April 9, 2001

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NY Radio Station Axes Two Leftist Producers

Arun Venugopal

Deepa FernandesTwo of New York's more visible leftists, Deepa Fernandes and Biju Mathew, recorded the newest segment of their one-hour program recently and waited for thousands of listeners to tune in.

It included an interview with author Amitav Ghosh after he withdrew his nomination for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. But their weekly broadcast was never aired. It had been quietly replaced by another.

Soon Fernandes and Mathew, two of the station's producers, found themselves among the latest casualties, overnight outcastes from the station, WBAI, located at 99.5 FM in New York City, they helped define.

For years the station been an advocate of leftist causes and a stronghold of community radio.

"It's a total political purge," said Fernandes, who co-produced Behind the News with Mathew. "It's absolutely clear when you look at it."

The first purge began a few months ago and was named as the Christmas Coup -- a swift seizure of power in December at some of the most prominent and politically controversial radio stations in the country. In a matter of days, numerous staff members were unceremoniously axed, by-laws were rewritten, and programming was dramatically altered.

One such station is the publicly-funded Pacifica radio network that hosts WBAI.

Whether the network's new management will stand up to a growing listener backlash remains to be seen. Activist and Hollywood actor Danny Glover has entered the controversy, backing the sacked broadcasters. And the issue has entered the US Congress.

Fernandes and Mathew both possess considerable experience in dealing with progressive issues.

Originally a news reporter in Australia, Fernandes has produced radio documentaries around the world on such subjects as the indigenous communities of Ecuador and the Zapatista refugees of Chiapas, Mexico.

Mathew, a native of Hyderabad, is a member of FOIL, the Forum of Indian Leftists. While he earns a living as an associate professor of computer programming, he spends a substantial amount of his time as an organizer at the Taxi Workers Alliance.

Neither Fernandes nor Mathew were part of the first-round terminations at WBAI, but as they saw more of their co-workers being eliminated, they feared for what the station was becoming. In the outspoken tradition of WBAI producers, Fernandes decided to make her opposition public.

"I did say things on air," admitted the 26-year-old, but she tried to keep it decent. "I didn't mention names --nothing like that."

Nonetheless, she realized her actions would have consequences. "I knew I was walking a fine line," she said.

She tried to speak with the interim General Manager, Utrice Leid, but was hung up on. Finally, she composed a letter to Leid.

"For a station that is currently trying to validate its new management and prove its professionalism, this act of pulling a regular show is utterly unprofessional," she wrote.

"Without anyone in management at WBAI talking to me, I can only assume that the pulling of a regular show must be for content reasons. Is this really the image you want the new BAI to have?"

However, neither Fernandes nor Mathew ever received an explanation for their dismissal.

The first mention that Fernandes saw of the situation was in Newsday , where Utrice Leid was quoted as saying Fernandes possessed production skills that "fell beneath the standard," a claim that Fernandes strongly objects to.

"Even the other side wouldn't agree with that," she said, referring to other administrators at the station.

What Fernandes and others who have aligned against Pacifica claim is that the network is diluting its radical stance in order to appeal to corporate interests. The fact that WBAI sits in the middle of the dial in the country's largest market makes the station all the more attractive.

"It's like prime real estate," said Fernandes of the station's monetary potential. "It's like the Upper East Side right on Central Park."

Mathew contends that the network has two immediate objectives, one of which is the removal of producer Amy Goodman. Her show Democracy Now! has received enormous publicity for bringing controversial issues into the spotlight.

One story she consistently championed is that of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and prize-winning journalist who now sits on death row, having been found guilty of killing a police officer.

She also promoted the liberation of East Timor from Indonesia, and openly questioned the involvement of oil companies and other American corporations in its ongoing oppression. Her stories have made her a celebrity in media circles while earning the wrath of mainstream politicians.

"She has symbolically and otherwise become the most important leftie-progressive producer in the country," said Mathew.

He and others feel that Pacifica is trying to make its stations less controversial.

"The plan is to convert Pacifica into Democratic Party NPR (National Public Radio)," he said. "It should seem like a liberal voice, but within certain restrictions. It won't go out on a limb and say embarrassing things about US foreign policy."

In recent weeks, a number of protests have been organized around the country by listeners and former employees of Pacifica. Joining the chorus have been actor Danny Glover and US Representative Dan Owens (D-NY). The congressman had called in to complain about the changes at WBAI when Leid entered the studio, shut off the microphones and canceled the program, after which she fired the producer, Ken Nash. Congressman Owens later related the incident on the floor of Congress.

Although Fernandes frets over the changes that have occurred, she thinks that in the long run, the protests will be too loud for the network to ignore.

"What they don't realize is we have the people power," she said. "We have the community."

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