not seem to recognize that just some Jewish Pacifica listeners are “pro-Israel” and others are “non-Zionist” and some are both. The percentages given in the letter are drawn from thin air. Similarly, the non-Jewish listener base has a variety of strong, conflicting views on this and other subjects. No one should just assume to know these views on the basis of skin-color, religion nationality or anything else.

    1. RIDDLE’S COMPLETE LETTER:

    —- On Fri, 9/10/10, A Riddle wrote:

    From: A Riddle

    Subject: Re: [WBAI-LSB-PUBLIC] Anti-Muslim group sues Pacifica

    To: “Russell Dale”

    Date: Friday, September 10, 2010, 11:08 AM

    (Please post. Thanks, ATR)

    Russell and others on this list,

    I rarely comment on postings from members or staff of Pacifica. I still care very much about the organization, but find most of the conversation too personal and unreasoned. I hesitate, even now. However, I think that my own experience as an executive employee of Pacifica/WBAI is of value in this discussion of Steve Brown’s letter and the Washington Post article on Al-Jazeera.

    In light of my hostile removal from the GM position, no one would consider me a close friend of the current administration in Berkeley or at WBAI. I have suffered a great deal of personal and professional abuse while navigating a rough road in support of the mission. So be it.

    That having been said, Englehardt, Williams and whoever they assign are the people who have been hired to run the organization. They have the general skills to do so. They must be allowed the room and the general trust needed to negotiate with outside parties. It is impossible to negotiate from a position of strength if the background confusion and noise lead others to believe they are negotiating with executives who are short-term or have no authority to be respected within the organization. The administration has the skills to negotiate this contract and the authority to bring in any legal resources they need to help.

    I have seen that Al-Jazeera is a very professional organization, like them or not, and one that is rightly concerned with not making bad associations. No media company, whether AJE, CNN, NPR or FOX would want or expect to have their negotiations in public. No business would.

    From what I knew of the contract while working at WBAI, it was not particularly complex or unusual. There were some differences to be worked out, but it seemed the kind of relationship one might expect between any radio network and any news service.

    There are a few reasons I write now. Obviously, I am saying that the various boards in Pacifica would do well to govern rather than micro-manage. They should set goals and measures, hire, support and evaluate executive staff. That is representative democracy.

    Second, this letter by Brown and contact with the Post represents an attempt to blow up a sensitive negotiation, an attempt to control the organization by fiat. There is nothing democratic about it. It is one person completely disrespecting any form of process. I don’t remember the financial policies completely, but the proper way to address this would be a rule that any contract above a certain reasonable dollar amount or length of time would have to be cleared by the PNB. That may exist.

    Third, Brown’s letter, in tone and presentation, seems to rise above noting possible resistance among Jewish Pacifica members to practically calling for withdrawal of support. It is very threatening– not the kind of tone to be expected of a concerned member wanting to work out differences with colleagues. Concerns could have been raised behind the scenes, through proper channels.

    Perhaps the worst aspect of the letter is it clear stereotyping of not only Muslims and Arab countries, but Jewish and non-Jewish political beliefs:

    He baits us with fear of “Sharia law” governing Pacifica. This is patently ridiculous. All contracts of this type note the court of jurisdiction. If he was afraid it didn’t, he could have written a note to Englehardt pointing out the need for this.

    He does not seem to recognize that just some Jewish Pacifica listeners are “pro-Israel” and others are “non-Zionist” and some are both. The percentages given in the letter are drawn from thin air. Similarly, the non-Jewish listener base has a variety of strong, conflicting views on this and other subjects. No one should just assume to know these views on the basis of skin-color, religion nationality or anything else.

    I think it is important that if we are going to be Pacifica, we have to stay far away from the type of hateful, prejudicial rant this letter presents.

    Now, lest anyone construe this letter as being in support of bringing on Al-Jazeera, let me divulge a bit of the conversation former PD Bernard White and I had about this and which I made known to the former GM’s and former iED in 2008. We both thought that AJE would be a good source of news to counter-balance the constant pro-war propaganda in MSM. We also thought that there would be a needed publicity bounce, some positive, some negative, that might result in new listeners. We thought it might be a way to increase our news content even though we lacked funds to help the news department. We recognized that any funding the national office made out of the deal was needed.

    On the downside, it meant fewer hours available for local programs. And we independently came to the conclusion that we needed to be very concerned about the incorrect, but very real perception by some that WBAI was anti-semitic. We weren’t sure the other units were in quite the same political mix as we were. We could lose listeners and support that would need to be compensated for. So, we seemed to be the least sure about the idea in the network.

    Ultimately, though, we thought that principle said that in the midst of US wars against Arab and Muslim countries, it was probably the right thing to do, however problematic. Certainly no slam dunk.

    In summary:

    1) Make sure you have the right staff.

    2) Let the staff do their jobs.

    3) Make sure there are procedural methods for oversight of major policy and financial decisions.

