WPFW controversy rages

As we detailed in last week’s IE post, radio station WPFW, the Pacifica Radio Network outlet serving the Washington, DC metro region at 89.3 FM and streaming live at http://www.wpfw.org, has been embroiled in a program schedule controversy the likes of which our station has never experienced. As with any all-volunteer programmer, community radio station, there are indeed times when either programming changes and alterations, or further programmer training is required. WPFW is not exempt from that equation; and to be honest there were programs and programmers on our weekly schedule that could certainly have used some refreshing or re-training. I’ve been a WPFW programmer for over 23 years and I cannot tell you how long it has been since we’ve had any sense of thorough, substantive program & programmer evaluation process, much less training towards better programming practices. Program and programmer quality control has been virtually non-existant for well over five years now. It is true that as certain programming has grown tired and stale around the edges or in a handful of cases practically useless, quite frankly for some of our most severe critics our beloved station has slipped inexorably into irrelevance as a result. That’s the plain truth.

But how are programmers supposed to improve when management offers nothing in the way of formal program/programmer evaluation, training or quality control measures? Despite these disparities, WPFW has solidly remained the DC area’s station for “Jazz & Justice”, just as our motto suggests. Along with that motto is a fierce sense of pride among its programmers as our station has been the beacon for jazz radio in the DC area for the past three decades, particularly so with the demise of the area’s other jazz outlet WDCU (the erstwhile “Jazz 90”), which was quite unceremoniously sold to CSpan Radio by its charter-holder, the DC government, in the early 90s (the majority of ‘DCU’s programmers – like Rusty Hassan pictured below, and Candy Shannon mentioned in this editorial – found convenient refuge at WPFW).

L to R: Veteran WPFW jazz programmers Willard Jenkins, Askia Muhammad, Rusty Hassan, Larry Appelbaum

The number of true jazzologists on WPFW’s airways has been impressive for many years, despite the fact that the station has been burdened by a lean bottom line which is currently bleeding red ink, and beset with either ill-equipped management or management lacking true vision; and currently both factors have slipped down to the incompetent level where it concerns current station management. Not to mention the fact that current station management’s sole response to the red ink bath is to mount yet another community-straining on-air pledge drive.

How else, other than sheer management incompetence, to explain last week’s rollout of a drastic new program schedule grid mere days before the new schedule’s Monday, December 3 launch? Last week witnessed the sorry specter of programmers arriving at the station to do their shows, only to be told upon arrival that they were either being summarily dismissed (no ‘thanks for the memories’) from their programs, or at best their shows were either being re-jiggered or shifted to a new, unfamiliar time slot. In one case, the Monday evening jazz show host Brother Ah (french horn player Robert Northern to you longtime jazz heads familiar with the horn sections that graced such classics as Thelonious Monk‘s big band sessions, Miles Davis‘ classic “Miles Ahead”, or John Coltrane‘s “Africa Brass”) was informed that his 11/26 show would be his last in that time slot, by telephone on his way to the studio! Brother Ah was also given a take-it-or-leave it new time slot of Wednesdays 10pm-midnight. Personal circumstances prohibited his taking on that new slot, so he was in effect simply out… at least for the moment.

As these changes were rolled out anecdotally to each of our programmers, community outrage began to build steadily as news leaked out; but NO ONE had yet to see the new program grid! For many years I hosted the Friday Afternoon Drivetime jazz slot, 4-6pm on Friday evenings. When we left temporarily in ’07 for New Orleans, so that Suzan Jenkins could launch the then-new Thelonious Monk Institute graduate studies program and take a visiting professorship, both at Loyola University in New Orleans (since relocated once again, this time to UCLA – a subject that might require a book to detail its own Institute peccadillos), community radio being what it is, I lost my place in the pecking order. Upon our return in fall ’08, I was soon offered a new program slot, 5-8am on Thursdays, part of the station’s Morning Jazz strip. (I digress here for a moment to mention that the M-F Morning Jazz strip also included such station stalwarts as journalist Askia Muhammad and Katea Stitt, daughter of Sonny.) The new program schedule grid totally exorcised the Morning Jazz strip, with Askia and Katea (who also happens to be the station’s Music Director) now totally out as music programmers, Friday host Lady Myrrh relegated to an overnight graveyard show shift (which I’m not even sure she accepted), and the two guys who alternated hosting on Monday mornings also booted to the overnight graveyard. When the now-former program director (finally feeling the intense heat of community scrutiny, and fearing that he would forever be linked to the current station management incompetence, he tendered his resignation on 12/3) informed me that I was out as of my last scheduled show on Thursday, November 29, he later offered me the new 7-10pm jazz show on Monday evenings.

