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Thread: Can WPFW modernize while remaining D.C.'s "jazz and justice" station?

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    Can WPFW modernize while remaining D.C.'s "jazz and justice" station?

    A story about the upheavals at WPFW for or those in the DC area. A long running ( 20+ years) Haitian music and informational program was sacked and Von Martin's (expert on calypso history)
    Caribbeana program was cut to just 2 hours on Saturdays. A Brasillian program was sacked, as were numerous talk shows.

    The Airing of Grievances
    Can WPFW modernize while remaining D.C.'s "jazz and justice" station?

    By Jonathan L. Fischer • December 14, 2012


    General Manager John Hughes defends his programming changes on the air at WPFW.
    Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

    It was light out, but the Nightwolf was howling.

    “Who the hell wants Cornel West on this station?” demanded Jay Winter, standing outside the Adams Morgan building where he hosts the self-described “most dangerous show on radio.” He had found out that week that his 7 p.m. Friday program about native peoples, The Nightwolf Show, would move soon to the much less dangerous hour of 1 p.m.

    “It’s a setup for The Nightwolf Show to fail,” Winter said that afternoon of Friday, Nov. 30, citing his online listenership west of the Mississippi. “I’m pissed. Native America is pissed. The human family is pissed.”

    Throughout the week after Thanksgiving, Winter and other programmers at WPFW, the District’s progressive talk and jazz station at 89.3 FM, learned their shows had been changed, rescheduled, or canceled with little notice. Tom Porter, the host of Jazz and Justice, got the call a night before his final Monday-afternoon program. Brother Ah, a jazz host and former compatriot of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, found out the day of his last show. Jo Reed heard her literary show On the Margin was gone after her final broadcast. Pedigreed programs like We Ourselves, Sophie’s Parlor, and others were either axed outright or canceled because their hosts couldn’t switch to a new time. The reshuffled programming grid, the volunteer hosts slowly learned, would largely separate nighttime music shows during the week from daytime talk programming—much of it syndicated from other stations around the country. Suddenly, D.C.’s community station would feature new shows from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York—and most heretically, in the eyes of some stakeholders, from mainstream organizations like National Public Radio and Public Radio International and personalities like West, Tavis Smiley, and Michel Martin.

    Official word of the overhauled schedule came on Wednesday, Nov. 28, when Interim Programming Director Bobby Hill gave an overview of the changes on WPFW’s Facebook page. The next day, the station’s call-in shows were flooded with upset listeners, many of whom threatened to stop giving to WPFW, which is almost entirely funded by donations. “I think we need to boycott,” said one person who called into Community Comment the next morning. “They’re not the people’s station,” said another. Hosts of all stripes discussed the controversy on their shows.

    For much of the hybrid-format station’s 35-year existence, its pugnacious programmer corps has grumbled about WPFW’s management and its overlord, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacifica Foundation. On Nov. 30, a few hours after General Manager John Hughes used a previously scheduled appearance on the air to defend the changes—he also apologized for the impolitic rollout—that discontent spilled into the streets, with about a dozen programmers and listeners gathering outside to find out what, exactly, was happening to their station.

    “No one person, be it John [Hughes], should be able to damage something that’s this important to the community,” said Porter. “He should not.”

    The situation became heated when Tony Norman, a lawyer and the chair of the listener-elected Local Station Board, faced questions about whether the board had somehow protected Hughes. “John Hughes has caused us to be on the brink of disaster,” said Katea Stitt, one of WPFW’s 12 paid staffers as well as a volunteer programmer. “You need to roll [the programing changes] back quick, fast, and in a hurry...say ‘Look, no one was consulted,’ say ‘This was done in secrecy, was nontransparent, and we want this to stop right now. Cease and desist right now.’”

    A moment later, as the crowd quieted down, one man who identified himself as a listener suggested the contretemps “has all the markings of an agent provocateur to destabilize the station. It’s like CIA handbook, to neutralize the station. I don’t see any intelligent reasons behind why these decisions are being made.” A few heads nodded in agreement.

    It may have sounded crazy and desperate—but to many of the programmers of WPFW, so was the state in which they now found the station.

    Still, in WPFW board meetings, town-hall gatherings, and discussions with programmers and management, you won’t find many people who believe the station should preserve the status quo. Its listenership is aging and dwindling, its ledger red, and its lease is about to expire. While a lot of programming is worthwhile, even essential—and just about all of it unique in an increasingly homogenous radio landscape—some of it falls somewhere between charmingly scrappy and borderline-unprofessional.


    Longtime programmer Tom Porter speaks against the new schedule.
    Everyone agrees that WPFW—’PFW to its most loyal listeners—has to change. The dispute that has inflamed purists is over how it should change, and how gently, and when. (Not four days before a fundraising drive, certainly, which is when the new programming grid was to go into effect.)

    For now, Hughes’ plans remain half-realized. On Dec. 3, the day that WPFW’s new schedule premiered and some new programs aired for the first time, Hill resigned, citing the pain caused by the changes he helped implement. (“We had a very good relationship and very good conversations about radio,” Hill says of his former boss. “But in the final analysis our visions about radio are different. Just a little bit, but enough.”) The next day, Hughes told staff that the programs WPFW planned to buy from NPR and PRI—Tell Me More, The Tavis Smiley Show, Smiley and West, and the news program The Takeaway—were back on the shelf until a new programming director was in place. Those additions won’t be implemented, listeners learned later in the week, until the station has moved. Some programmers who had been cut loose, like Ah and Caribbeana’s Von Martin—a WPFW linchpin since the beginning—were returned to the air.

    To Hughes, who’s led the nonprofit WPFW for nearly two years, the solution is running a station of musical obsessives and anti-establishmentarians more like a business—which means, in his telling, crafting a less jarring programming schedule that he hopes will bring a bigger audience and fill the station’s coffers with more donations.

    To the dissenting programmers, the schedule changes represent a betrayal of the station’s mission as a progressive, even radical, alternative to mainstream radio and a preserver of jazz, one which particularly serves the D.C. area’s black residents.

    Now, a faction of supporters is petitioning Pacifica to fire Hughes, who must implement his changes, move the station, win back the confidence of his volunteer and paid staffs, and convince listeners that WPFW deserves their money, even though no one’s sure what the station’s schedule will look like in a few weeks.

    Hughes thinks he knows the way to WPFW’s future. But is there room in his vision for ’PFW, too?

    In the beginning, there was Von Martin. The Caribbeana host’s Trinidadian baritone was the first voice heard on WPFW, spoken into a live mic during an equipment check in 1976. The station officially went on the air in February 1977—not with the traditional “Star-Spangled Banner,” but with Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train.”


    Founded in 1946 by the pacifist journalist Lewis Hill and envisioned as a network of stations free of corporate or government influence, the Pacifica Foundation had begun seeking a D.C. outpost in the late 1960s, on D.C.’s last remaining noncommercial FM frequency. Once it finally launched, the largely black-oriented WPFW and its frequently Afrocentric take on public affairs stood out from the mostly white Pacifica leadership and its news-and-talk stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and New York City. So did its half-focus on music: When it launched, WPFW played more than 100 hours of music each week, including international programs like Martin’s Caribbeana.

    "Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor." — Frantz Fanon

    “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Frederick Douglass

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    Music served a conscious-raising purpose. Talk shows were followed by jazz; many programs had hybrid formats. “The talk never stops and the music never ends” was how some programmers put it, according to Porter, an early host at the station. Some of the music was headier and harder than the handful of other local jazz stations. Jazz was politics; politics was jazz. When Elvis Presley died a few months after WPFW went on the air, the station didn’t air a tribute, “the explanation going that Elvis was a racist who stole his music from black people,” the Washington Post reported at the time.

    The station’s left-wing mission—which includes a mandate for “programming which reflects progressive social change and democracy”—meant pushing the boundaries of D.C.’s normally staid airwaves. There were the commentaries of Communist activist Dorothy Healey; the feminist and lesbian program Sophie’s Parlor; analysis from pro-ayatollah Iranian-Americans during the 1979 hostage crisis. In 1980, an anti-proliferation program included a War of the Worlds-style simulated nuclear attack—one which some listeners believed was real, according to a 1981 Post article.

    For the station’s audience, some of WPFW’s personalities became legendary: There was Martin, whose Caribbean program—a hybrid of news and music—led the way for a diverse lineup of Haitian, Jamaican, Afrobeat, and Latin shows. Later, there was soul programmer Bobby Bennett, a survivor of the old WOL-AM. There was Jerry Washington—“The ’Bama”—who punctuated his blues show with rakish, politically incorrect tales of love, loss, and how he got by. And there were expert mainstays like Willard Jenkins, Tom Cole, the Zydeco Cowboy, Larry Appelbaum, and Da Gator who remain on the air. Amy Goodman, who now hosts the progressive news program Democracy Now!—the Pacifica network’s flagship show—got her start at WPFW. In the early days, “it was a cauldron,” says WPFW’s news director, Askia Muhammad, who’s had several stints on staff and was an early programmer. “A lot of creative people, a lot of ideas, a lot of churning.”

    The weekly cumulative listenership climbed into the low six figures in the early 1980s. But even then, because fundraising covered only a fraction of the costs and Pacifica’s bylaws wouldn’t let stations accept any kind of corporate underwriting, the foundation footed some of the bill for years.

    Tension between Pacifica and the station—existent, some staffers say, since the beginning—peaked in 1993, when Porter, then the interim general manager, was passed over by a WPFW committee to keep the job permanently. When Pacifica’s national board confirmed the local board’s selection—Phil Watson, a long-time black media activist who’d had an early hand in WPFW’s founding—Porter denounced the move on his Morning Conversations show, resigning on air. “The top of this organization at this time has no interest for freedom and democracy and equality of people of color,” Porter, then also the station’s programming director, declared at the time. “The presence of people of color does not necessarily mean the presence of the proper ideological or philosophical perspective.” Porter’s confederates took to the air, opening up the phone lines to supporters. Worried that the anti-Pacifica invective could turn obscene or libelous, Watson had engineer Bob Daughtry instruct techs at WPFW’s transmitter at American University to pull the plug. For three days, WPFW was off the air.


    Local Station Board Chairman Tony Norman listens to complaints from listeners and programmers outside the studio.
    When it returned, small groups of listeners and programmers picketed for several weeks. Watson didn’t last long as general manager; few at WPFW have. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, the station’s weekly cumulative numbers began to reach past 200,000.

    No showdown at WPFW had been as dramatic as the events of 1993, nor has any since. Still, tensions between programmers and management and between the station and Pacifica are “par for the course,” says Muhammad. “It’s a seasonal thing that happens with us.”

    Plenty has changed at WPFW, though. Last decade, it began broadcasting some hip-hop with the Decipher programs. It now has a 24-member listener-elected oversight board—all Pacifica stations have since the early 2000s—that is as unruly as just about any experiment in microdemocracy. A 2008 programming update, the first since 1994, added slightly more jazz as the format slowly disappeared from other stations on D.C.’s airwaves. WPFW no longer has the reputation as “Radio Farrakhan” that it gained in the late 1980s; the speeches by the Nation of Islam leader and by radical black-nationalist thinkers like Frances Cress Welsing that sometimes appeared on the defunct program Freedom of Speech are gone.

    The roots of the current face-off between management and programmers go back several years—to a decline in listenership and giving that preceded Hughes’ tenure, and to a conflict between Pacifica and Daughtry that did, as well. In 2002, while acting as general manager at Pacifica’s WBAI in New York, Daughtry was axed during a foundation board meeting broadcast on all five stations; he sued Pacifica and settled. He eventually returned to WPFW, where he’d been a programmer and a staffer beginning in the 1980s, and eventually became interim programming director. In 2010, Pacifica unsuccessfully attempted to force Daughtry out, burning through two WPFW general managers in the process.

    Hughes, who had been chief operating officer of Howard University’s TV station WHUT, came on in 2011. The staff that are members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists had seen their pay cut by 50 percent; eventually Hughes restored them to three-quarters pay.

    The discontent returned last fall with a song. Daughtry was filling in on a Saturday for soul DJ Andrea Bray, and played “Marvin You’re the Man” by the jazzy hip-hop act Digable Planets, which contains the word “shit,” an obscenity that could have lead to an FCC fine. As the staffer responsible for enforcing programming standards, Daughtry reported his own infraction. Hughes allegedly suspended him indefinitely, instead of the customary two weeks; he then transferred Daughtry to another position, Daughtry says, and eliminated that job soon after. Pacifica’s then-executive director declined to comment on Daughtry’s elimination at the time; last week, so did Hughes.

    The programmers weren’t quiet. About two-thirds of them signed a letter declaring no confidence in Hughes, demanding that he meet with programmers, provide a plan for the station’s imminent move, and reinstate Daughtry. In a press release, the year-old Programmers Association declared itself “on the threshold of an ‘Occupy’ type revolt...” The board voted to pursue mediation between the parties—talks that ended without resolution, and with Daughtry still out.

    The occupation never came.

    John Hughes loves the word “ethos.” You notice, because when he says it—and he’s saying it a lot these days—it doesn’t rhyme with dose, but moss.

    Ee-thoss.

    Hughes, who is 61, has insisted in interviews and on the air that his proposed changes aren’t just in keeping with the station’s progressive, alternative ethos; they’re about rescuing it. He says WPFW pulls in a weekly cumulative audience of about 140,000 to 150,000 listeners, a drop from its peak in the 2000s. WPFW has seen a corresponding drop in fundraising, Hughes says, leading to several years of off–and–on six-figure deficits on its operating budget of $1.6 to $1.8 million. Listener contributions typically make up about 90 percent of WPFW’s budget, with the rest coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and occasional grants. But only around 6 to 7 percent of its listeners donate each year, while nationwide in 2007 17 percent of public radio listeners gave to stations, according to an Arbitron report.


    Arbitron figures routinely rank WPFW in the high 20s among local radio stations. The December numbers placed WPFW one slot behind the Arlington-based religious station WAVA-FM and tied with African-American talk station WOL-AM at No. 30.

    In fiscal year 2012 WPFW raised about $1.4 million through foundation grants, major gifts, events, and five pledge drives (in addition to funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), according to its development director, Tiffany Jordan—not enough. Hughes argues that listeners vote with their dollars: If they liked the programming more, they’d give more. “It’s the thigh bone connected to the hip bone,” Hughes says. His detractors say listenership and fundraising would be higher with better marketing and that there are too many pledge drives, leading to donor fatigue; they criticize Hughes for not seeking other revenue streams.

    This one’s my complaint: You can’t remain a station serving “underserved communities,” as WPFW professes to do, if your programming mostly reflects the whims of your more monied listeners.

    Looking at Arbitron figures and the station’s pledge-drive data, Hughes says he determined a need to rethink WPFW’s schedule with the drive-time hours of 5 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. in mind. For the most part, that meant excising music from rush hour and the workday. “What it doesn’t do is create a flow, a symmetry,” Hughes says of the old schedule, which frequently jumped between public affairs and music. “We’re not traveling audience from one program to the next.”


    see link above for the rest or article.
    "Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor." — Frantz Fanon

    “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Frederick Douglass

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