over the bedside manner of WBAI Program Director Tony Bates?

by Steve Brown
May 11, 2011

It seems that Tony Bates (WBAI's interim Program Director) recently ruffled some feathers at the station. A few staff members have even complained about him in their blogs. They say that he doesn't operate by consensus. That he makes decisions without talking to them. Or asking for their advice. Or their permission. And that he isn't as nice as he could be.

Are they right? Probably.

Tony does sometimes shoot from the hip, might be a bit abrupt (not to mention hoarse) after doing 12 hours of on-air fundraising, and has quite likely stepped on a few sensitive toes. So yes, his bedside manner could be improved (and he is working on it). Those are the negatives.

On the other hand, since arriving at the station (originally on loan from sister-station KPFK), he has done a fantastic job of helping to pull the station out of the worst financial crisis in its 50-year history. An overwhelming majority of staff recognize this, and find Tony's behavior (if a bit blunt) perfectly acceptable. And they are grateful that he is here.

They also know that no program director can ever satisfy everyone, all the time. Or act like Mr. Nice Guy all of the time. Which may not be the worst thing in the world, since the test of a Program Director is not how well he is liked, but how well our listeners like the programs he puts on the air. And judging from our listener mail (and the growing success of our fund-drives), they seem to be responding enthusiastically to the new additions to our program grid, as well as to our improved air sound, and the faster delivery of fund-drive premiums.

Of course, Tony is still relatively new in his job. And he is only "interim" Program Director. Station Manager Berthold Reimers still has to decide whether to make him "permanent" or replace him with someone else. The decision is his, and we must wait and see.

But meanwhile, it might be prudent to remember that this is a very difficult time for the station. From the moment Bates and Reimers came on board, they have been operating in crisis mode. They are sometimes forced to make critical decisions with little time for reflection, often based on little more than a guess, because no hard facts or information exist. Without doubt, some of their decisions may turn out to be unwise. In which case, all we can hope for is that they be willing -- if things do not turn out as expected--to reconsider and change direction. Which they have not hesitated to do.

My feeling is that, all things considered, Tony Bates has turned out to be a very good Program Director indeed. All the more so, since he has had to work in what is a very bad time for public radio. Therefore, the grumbles of a few staff members about Tony Bates's behavioral rough edges -- which need not be ignored -- should nevertheless be considered in context. Meaning that this problem is a lot easier to correct than the far bigger problem of having a Program Director who worsened our financial situation or degraded our programming.

Think of it this way. If Noam Chomsky suddenly became president of the US ... ended our wars ... withdrew our troops from around the world ... and allotted 50 billion dollars to subsidize solar power, I would nevertheless be distressed if it was discovered that he also shop-lifted at Wal-Mart. But I would not, for that reason, call for his impeachment or fail to support him for re-election.

So let us be grateful for the PD we have. Most especially because he has had the political will to buck the longstanding feudal mentality at WBAI, which holds that airtime belongs to whoever happens to hold it--i.e., that possession is nine-tenths of the [programming] law.

We are also fortunate in having a General Manager who is not afraid to back his Program Director when faced with opposition from certain members of the Local Station Board or the Pacifica National Board. Here are just a few of the recent changes that the Program Director and Station Manager had to fight for, but were well worth the fight.

First, there is the return of Gary Null, after more than 6 years of absence (Monday through Friday from noon to 1 pm). That is no small accomplishment. For, as we well remember, not a single figure in local or national management -- even those who agreed that WBAI could benefit substantially from having Gary Null back--lifted a finger to make it happen. They had the authority to do it, but they did not have the political will to stand up to the power blocks on the Pacifica National Board, or the powerful interest groups, like Act Up!, that exerted enormous pressure against bringing Gary Null back. But Tony and Berthold did stand up to those power blocks, and did bring Gary Null back, after nearly 6 years of stonewalling by former Pacifica executive directors and WBAI general managers.

They also reached out for new--and provocative--voices, like those of radical economist Richard Wolff ("Economic Update," Saturdays from 12 noon to 1 pm) and the fiery former British Member of Parliament, George Galloway ("The Mother of All Talk Shows," Wednesdays from 9 to 10 am). They also gave award-winning investigative journalist Robert Knight a full hour in which to enlighten and startle listeners with his sharp-edged commentary on breaking news ("Five O'clock Shadow," Monday to Thursday, from 5 to 6 pm).

Perhaps most controversial of all, they began broadcasting Al Jazeera English (Monday to Friday, from 5 to 6 am). Which makes WBAI the only radio station in America that (dares) to give citizens the chance to evaluate what three-quarters of the world's population regard as their most reliable news source. You may not agree with Al Jazeera's take on the news, but at least you'll get the chance to hear it on WBAI.

In light of the above, it might be a good idea if the few (but unfortunately very loud) naysayers stopped carping about Tony's "rough edges" and instead concentrated on (gently) trying to correct them. In the meantime, Tony should be encouraged to continue experimenting--until we get a program mix that is not only politically correct, but can also attract and inform our listeners. Above all, we should appreciate the fact that, under Tony and Berthold, our creaky, leaky, near-comatose radio station has finally begun to move.

Of course, it is not yet exactly clear in which direction the station is--or should be--moving. But discussing that direction with the Program Director and Station Manager (who actually answer their phones and emails) can be a much more fruitful area on which to focus our energies than is the nit-picking about this or that alleged solecism by management.

It may well be that Tony Bates sometimes steps on toes, or is not always as gracious as he might be. But on the other hand, if one has been given a brand new Ferrari, isn't it ungrateful to complain that it doesn't also have chrome hub caps?

STEPHEN M BROWN is a member of the Local Station Board at WBAI, the New York sister station of the Pacifica network.

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Also by Steve Brown:
Scenarios of bankruptcy & sale of Pacifica stations

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