With Katea Stitt at last summer’s loft jazz event

Community reaction to this at best clumsy, at worst outrageous and disruptive program schedule change, has been furious. Last Friday, November 30 there was a community rally outside the station, followed by weekend community meetings at the Busboys & Poets literary restaurant and Plymouth Congregational Church. The outpouring of rage moved the Local Station Board president to urge the general manager to reinstate a handful of longtime programmers who had either been given the boot or offered untenable new slots. Among the latter was Brother Ah, who was hastily installed in the new Monday 7-10pm Evening Jazz slot. Wait a minute, isn’t that the slot I’d already agreed to take on the new grid? “Yeah,” the now-former program director replied, “but John Hughes has ordered Brother Ah in that slot and you’ve been moved to Wednesdays 10-midnight in the new Night Jazz strip,” I was informed as I was out the door last Friday evening on my way to catch Danilo Perez at the Kennedy Center!

Meantime Askia Muhammad now hosts a new M-F AM news/talk/information with occasional music selections “Morning Brew” show, 6-8am. And Candy Shannon, the very capable show host who took my old Afternoon Drivetime Jazz slot on Fridays 4-6pm? She’s now relegated to once-weekly providing those occasional interlude music selections for “Morning Brew”, along with doing a weekly 5-6am jazz show. The daytime WPFW program grid is now – with the exception of the M-F noon-1pm blues strip – totally news/talk, including the questionable “health” shows hosted by Gary Null M-F 3-4pm, and such mainstream public radio programming that is available elsewhere on the dial as the over-exposed Tavis Smiley and Cornell West, John Hockenberry, NPR’s Michel Martin (shows whose institution has since been placed on hold until further notice; the suggestion from some being that Pacifica simply cannot afford to pay the necessary syndication fees associated with carrying these “national” shows), and Pacifica’s Mitch Jesserich. And that’s part of the community outrage, the critical loss of locally-flavored programming being replaced by tired syndicated porridge.

As usual, the mainstream prints only got it about half right; but here’s what the Washington Post published in the Saturday, December 1 edition:WPFW-FM will undergo radical change to a more mainstream lineup of programming

The upshot of jazz music’s current status on the WPFW airways is that the music has entirely been relegated to after-dark hours M-F, basically 7pm-6am. The highly popular jazz strip Sundays from 9am-7pm has been altered a bit, at the expense of the Latin strip, and at the total elimination of the Brazilian music show. Granted, where jazz radio is concerned, the DC area is still more blessed by the WPFW schedule than most major urban areas are where it concerns terrestrial jazz radio, I’m afraid. But the clumsy, ham-fisted manner in which this new program grid has been rolled out, not to mention the disruption in community listening patterns (the WPFW Facebook page is littered with moaning and outright outrage over the loss of certain programming, most definitely daytime jazz), and by a passive/aggressive general manager who is so thoroughly lacking in proper communication skills, has engendered goodly measures of DC community outrage. And one salient fact must never be overlooked where it concerns WPFW – our station was founded by and with a distinctly African American perspective and flavor, and that has never sat well with either Pacifica or certain forces in the broader community who would just as soon see this bastion of progressive politics cease speaking truth to power.

