The Slow Death of WPFW

Inside: This isn’t going to be what you think; Mixed feelings; Gentrication; The Slavery Station; Time for change;  Passing of the old guard

ETA March 2014

I’m happy to say that WPFW is not dead. It has undergone a lot of changes since I originally wrote this. Some of the shenanigans in between then and now were … awkward.

I guess the in-feuding is done for now, though. Probably not, but the near zero tolerance policy has definitely managed to keep things off the air and out of public earshot, for the most part.

Dr. Ball is gone, but that was just a matter of time. Stewart is gone, which is kind of a shame. The gag rule for staff to not discuss any internal matters on air is understandable and yet — it was sad to see outspoken, passionate people being silenced.

There’s new programming and new formats. They’re trying over there. They really are. Trying to expand their audience while still catering to the legacy audience. In my opinion, it’s still in the process of being gentrified, for better or for worse, but the station has to evolve to survive.

When your volunteer and paid talent is made up of revolutionary and radical thinkers, each with their own ideology, what can you expect but turmoil? It comes with the territory.

My issue, though, is with communication. A lot of the drama of the best year or so could have been avoided with open communication. I’m not saying changes would have been welcomed and transitions smooth, but a little respect goes a long way.

Even now I’ve been trying to follow the shows I like and it’s only by sheer luck that I’ve found them on the archive page. I hope I’m wrong about this but there seems to be zero communication to inform the listeners about the changes that are going on. The program schedule on the site is out of date. The archives are being updated, slowly but surely.

Two-hour drive time shows with Garland Nixon and the What’s at Stake team. AM Alternative? The emPower Hour on Friday mornings.

To WPFW management I respectfully would appreciate the effective use of social media resources to their fullest — Twitter, Facebook, blogs, website, etc.

This may be harsh, it seems that only your staff is about serving the community. I don’t get that sense from the management side of things. Then again, I don’t follow all of the procedural and board meetings.

Here’s my original, somewhat cynical post:

Are any of you familiar with WPFW?


Probably not.  It’s Washington DC’s Pacifica station.  Part of a small network, 5 or 6, of progressive sometimes radical radio stations.  It’s publicly or listener supported with a very small amount of subsidy.  No commercials.

Every once in a while there’s a shake up at one of the stations and that station’s personalities go into crisis and radical mode big time.

WPFW’s format is a mix of things.  Their tagline is “Justice and Jazz”.  Talk shows regarding current events, health, mental health, women’s issues, one LGBT show, jazz, and a variety of ethnic and regional music on the weekends.  They also air Democracy Now, Palestine Today on a few shows, and something else that I’m forgetting.

Shake Up

Their interim manager made drastic changes the other week.  Apparently, the station staff and volunteers (a lot of the people who work there are unpaid volunteers) were as surprised as the listeners.

Aside from getting rid of a lot of shows and restructuring the program grid, the decision was made to air national public radio shows like Smiley and West, Michelle Martin’s show and a few others I’m forgetting.

I’ve listened on and off.  I like talk shows with interesting conversation but I don’t like call-ins.  I usually listen to the half of a talk or news show before the call-ins start.  Then I bow out.  I do most of my listening online via streaming or downloading on a smartphone.  I listen to a lot of podcasts but WPFW doesn’t podcast its shows for some reason.  There’s overhead involved there.

Aging Audience

But that’s part of the issue.  The average age of WPFW listeners is in the mid-60s.  The audience is primarily African American.  That means that their average listener isn’t far from dying, statistically speaking.  Literally, the audience is graying and dying off.  A few of their long term show hosts died in the past few years.  All in their 60’s.  It’s sad.

The hosts generally have pride in the fact that it’s a black station.  It’s one of the very few stations that is a public outlet for black radicals: Communists, Socialists, Pan Africanists, etc.

I have mixed feelings about all of this.


First, let me say this.  The station is being gentrified just like Washington, DC.  The managers are trying to adapt to attract a younger audience, to draw an audience and to fit a demographic that will work over the long term.  More like PBS.

In order to do that, they’re abandoning what I call the Angry Black Wo/Man radio format.  They’re trying to tone down that radicalism.

As can be expected from people who claim radicalism and espouse revolution, the listeners and staff reacted strongly and defiantly.

Jared Ball, who is normally reasonable and radical, did a deeply scathing satirical awards show that was — strange.  I guess Mark Bolden’s thing is calling himself “Dr. Hate”?

“I come in the spirit of Hate.  Hate for all things anti-African and love for all things African.” (paraphrased)

As expected, they ran with that.

Reactionary radicals do this.  Right?  It’s part of their drive.

“You tell me that I’m too radical or need to tone things down?  Heh.  Well, watch this.”

Tom Porter is, in my opinion, a brilliant trove of jazz — or they don’t like the term jazz now and want to call it Black American Music — and a respected rhetorical pugilist.  He will and does attack anything with gleeful abandon.

He complains about white gentrifiers regularly.  Or he did.  His Jazz and Justice show was canceled.  He will speak his mind about anything, but everything from his point of view was ultimately about racism.  Everything.


Listeners and staff are calling for the previous schedule to be reinstated.  In others words, no change.  Granted, dropping a bomb on all of the staff there like that was kind of a d-move.  I assume the goal was to avoid endless discussion and voting and in-fighting.

Better to just make the change and let people vent after the fact.  Some concessions have been made, though.  They’re not evening playing the NPR-ish stuff that they claimed, which is odd.  They gutted the programming but haven’t actually paid for those big name national shows.  Strange.

But the fact remains that WPFW is dying, financially and audience-wise.

Maybe it should.  It caters to black anger as you’d expect from senior citizen black activists.

You check out any pledge drive and they’re playing speeches about the brutal oppression of blacks in and around and before the Civil Rights movement.  And slavery.  Everything about slavery.

Good grief.  In fact, if you listened to the pledge drives throughout 2012 you’d hear the same material every time.  And slavery.

Where I can’t relate

The caustic jokes about black men and white women — with the implication from some that it’s a form of traitorism (they didn’t say that but that’s generally in the air) — aren’t relevant.  I mean, to a younger population who aren’t seething with racial bitterness and anger.

(Don’t get me wrong here.  A lot of the older population came by that bitterness and anger the honest way.  They were first-hand and second-hand receivers and witnesses of the brutal oppression and dismissal of themselves and their communities.  Make no mistake.)

But the point of being a black radical is that we should be bitter and angry and engaged in The Struggle.  That’s what they want to inculcate into black people’s minds.

You might tune in to hear someone say that nothing has changed since 1955.

You will hear anti-Jewish tirades, more from callers.  Also a lot of homophobia that gets push-back from hosts but just enough.

Or that Pres. Obama is evil because he hasn’t done anything for black people and carries out American Imperialism.

You might hear that prisons are concentration camps or that all black prisoners are political prisoners and that prisons themselves should be abolished.

You might hear that black people killing black people is white people’s fault (The System) and therefore black people aren’t responsible for what they do.  In so many words.

To sum up all that I’ve heard would go something like this:

“It’s all about race.  Racism.”

That message is outdated, though.  I’m NOT saying that there isn’t racism.  I’m NOT saying that because Obama was elected twice that it signals the end of anything.

I’m saying that it’s not 195x or 196x.  It’s 2012, soon to be 2013.  A lot of the same issues are still intact.  A lot of black people experience any societal problems most intensely — economic, health, education, etc.

We are dying at our own hands and our own choices mostly.  Our culture is troubled, to say the least.  So is the country’s culture judging from regular massacres.  We’re a microcosm of the macro.  Any problem in the black community is just the manifestation of society as a whole and will eventually be evidenced in broader society, which is when the country will begin to consider it an issue.

I think we are at extreme risk of becoming economically and politically irrelevant.  It’s amazing to me how isolated communities can be even in the midst of incredible diversity.

I don’t think that being the Slavery Station is going to address those issues.  Or the “Our Problem is That You’re Racist” Station either.

I don’t think you’re going to attract a younger audience with the hour long, deliberately paced talk show format.  You’re not going to attract a younger audience with traditional jazz, unfortunately, or nostalgic music from the 60s and 70s.

You aren’t going to attract and engage a younger audience through political anger and reviving 1960’s and 1970’s black radical figures and approaches.

I’ve learned a lot listening to WPFW.  I hear some good music.  I’m not interested in vitriol, though.  I’m not interested in listening to “See, it’s all about race.”

I’m not interested in listening to a station where any black person who had a different point of view is called an Uncle Tom or a traitor or evil.

Hate is right out.  I don’t want or need to be angrier.  I don’t want to play semantic word games either.

For better and worse

So I don’t know.  The station needed and still needs a change.  It’s sad that some long-time voices have been silenced.  WPFW has a unique perspective and that perspective is being somewhat white-washed.  No question.

It also doesn’t help that the quality, the production value, of the station is poor.  For whatever reasons.  Radio hosts being late to their own shows every now and then. Technical issues.  Mics being slid across tables during round-table discussions.  Call-in interviews with horrible sound quality.  Awkward interactions and dead air.  Disorganized radio shows.

I would say that it was lacking polish, but there’s a little more to it than that.  Something a little more fundamental.  Still, they managed to be a powerful and necessary voice for a community.

I guess Pacifica decided it was time to address the financial side of things and decided it’d be worth it to bear the inevitable accusations of racism and colonialism.  Being a voice of righteous, indignant racial anger and accruing massive debt at the same time just won’t work.  And it doesn’t resonate with potential younger listeners who haven’t had the same experiential cultural indoctrination as the established and aging audience and staff.

It’s a sign of the times and a sign of change.

I don’t know how to engage a younger — in this case younger can mean 30 or 40 or 20 — audience in such a way as to encourage independent thought and eschewing materialism and vapid self-interest.

That’s all of us.

Oh well.  Good luck to the parties involved.

1 comment

Add Yours
  1. rodneymarcella

    Reblogged this on rodneymarcella and commented:
    Excellent shows and programs educating and enriching us are at the core of Jazz and Justice; we need a community and world based radio station that is inter-generational and committed to the civic, cultural, political, economic progress, and integrity of the community, the Diaspora and beyond. These are the qualities that make WPFW a vanguard radio station.
    To be sure John Hughes, I and many other listeners/supporters understand that changes and adjustments are needed at WPFW; but I maintain that the moves made by you and your associates are perceived as destructive, demoralizing, and lacking transparency.
    This supporter/listener also has no confidence in your leadership and therefore, respectfully, asks that you resign your post as General Manager of WPFW.

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