    4) Follow them.

    5) Disassociate the organization from invocation of ethnic hate and cultural ignorance.

    6) You cannot know the motives of anyone at Pacifica. All you can do is stick to clear principles and conduct. They are the organization’s only salvation.

    7) Do not be stampeded by anyone.

    Anthony Riddle

    Former GM, WBAI

    2. LINK TO WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE BASED ON BROWN’S EMAIL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/08/AR2010090806818.html

    (Feel free to comment there.)

    3. STEVE BROWN’S EMAIL TO THE PACIFICA NATIONAL BOARD (posted at 8:18 PM, followed 13 minuets later, at 8:31 PM by an email blast to his undisclosed list,) Clearly, Brown had no intention of giving the Executive Director or the PNB time to respond.)

    From: Steve Brown

    Sent: Tuesday, September 07, 2010 8:31 PM

    To: News@lists.stevebrownonboard.org

    Subject: [News@SteveBrownOnBoard] FW: Al Jazeera and its “secret contract” with Pacifica

    Dear WBAI Supporter –

    I thought you might be interested in this letter just released to the Pacifica National Board.

    Regards,

    Steve Brown

    From: Stephen M Brown [mailto:sbrown13@nyc.rr.com]

    Sent: Tuesday, September 07, 2010 8:18 PM

    To: ‘Pacifica PNB’ Cc: ‘Arlene Engelhardt’; ‘LaVarn Williams’

    Subject: Al Jazeera and its “secret contract” with Pacifica

    To the members of The Pacifica National Board:

    It is no secret that Pacifica has been negotiating in secret with Al Jazeera, and may be close to signing a contract to accept its news feed as a regularly scheduled program.

    I do not object in principle to such a broadcast – it could be a great coup for Pacifica. But I do object to the secrecy and lack of member input on an issue that could have dire consequences for the foundation. Do Pacifica’s negotiators – whoever they are – have the knowledge, skill, and experience to negotiate such a contract? Who are they? What are their credentials?

    I fear that, without wider input, the proposed contract might become another fiasco such as the 2001 Democracy Now contract, whose crippling effects still hobble us. I have not seen a draft of the Al Jazeera contract, but know that any such contract will invariably include very specific (and very binding) language on what rights and privileges Al Jazeera will have vis-à-vis Pacifica.

    Which brings up this important question: Under whose rules and laws will Al Jazeera operate? Pacifica’s or Al Jazeera’s? America’s or Qatar’s? Constitutional Law or Sharia Law?

    Al Jazeera is a totally government owned and funded broadcast entity, and the government that owns and funds it is among the most repressive on earth. It claims to be independent and unbiased, but what broadcast entity can afford to bite the hand that feeds it (especially when that hand can also, literally as well as metaphorically, cut out its tongue)?

    Will disputes between Pacifica and Al Jazeera (and there will be many) be resolved in court or by binding arbitration? And if the latter, in which courts – U.S. courts or those in Qatar?

    I know that Al Jazeera can afford to pay some of the best and most highly skilled legal and PR talent in the world to sit on its side of the negotiating table. Can Pacifica say the same? Or will we be overmatched, and wake up in the morning with giant hangover and no Worcestershire sauce in sight?

    The specific rules, regulations, rights, and laws that will be embodied in this contract cannot be passed over without careful thought. At the very least they will have significant public relations consequences for Pacifica – not to mention the probability of severe negative “blowback” from the Pacifica membership.

    Not just blowback about freedom of speech, but about the restrictions on freedom of speech that are endemic in Qatar, as well as the many human rights violations that are also endemic in Qatar, and actually embodied in its legal statutes. These are not just restrictions on the media, but also restrictions that suppress the rights of women and make them chattel, as well as such mediaeval punishments as lopping off hands for minor thefts. There is also the government sponsored torture of dissidents (though considering the existence of Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, and our many off-shore “Black Sites,” we cannot, as U.S. citizens, claim the moral high ground here).

    I believe that any contract with Al Jazeera is one that must be opened up to public scrutiny before it is signed, and that a non-binding poll of the entire Pacifica membership should be taken on how it feels about such a (regularly scheduled) program – not because such a public airing is legally required (since this contract might fall into the category of proprietary information, and thus be protected) – but for our own good.

    Another question is: Will Pacifica have the right to follow any Al Jazeera newscast with commentary, rebuttal, or elaboration of its own choosing? Will other Pacifica broadcasters be allowed to comment negatively on whatever Al Jazeera says, since there is a ban on bad-mouthing other Pacifica programs on the air. This in itself is not a minor consideration.

    Most critical of all, however, is the 700-lb gorilla in the corner of the room, which no one seems to want to discuss in depth. – a.k.a. “The Jewish Question.”

    It is not even surmise, but an absolute certainty, that if we broadcast Al Jazeera – without appropriate official comment and disclaimers – or even with appropriate official comment and disclaimers — support from many and perhaps most of our Jewish listeners could vanish overnight. Even though the decision to broadcast Al Jazeera is (arguably) legally and morally correct.