We’ll keep you abreast of this growing WPFW controversy, with numerous intelligent folks now calling for the general manager’s head on a figurative platter at best; but in the meantime the best place to stay current on this fluid situation is to visit the following web site: http://www.ThePeople4PFW.wordpress.com; pay a visit, voice your choice, and read what the WPFW listening community has to say about yet another way jazz broadcasting is disappearing from the terrestrial airways.

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12 Responses to WPFW controversy rages

  1. Dr.Ayaba Bey says:

    Ayaba Bey
    As the people of color are subtly and oftentimes blatantly relegated to the position of invisibility, we once again see our knowledge of self on the chopping block. It is time to let your life reflect the hopes of our ancestors…that they would not be forgotten and buried in the graveyard of irrelevancy. The Book says that the rich are rich to be of benefit to those who are not…”To whom much is given MUCH is required”. America is a CHRISTIAN country as it says it is. What the non-reading public does NOT know is that the word CHRISTIAN itself embodies the word antichrist and as Satan was created to be “The Master” deceiver, what better way to hide itself. BUT YOU who really believe that Christ is a Divine Being and is the highest example of LOVE in the BOOK, what are you standing there waiting for? If you are waiting for Christ to return before you do anything then you have slept past “THE COMING.” The BOOK states that the Creator taught that He will spit you out of his mouth if you are LUKEWARM! You cannot ride the fence and silently watch our culture and music and history be gradually flushed down the toilet with puppets of our people pressing the handle. I am a descendant of the Aboriginal African and Native American Families on this planet and thanks to greedy and evil kidnappers a few Britishers too. I have witnessed first hand the evil effects of alcohol and drugs and false hopes and dreams on my people. If you are going to use the Bible then read it. If you are going to read it then research it and if you research it then draw a line on the side for JUSTICE(MAAT) and TRUTH(TEHUTI) and let your life count for the mission of love and peace on this planet. Jazz and Blues and South American, Latin American, Cuban, West Indian, Zydeco, music and culture has a life on WPFW and the rest of the stations in this country are running a program of filth, violence, stupidity with a dash of relevancy now and then. WPFW has managed to keep us alive for over 30 years. Go online to wpfw.org and listen to it. Listen to the Archives .You can hear it all over the world. The world needs to immulate WPFW NOT the other way around.!
    Spread your LOVE! Dr. Ayaba Bey

  2. Tony Regusters says:

    As a long time WPFW listener and supporter and an award-winning TV and radio news a public affairs producer in the nation’s capital (WTTG, WUSA, NPR, CNN, Pacifica National Radio, BET), I have witnessed or personally experienced every conceivable trick in the Machivellian vein when it comes to power plays at stations, networks and conflicts between managers or battles between one department and another. What I’ve witnessed first hand at WPFW was completely readable. John Hughes is less than incompetent, he is, as I have christened him in an email posted to activists grouping to overturn his reign of terror, Pacifica’s most prized marionette. John Hughes was put in place to destroy WPFW. He has done so with all the grace, gall and glamour of a reptile. He has severed the connection the community has with the community that it has served so wonderfully for 30+ years; he has stood silent as an atom of dust in a tomb before the community speaking out in outrage, and aided by an equally traiterous Local Station Board, helmed by bylaws spouting, community blocking “leadership” managed to evade a required general manager evaluation and which emboldened him further in his terrorism by ignoring a letter of no confidence signed by 80% of WPFW’s brave programmers in news, public affairs and music, many of whom, including me, the former host and producer of the beloved “Sounds of Brazil” show with my wonderful co-host Zezeh Ilheuma, have been shutout and eliminated from the airwaves. John Hughes is a coward and a charlatan, an enemy of this community. This community must demand his immediate resignation and upon achieving that absolute need, have its long overdue confrontation with vile and deceitful forces of progressive, liberal racism at the Pacifica Foundation in Berkeley, California.

    Tony Regusters

  3. Lily Berry says:

    I looked forward to hearing music when I awake in the morning and on my drive to work. Now, I play CD’s, and am thinking about subscribing to satellite radio.
    The Morning Brew program is amateurish and totally uninteresting. I respect Askia, but he does not have what it takes to carry a five-day a week morning talk show. Sorry. I will continue to financially support WPFW.

