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WBAI's Problems

By Carol R. Sternhell

WBAI-FM, New York City's radical, listener-sponsored radio station, has 20,000 subscribers. In the last two months, however, it often seems as though the rest of New York's 18 million inhabitants would like to wipe it off the airwaves. Never too comfortable with the right wing, nobody was much surprised when several years ago WBAI was accused of "subversion" by the Senate equivalent of HUAC; those who knew were more likely to be flattered. But almost all of the station's latest attackers would be proud to call themselves "liberals," and would even more proudly defend freedom of speech.

They want WBAI off the air--or at the very least have asked the FCC to conduct an "investigation"--for having permitted an anti-Semitic poem to be read by a black schoolteacher. And when the same people who are supposed to be fighting suppression of various freedoms start trying to suppress yours. liberals suddenly become part of the whole bad joke.

Which is, of course, an incredible oversimplification; these people really do believe in freedom, but they're scared. "Free speech doesn't include the spewing out over the airwaves of unmitigated hate material," one spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said Tuesday. The poem was read by a black man, and at a time when suppressed feelings of bitterness between blacks and Jews were suddenly becoming vividly expressed. The incident followed a period of eight months of almost constant conflict between the United Federation of Teachers and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community. Soon afterwards the Metropolitan Museum's catalogue for its Harlem On My Mind exhibit was forced off the stands because of an allegedly anti-Semitic portion of its introduction written by a black high school student. "All this has left a very bad taste here in New York," City Council president Francis X. Smith said yesterday--"a substantial residue of ill will."

The offending poem, written by a 15-year-old black, girl, was read December 26 on the Julius Lester show, a two-hour, live program regularly scheduled on Thursday nights. On the controversial program, Leslie Campbell, a black school teacher from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district, read several poems written by his students, including the one entitled "Anti-Semitism' and dedicated to Albert Shanker.

Hey Jew boy with that yamaka on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead . . .

Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

But you know that black people were the original hebrews

When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

Little four and five-year-old boys threw had grenades

They hated the black Arabs with all their might

And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

And then you came to America the land of the free

Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

Cause you know, Jew boy, there's only one reason you made it

You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

ACCORDING to Molly McDevitt, public relations director for WBAI, there was no trouble until Jan. 15 when the UFT filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, simultaneously informing the New York Times of their action. "On Jan. 16 the storm broke," Miss McDevitt said. "Within the next few days all the people who hadn't listened to the broadcast but who read the Times Post or the Daily News were sending us hate mail and bomb threats."

The UFT action may have been political; the day before their letter to the FCC several black teachers--including Campbell--who had been suspended from their positions pending hearings were reinstated by the court. Since the charges against the teachers had been brought by members of the UFT--charging harrassment, threatening and intimidation of teachers--discontent is not unlikely. "The teachers' strike--the tactics, rhetoric, issues involved--is responsible for a lot of what has happened here since," Lester said.

Jan. 23, the Thursday following the UFT's letter, was the day of "the remarkable lampshade incident," Miss McDevitt said. One member of a discussion group on the Julius Lester show--a member of the Afro-American Teachers--said, "More power to Hitler, He didn't make enough lampshades out of them."

WBAI was picketed by about 200 members of the Jewish Defense League, the publishers of the inflammatory Jewish Press, a weekly warning of pogrom plans. The JDL demanded immediate cancellation of the Julius Lester Show, and apology from WBAI, and a written pledge that "no more time will be granted these haters." "This was a demand for censorship," Miss McDevitt said. "Of course it was rejected."

The problem WBAI faces is not with the FCC. The result of the inquiry now being conducted by the seven-member Commission headed by Rosel H. Hyde is likely to be favorable. In a similar case in 1966, station KTYM, a branch of Pacifica Radio in California, was also charged by the Anti-Defamation League with anti-Semitic broadcasting. It was the judgment of the Commission that "the public interest is best served by presenting any views that are not a clear and present danger and evil . . . free speech that we abhor and hate is as legal as that which find congenial."

"What we fear," Miss McDevitt said, "is not the FCC ruling, but a general smear campaign."

THE SITUATION is one of incipient public hysteria. With the exception of extremist groups like the JDL, WBAI's problem has been to a large degree on of misunderstanding. The most vociferous protestors are those who have never actually listened to the station, which is an open forum to all points of view. The poem was taken out of context, as an expression of the station's general policy. But once one accepts the fact that WBAI is not anti-Semitic, that the charges are ridiculous, and that the First Amendment will save the station, our discomfort still remains. The climate into which WBAI must broadcast is an uneasy one. Bad enough is the likelihood that public reaction to anti-Semitic expressions will become more and more violent--it is even worse to realize that the anti-Semitic feelings continue to exist within the black community.

The Anti-Defamation League feels that WBAI is not serving the "general public good" by broadcasting such feelings. The radio station feels that it is indeed serving the public good by articulating what must otherwise be ignored. The A-DL feels that WBAI is creating hate; WBAI knows that the hate exists. And they interpret the entire situation differently.

"I don't see any of this an anti-Semitism," Lester said. "It's rather anti-racism. Anti-Semitism in other parts of the world was used by the power structure as a rallying point. In New York the Jews are in the position of power; the blacks are the minority. It's not the same thing at all. As to the pogrom fantasy, even if the desire exists--and I am firmly convinced that it does not--the power is nonexistent."

Look again at the poem. It says a lot. The poem was written by a girl named Fia Baran, which the Jewish Press managed to turn into an acrostic for Hate Zion--by getting the name wrong. When they called WBAI with the information, Miss McDevitt told them that they were using the wrong name, and was answered, "What difference does it make?" It doesn't make much difference to either side.

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