    Let us be realistic. Jewish listeners comprise many of our major donors, and even among “ordinary” donors they contribute far more than their numerical representation. So we could be looking at another “Skokie incident.” (For PNB members too young to remember, this was a 1977 lawsuit in which the ACLU defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold a march through the Jewish residential village of Skokie, Illinois.)

    The action of the ACLU was legally and morally correct (and in fact the ACLU prevailed in court). But as a result, the ACLU lost 25% of its membership and nearly one-third of its budget, with 30,000 Jewish ACLU members immediately resigning in protest. I would suggest that the ACLU’s membership profile closely maps that of Pacifica, and that our members might well tend to react in a similar manner.

    What might that mean for Pacifica’s finances? Pacifica (in these sad days) has only about 75,000 members nationwide. Although there is no real way of knowing, it could be that as many as 20% may be Jewish. Moreover, it is also possible that this 20% may be responsible for up to 60% of Pacifica’s income. So if Pacifica’s income is $14 million, this group might generate as much as $8.2 million. Therefore, if even only 10% of those Jewish members walked away in a huff (instead of the 25% who deserted the ACLU), Pacifica might lose nearly $1 million a year. And what if as many as 25% or even 30% do walk away? Could we survive without having to sell off a station?

    To repeat, this is not a legal issue, nor is it a moral issue (for in an ideal world, we should be able to broadcast whatever we feel is valuable, and damn the consequences). But this is not an ideal world. I predict that, unless we protect ourselves by intelligent and knowledgeable advance notification and pre-emptive publicity, and also by a very visible counter-balance in programming, there will be not just a vocal firestorm from many of our Jewish supporters — but also a financial firestorm that will cost Pacifica millions of dollars in support

    The Al Jazeera issue could generate a lot of good publicity for Pacifica, if handled correctly. But who at Pacifica understands publicity – either its positive benefits or its potential for lasting harm? Do we again want to see our pathetically publicity-clueless foundation, for the umpteenth time, shoot itself in the foot on an important issue? Actually, shooting itself in the foot would be a best-case scenario, since given Pacifica’s long record of poor marksmanship, the bullet might well hit its brain instead (if one still exists).

    The last point I will make is also critical. Al Jazeera may be on the Homeland Security’s terrorist list (or “almost terrorist” list). Broadcasting Al Jazeera’s programs, handing it Pacifica’s airwaves and facilities, helping to make it “acceptable” in American eyes — these may well be viewed as “supporting a terrorist organization.” I do not know if you or the PNB have been looking at the slew of recent court decisions to see how far the government has stretched this provision of the Patriot Act. Broadcasting Al Jazeera in the face of Government displeasure or legal opposition might be a case well worth taking to the Supreme Court – as was the George Carlin case. But I hope you remember that the Carlin case made bad law, which now governs – and haunts – all broadcast outlets. It also exacted a terrible financial toll in legal costs on Pacifica, one which it barely weathered at the time, and which, if a similar legal battle took place today, might be a virtual death sentence.

    Although Pacifica management may have the legal right, I do not I do not think it has the moral right to sign a potential bombshell — such as this contract is likely to be — without passing it by the membership, or at least the 5 LSBs in executive session. For once we sign, we are bound – for better or for worse.

    As another

    member has said:

    “It it is a sad

    day when a station with a once-great independent news department (which now

    doesn’t even get enough funds to subscribe to Agents-France or Reuters) intends

    to farm out its news feed to a non-independent and government

    funded news organization that is owned and bankrolled by one of the most

    repressive governments on earth. I find it more than bizarre that this is the

    sort of thing the PNB thinks will help build our

    organization”

    To sum up: This is a swampy area, in which no one really can predict the outcome. But since the downside could be so much greater than the upside, more caution, precaution — and pre-emptive education and publicity — should have already been put in place, but which I see no evidence of even having been thought about, much less implemented.

    I hope that in its hubris the foundation may not again, as so often in the past, be marching into battle with a cardboard sword and papier-mâché buckler.

    Steve Brown

    Stephen M Brown

  2. Debra September 11, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Thanks for reporting the other side. I was so tired of all the propaganda and rhetoric about the Islamic Community center and the shallowness of the whole thing when the 9/11 memorial should be focusing on taking the high ground and the liberty we have in America for freedom of religion. I just wanted a breath of fresh air. So I Googled Pacifica Radio and got the New York Post. Quagmired again! Where are the sane freedom loving Americans? Thanks, at least you are one.

  3. Mohammad June 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    I have interviewed a few parents to attempt to understand
    what their true objection is with their child playing video games.

    Understanding video gaming is a must tip on how to run a game store.
    You can only acquire a small amount of in-game money or
    gold, and cannot participate in the auction house,
    send mail, join guilds, or even whisper to someone unless someone whispers
    to you first.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes