©1997 A.D. Sullivan
Shoot the Moon
The 1977 Free Radio Disaster
Winning One for Free Speech Radio
Al's in Wonderland
In Memory of Pat Rich
We don't shoot the moon,
these days, risk-taking entrepreneurs
buried with Ronald Reagan,
planting horse tracks and
bullshit on dilapidated
ranch sites, junk bond wholesale
reeking of depression,
streets slumped with slumming
yuppies put out of million dollar
condos while red-backed
street survivors wash underwear
in trickle down rainwater
and eat moldy tofu
History doesn't always repeat itself. But when then Mayor David Dinkins and his friends put the skids on political criticism from WBGO, echoes reverberated through the New York City radio airwaves.
For those who missed the event, Dinkins and his cut throat crew from Inner City Broadcasting threatened to close down WBGO if the station did not cease to criticize the mayor, showing just how "liberal" Dinkins really was when it came to a "free press".
Dinkins and his political Henchman, Percy Sutton owned a controlling interest in the Inner City Broadcasting which in turn owned WBGO.
For listeners of the so-called radical station WBAI-FM, all this raises the more frightening specter, drawing on the memory of when Dinkins and Sutton and the new media acceptable Pablo Guzman attempted to lockout WBAI staff members in 1977, resulting in the staff seizing control of the transmitter in the Empire State building.
This was recalled recently in a 20-year anniversary broadcast by Jim Freund on his Hour of the Wolf program, and many people consider the lock out to be the end of the classic era for free form radio and the loss of the station's permanent home.
Oddly enough, many people at WBAI seemed to have a short memory, and during the Dinkins administration, supported him, suggesting that you can indeed fool some of the people all the time...
For the last few years, the supposedly liberal management at WBAI acted worse than any capitalistic institution, cutting hours, harassing workers, making itself the leadership in a micro-Stalinist state on 8th Avenue, New York City. Worse was the dictates issued by the mother state, Pacifica Foundation, who treated its satellite station with the same generous militancy as the former Soviet Union for its collective states.
Management on both levels achieved the distinction of living up to the Ronald Reagan philosophy, while mouthing support for workers. Both managed to make life for the average worker an absolute hell. In 1996, Pacific took an even more significant step towards fascism when it sought to remove unpaid staff members from the roles of the union.
Now understand, stations like WBAI survive largely because many people put in many hours for no pay. The station manager, in an attempt to cut its costs, lowered the working hours of its few paid staff members, making reliance on unpaid staff even more important. This, the union claimed, was designed to destroy the union's bargaining unit, since 90 percent of its members were unpaid. Management at WBAI leaped in with more specific requests, targeting one particular individual -- not an uncommon practice for the Neo-Stalinist regime which believes wholeheartedly in the philosophy of divide and conquer.
Despite a series of record-breaking fund raisers, WBAI management demanded financial give backs from many of its paid staff, as well as the establishment of a "No Strike Clause" in the upcoming contract. This would prohibit even an informational picket line, a prohibition the station blasted in more capitalistic institutions in the past. Management, in its need to further control the station staff, wanted to make all paid staff "employees at will," giving management the power to change these positions to unpaid status at any time.
Fortunately for the unpaid and paid staff at WBAI, we still live on this side the Iron Curtain, where the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Pacifica and WBAI's management, and this becomes a landmark decision, the first time in the history of U.S. labor relations in which unpaid workers are guaranteed union representation.
It was Marathon Time again on WBAI, that series of run-on weeks when the radio went crazy, formerly gentle DJs turning into vampires on the air, sucking money from their listeners rather than blood. They cried, begged pleaded, shouted, and occasionally -- as Lenny Lopate once did -- stripped naked before their mike to meet a matching fund.
By all accounts, the station should have gone belly-up years ago like so many extinct animals of the Sixties. But for some reason, especially during the mid-Eighties Reagan era, it survived, people like me tossing it scraps of meat.