    • Candy says:

      morning brew indeed….who came up with that concept? no rhythm, no feel to it…feel depressed and turn it off every day

  4. Helen Viksnins says:

    And also Sophie’s Parlor, the oldest continuous women’s radio program on the planet, that has been on WPFW’s airwaves since its inception!

  5. Sam says:

    let’s calm down a little so we avoid the useless name-calling, labeling, and stances of purity. WPFW has 2 overriding problems that dwarf these admittedly clumsy programming changes and lessening of jazz programming.. They are:
    1. WPFW’s audience is shrinking relative to the population growth in the region. This is not viable. It’s contact with the public is proportionately declining. It’s market share % tiny. Competition, such as satellite radio is just one new example. I’ve yet to hear an expalnation or cry of alarm on this. Rather, its more like we’ll keep doing the same, sound teh same, operat ethe same, til the last Lefty turns out the lights.
    2. The business and governing models do not work since the station is essentially often near broke, desperate for funds, and unable to try or execute long term improvements. The desperation to finance a move and find a space was disheartening. I think the problem lies in the lack of a local board, having enough know and connections, that has true corporate responsibility, to govern. I believe the station still bans ANY grants to underwrite its operation. How to answer the question: where does the buck stop, who (not what) ultimately is responsible to grow the station? A nonprofit over 40 years old serving thousands with virtually no reserve cash built up over the years — for an operation using thousands$$ in equipment and fee services? And it has its own pitching media outlet! We don’t want to become the little WAMU, but still….something else must be tried. Better to introduce changes over time than scuttle the ship.

    • Certainly, change is good – and in the case of our station WPFW – change is indeed necessary for survival. Frankly I am among those who (A) recognize that some of our programs have become tired and at best gray around the edges and (B) part of that need for change is owed to the fact that we’ve not had any measure of program evaluation or actual training for our programmers in well over 5 years; no radio station can survive in a healthy state lacking such measures. We are also plagued by an at best misguided Local Station Board which gets bogged down by procedural matters and perpetual blinders towards chronic mismanagement. My biggest issue with the recent program schedule grid changes was not the change itself, it was the extremely clumsy way it was handled and the lack of any sense of adequate programmer or community prep work.

  6. Sam again says:

    Just read the City paper article on the mess. Seemed it got quite a bit right. Surprised that Michelle Martin show TELL ME MORE of NPR will find her own audience on PFW when she’s already on WAMU.
    I think one (but not only!) contribution to the lack of healthy governance, management and revenue development is that many candidates for LSB or other ‘office’ seem to be mostly motivated by politics and/or passion over programming. Sure. some passionate clear headed people on Board should give valuable input on programming, but there seems no filter or requirement that some Board members be really skilled and effective in fundraising, financial management or long range planning. Kinda like most will want to spend it, not raise it or conserve it. Why can’t some slots be required to have depth of certain skills and contacts and WPFW recruit for those?

    It is a sad statement that a 40 year old media institution in DC has virtually zero is reserve capital or endowment to underwrite or advance dollars for critical (and foreseeable!) initiatives like the move to a new location or equipment upgrade.

    Pacifica was reported by CP to have squandered millions in past, but I believe losses or costs were mostly due to HR complaints and cases that P. settled. Not because of stealing or fatcat perks. But CP also said it has bailed out PFW a lot over years. So if PFW was magically 100% independent one day, would it be able to pay bills, stay open? Not with a weak board and member donor with modest #s.

  7. lou says:

    So, all the problems are identified now. Will someone fix them please. We don’t need to lose another good jazz station.

    –fire general manager

    –require qualifications of station board members

    –build on the strengths of longtime programmers and hosts, do not repeat what is already offered on other stations

    –more professionalism in the running of the station. This is not the first big mess at the station and it is discouraging to longtime listeners that these things keep happening.

    –better training for volunteer hosts, if they need it

  8. Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the challenges.
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