But Marathon? Even the stoutest of us cringed over the prospect--though a few crazies actually got their thrills listening to DJs prostate themselves. For those of us a little more sane, WBAI was the only voice left we could stand among the honey-covered bullshit people called FM radio. It seemed a voice of reason after years of K-rock and oldies stations. I found it one day, a few months before the invasion of Grenada, clinging to the late night voices as if they would vanish. Of course, they played on this fear during Marathon, shaking a few more pennies from our pockets.
It wasn't until much later that I recalled hearing the station as a boy, when it was the hip thing to do, when Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman broadcast news of the latest demonstration. With the seventies, I faded away and presumed the station had, too. I missed the culminating moment in 1978 when the DJs took over the transmitter in the Empire State Building and refused to give it up, or when idiotic management lost the church from which they broadcast.
Marathon was key to its survival, ranting and raving until people like me sent our cash. They stamped out reasons the way I did donuts, until it all became an endless grind of meaningless dough, the issues, personalities and horror stories piling into scrap at one end of my bench. When I had money, I sent it early; when I was broke, I felt guilty. This marathon, I felt particularly guilty, and wondered how I could help. I decided to bring the sore and weary DJs donuts.
But it was easier for Moses to divide the Red Sea than enter Manhattan from New Jersey on a Friday Morning. Working the overnight helped. But it meant skimping on time and sneaking out the back door as the boss came in the front. There was always some small detail he needed done before I punched out. I decided to not come back after my early morning deliveries -- giving me a ten minute head start and a lapse of time before the boss figured I'd been kidnapped by Syrian, Egyptian or whatever nationality the media was billing as terrorist of the week.
Amazingly enough, the deliveries went so smoothly that I was sailing through the Lincoln Tunnel two hours before the rush of budding yuppies. It wasn't until I was on the isle of Manhattan that reality hit: street signs that demanded a Rosetta stone to comprehend. Hieroglyphics would have been easier. At least then I might have guessed from the pictures if I could park or not. As it was, New York seemed to thrive on the complication, patching its annual budget gap on the ignorance of tourists from New Jersey. I understood why it had always easier just to send the station money. DJs at the station were full of parking horror stories, though most traveled in and out by train. There were a number of signs posted along the Avenues which said ``No parking between 7 a.m and ....'' These I avoided, remembering details from the DJs about the front doors not opening until 7. In the end, I compromised and settled for one that didn't threaten to tow or dismember my car until 8 a.m. After all, an hour was more than I needed. I wasn't coming to gloat over the media stars. I was simply delivering donuts to show my gratitude.
There is nothing impressive about the door to WBAI, no sense of passage into another world-- no hobbits, hobgoblins or wizards waiting with magic wands. It looked much like the other business buildings up and down 8th Avenue. Through its set of double glass doors I could see the lobby, security desk and elevators. But the doors were locked, the blue-faced clock in the deli-next door read twenty to seven.
But there was another way in that the DJs told horror stories at night. This a set of grey doors a third of the way down West 35th street and down a grey corridor into the basement of the building. Oddly enough, there were people coming and going, a parade of grumpy blue collar workers. A small food concession sat at the end of the corridor, eggs sizzling a flat grill, bags of potato chips hanging around its frame and over the heads of grumpy men slumped on the stools. It reminded me of the food places that had been exorcised from the subway platforms by narrow-minded city bureaucrats who didn't like their food.
"Which way to the elevator?" I asked the man behind the counter, his hair as greasy as his apron and hat. He pointed with his dripping egg scraper and I went to the right, around the pile of plastic trash bags to elevators straight out of a 1930s movie--looking as if they hadn't been painted or repaired since their installation. Everything everywhere sagged, battleship paint job bubbling and flaking into piles at the doors.
I pressed the button. A bell answered, but not from a great distance, and it was accompanied by a series of sharp curses and the sudden jostling of cables. The door crashed open. A man in a dirty grey uniform leered out from the cage like an agitated monkey.
"What do you want?" he growled.
"I'm trying to get up to the 19th floor," I said, shifting the bag of donuts from one hand to the other. They had grown straightly heavy with the plastic handles cutting into the palm of my hand. "Seven o'clock," he said and moved to close the door again. "But that's not what the DJs told me -- they said I could take the elevator up back here earlier."
"Those wackos don't know what they're talking about," the man said. "I come on duty at seven. They might have someone running people up and down before that, but not right this minute. So you either wait here until seven, or take the push-button elevators in front when those doors open at eight."
"Eight?" I said. "But they said...."
It became clear that information over the air waves wasn't as accurate as the radio staff made out. I supposed I looked pitiful, sagging at the shoulders. The whole night seem wasted, even though it only meant a wait of minutes.
"All right," the man said with a wave of his hand, as if the thought of me standing their the whole time waiting would disturb him. Better to get the whole thing over now and have time to relax before his shift began. "I'll take you up."
I hurried into the elevator as a bleary-eyed man dressed in jeans and an army jacket slipped in beside me. He neither smiled nor nodded, though was clearly part of the WBAI-establishment. He had the hunted look I remembered from my radical days and seemed to regard me with suspicion, as if I might have had federal affiliations. The elevator operator glared at both of us with contempt and slammed the cage door closed.
"BAI, bah!" he grumbled and sent the elevator rushing upwards in a blur of floor numbers, then stopped the cage abruptly at the 19th floor.
Outside, the hall was as big a disappointment as the basement had been, filled with another pile of plastic trash bags. I paused, scratched my head as the elevator vanished.
"You looking for the station?" the man in the denim jacket asked.
He signed. "Follow me." He seemed resigned to my arrival, as if marathon time brought all sorts of strange characters out of the woodwork. Many of us invaders, however, might have said the station itself had strange enough characters without us. At the door, a grey tiger striped cat named Puss greeted us with his own lazy contempt, jumping up onto the desk as if he owned it, then curled beneath the desk lamp.
The rest of the room was a wreck, worse in a way than my imagination could have made it, one wall covered with slots into which a variety of mail, tapes and publications had been stuffed. Some of the slots had numbers. Others had names hastily scribbled on tape. The rest of the room was a collection of newspapers, newsletters and other underground publications whose headlines condemned the capitalistic system for every crime under the sun. But the really shocking thing was the general shabbiness of the place. Repairs were obviously going on. The smell of paint wafted through the inner door suggesting some repair work deeper inside. Someone had begun to lay down a grey rug. But there were but bandaids to a wound too deep to cover over, a sense of decay that touched something deep inside me.
I guess I wanted to come and find the revolution still intact, people in army fatigues planning out the rescue of American Society. But what I felt was another piece of evidence proving America's decline. There should have been a sign above the door saying: Abandon all hope who enter here.
"The volunteer room's two doors down the hall," the man in the denim jacket said after removing a stack of letters from one of the mail slots. He jabbed the letters towards the inner door and I nodded, stepping through like a child ready to be scolded. Cables as thick as my arm were strung along the floor, an obviously temporary measure of some sort that had worked its way into a permanent condition. A group of people cluttered in front of one of the doors down the hall. They glanced up at me with the same stern eyes as the man with the denim jacket.
"You here to volunteer?" one of the women asked.
"No," I said. "I bake donuts and figured you people might like some." I held up the bag for them to see and they eyed it with the same dark suspicions I'd encountered in the elevator. Was this some kind of CIA plot to make their hair fall out? Later, I discovered they feared their listeners more than the government. Listeners apparently could be far more dangerous. Eventually, a big black man grinned at me.
"That's damned nice of you, man," he said, the suspicion vanishing from the faces of the others as someone snatched the bag from my hand.
"I'll take them," one of them said.
"No, I will," argued another. People and donuts disappeared into the room. The black man's large arm swallowed my shoulder as he grabbed things off various shelves to hand me, calendars, literature, old political pamphlets, as if he needed to pay off the donut debt and had very little of worth to offer me. It was a whirlwind experience that led me back to the hall with the black man's thanks still vibrating in my ears.
I felt foolish, as if I should have come away with more than a calendar -- I had hoped to glimpse the studio from which the magic voices emerged. Now I was facing the piles of trash and the elevator door through which I had just come. A small sign hung upon it saying: Don't ring the bell. Get someone from BAI to let you down.
I glanced back towards the station door, unwilling to go through the troubled experience again. Instead, natural inclination took over. I looked for the stairs, and found them after a quick examination of the hall. But strangely, it had a sign upon it, too, saying it was a fire exit only.
"Strange maze you have here," I heard myself say, feeling like a rat with no scent of cheese to lead the way. I glanced towards the bell again, but saw in its place the grumbling face of the elevator operator.
There had to be stairs. Even Manhattanites used them from time to time. Maybe not plummeting down 19 floors like Alice down a hole after a rabbit, but people did need to travel from one floor to another from time to time. Then, I found it, tucked in a corner at the end of a row of doors. It might have been a broom closet for all the use it seemed to get. The door stuck when I opened it, then snapped shut behind me.
An ugly feeling came over me. I tried the handle. The door was locked. A small sign was posted here as well: Doors lock automatically behind you, take care when closing. Suddenly, the rat analogy became that much more real. I grabbed the handle and gave it a useless twist. I banged on the door and shouted, then waited for a response. A curious meow whispered weakly through the crack from the other side. I had disturbed Puss and he had come to investigate. Yet he could no more reach the handle than I could through the door.
I was committed to descent and sighed and slowly made my way down, trying the handles at each floor, discovering an odd inconsistency. Not all the doors were locked. In fact, most were locked the other way, with signs posted saying: No reentry. Of course, WBAI would get it wrong and lock people out onto the stairs, not prevent people from using them.
Suspecting the worst of this world, I didn't rush out onto the first floor, but descend level before making another dreadful mistake. I wasn't New York and the language of floors. The LL on the door meant ``lower level'' not ``Lobby Level.'' Yet it was into the lobby I came as the door slammed shut behind me.
No. Not directly into the lobby, but into that space between the doors I had seen earlier, a little glass cage with early morning 8th Avenue buzzing by on one side and the quiet untouched oblivion of the lobby on the other. Both sets of glass doors were locked. Next to the door through which I had come was an decrepit elevator door. The edges had developed cobwebs. It might not have been used in years. I had descended into a time warp.
People on the sidewalk looked at me. So did people next door in the Deli which was separated by more glass. A clock's face grinned at me from over the counter. It said ten to eight.
Where had the time gone? I couldn't recall having spent nearly an hour in the building. Certainly the elevator ride up hadn't taken so long, nor the swift and pointless tour of the stations inner halls. Maybe it was the descent, the trying of doors and peeping into hallways the whole way down, like some pervert seeking a cheap thrill in the unopened skyscraper.
I imagined the reaction of the building superintendent when the man or woman came to open the doors and found me trapped like a rat between the two sets of glass doors. What exactly was I doing here? Where exactly had I come from? I took small comfort from the light that might grow in their eyes when I mentioned WBAI. One of those nuts, eh? Perhaps it was time to teach one of them a lesson, at which point he or she would call the police or the people with the straight-jacket.
Yet a worse fear struck me. What if no one came at all? What if everything said out over the airwaves was a lie, that there would never be a way out of this maze, that they really didn't care to see those of us from the other end of the radio-- letting us walk into traps like this where we would die of humiliation or starvation or worse wait out the time limit on our parking privilege so that through the glass we could see the city towing away our automobiles?
Now the people in the deli were laughing, realizing my predicament, pointing at me and doors like tourists at the animals in the Central Park Zoo. I made gestures asking how to get out. The counter person shrugged and pointed to the clock. But it wasn't good enough. The clock had already ticked on, its upward moving arms signaling deeper despair. How much did it cost to bail a car out in this city?
I went back to the stairs door through which I had just come and examined the lock. In time I could have gotten it open, a credit card (in my case a student ID from college) would have worked. But where did I go from there? Up nineteen flights to knock on another locked door? Or did I become the phantom of WBAI, haunting the skyscraper's halls forever afraid to reveal myself and my utter foolishness? And what if the Superintendent walked in while I was working the lock?
"I'm just trying to get out of here, honest, mister?" I'd say as he or she called the police.
I kicked the door a few times and let it go with that, hearing the faint echo of my blows rising up the stairs. A telephone hung from the wall beside the ancient elevator. But it was a dial type with a lock jammed into the first finger hole. I lifted the receiver. There wasn't even a dial tone.
But hanging beside the phone was an older device of communication, something that must have been installed with the elevator: a small black box with a protruding mouthpieces-- the kind of which resembled phones even older than the one beside it, phones which people cranked for the operator and shouted to be heard. There was no crank attacked to the box, but there were small black buttons. I pressed them all and shouted into the mouthpiece for help. ``Look, I don't know if anybody can hear me,'' I said. ``But I'm trapped up here in the front lobby and I'd like to get out.'' Shocking and remote as it seemed, the box spoke back, tinny squawk of surprise came from it as if from a bird. I didn't understand it. The ancient technology was beyond my translation. But I shouted again, begging to be freed.
"My car's going to be towed away!" I pleaded, someone how knowing how central such things were to everybody's lives,
forgetting that this wasn't New Jersey any more, but New York, where cars meant far less to ordinary citizens.
Then, miraculously, cables sounded from behind the elevator door and a moment later the doors parted with a creak to reveal the indignant face of the elevator operator, his face as creased as his wrinkled uniform. But he said nothing and nodded me in, then lowered the cage down another floor. It let out in a slightly different place and he had to walk me through several grey corridors before returning me to the original elevator and the lunch counter and the final passage out to the street.
"BAI," he said to the few curious faces eating breakfast as I passed. They nodded knowingly and turned away.
The first time I met Pat I was sneaking print copies of Scrap Paper Review into the mail boxes of DJs at WBAI. She was carrying a portable mixer out to the elevator in search of batteries. I asked her if she didn't have an adapter for more stable power supply. She shook her head.
"The hum," she said. "Plug something in and you get a hum."
Later, I met her at several parties held by long time WBAI supporters and friends of Lynn Samuels, by which time, she was already diagnosed, and clearly fading.
Pat arrived from Indiana in the early 1980s, just about the time I started listening to the station again, working at the magazine publisher whose office was in the same building as WBAI. She showed up frequently and seemed to connect with the station staff, well enough to serve numerous administrative positions. She served in tern as music librarian, folio editor, assistant manager and in-kind contribution director. But most people on my side of the radio knew her as the host and producer of her music program called "Get Rhythm." This program, according to the folio retrospective by Fred Herschkowitz, included music the music of New Orleans Blues and Rhythm & Blues; the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Professor Longhair, as well as rare recordings of Otis Redding, Howlin' Wolf and Larry Williams.
In 1987, Pat became a community organizer with the New York City Department of Transportation, working with school kids to make people aware of the consequences of driving while drunk on alcohol or high on drugs.
The real sad part of Pat's passing was the false hope fate seemed to hold out for her. During the mid-1980s, Pat contracted breast cancer, struggled through the outrageous process of fighting the disease, and seemed to beat it, and was just approaching the five year mark (that period doctors claim indicates a cure) she showed signs of it again.
Even though we all knew the end was coming, she remained the Pat we knew, sweet and powerful, and I hope wherever she is, she will have access to batteries, just so she can continue to avoid "the hum".
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307