The Airing of Grievances Can WPFW modernize while remaining D.C.'s "jazz and justice" station?

General Manager John Hughes defends his programming changes on the air at WPFW.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

It was light out, but the Nightwolf was howling.

“Who the hell wants Cornel West on this station?” demanded Jay Winter, standing outside the Adams Morgan building where he hosts the self-described “most dangerous show on radio.” He had found out that week that his 7 p.m. Friday program about native peoples, The Nightwolf Show, would move soon to the much less dangerous hour of 1 p.m.

“It’s a setup for The Nightwolf Show to fail,” Winter said that afternoon of Friday, Nov. 30, citing his online listenership west of the Mississippi. “I’m pissed. Native America is pissed. The human family is pissed.”

Throughout the week after Thanksgiving, Winter and other programmers at WPFW, the District’s progressive talk and jazz station at 89.3 FM, learned their shows had been changed, rescheduled, or canceled with little notice. Tom Porter, the host of Jazz and Justice, got the call a night before his final Monday-afternoon program. Brother Ah, a jazz host and former compatriot of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, found out the day of his last show. Jo Reed heard her literary show On the Margin was gone after her final broadcast. Pedigreed programs like We Ourselves, Sophie’s Parlor, and others were either axed outright or canceled because their hosts couldn’t switch to a new time. The reshuffled programming grid, the volunteer hosts slowly learned, would largely separate nighttime music shows during the week from daytime talk programming—much of it syndicated from other stations around the country. Suddenly, D.C.’s community station would feature new shows from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York—and most heretically, in the eyes of some stakeholders, from mainstream organizations like National Public Radio and Public Radio International and personalities like West, Tavis Smiley, and Michel Martin.

Official word of the overhauled schedule came on Wednesday, Nov. 28, when Interim Programming Director Bobby Hill gave an overview of the changes on WPFW’s Facebook page. The next day, the station’s call-in shows were flooded with upset listeners, many of whom threatened to stop giving to WPFW, which is almost entirely funded by donations. “I think we need to boycott,” said one person who called into Community Comment the next morning. “They’re not the people’s station,” said another. Hosts of all stripes discussed the controversy on their shows.

advertisement

For much of the hybrid-format station’s 35-year existence, its pugnacious programmer corps has grumbled about WPFW’s management and its overlord, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacifica Foundation. On Nov. 30, a few hours after General Manager John Hughes used a previously scheduled appearance on the air to defend the changes—he also apologized for the impolitic rollout—that discontent spilled into the streets, with about a dozen programmers and listeners gathering outside to find out what, exactly, was happening to their station.

“No one person, be it John [Hughes], should be able to damage something that’s this important to the community,” said Porter. “He should not.”

The situation became heated when Tony Norman, a lawyer and the chair of the listener-elected Local Station Board, faced questions about whether the board had somehow protected Hughes. “John Hughes has caused us to be on the brink of disaster,” said Katea Stitt, one of WPFW’s 12 paid staffers as well as a volunteer programmer. “You need to roll [the programing changes] back quick, fast, and in a hurry...say ‘Look, no one was consulted,’ say ‘This was done in secrecy, was nontransparent, and we want this to stop right now. Cease and desist right now.’”

A moment later, as the crowd quieted down, one man who identified himself as a listener suggested the contretemps “has all the markings of an agent provocateur to destabilize the station. It’s like CIA handbook, to neutralize the station. I don’t see any intelligent reasons behind why these decisions are being made.” A few heads nodded in agreement.

It may have sounded crazy and desperate—but to many of the programmers of WPFW, so was the state in which they now found the station.

Still, in WPFW board meetings, town-hall gatherings, and discussions with programmers and management, you won’t find many people who believe the station should preserve the status quo. Its listenership is aging and dwindling, its ledger red, and its lease is about to expire. While a lot of programming is worthwhile, even essential—and just about all of it unique in an increasingly homogenous radio landscape—some of it falls somewhere between charmingly scrappy and borderline-unprofessional.

Longtime programmer Tom Porter speaks against the new schedule.

Everyone agrees that WPFW—’PFW to its most loyal listeners—has to change. The dispute that has inflamed purists is over how it should change, and how gently, and when. (Not four days before a fundraising drive, certainly, which is when the new programming grid was to go into effect.)

For now, Hughes’ plans remain half-realized. On Dec. 3, the day that WPFW’s new schedule premiered and some new programs aired for the first time, Hill resigned, citing the pain caused by the changes he helped implement. (“We had a very good relationship and very good conversations about radio,” Hill says of his former boss. “But in the final analysis our visions about radio are different. Just a little bit, but enough.”) The next day, Hughes told staff that the programs WPFW planned to buy from NPR and PRI—Tell Me More, The Tavis Smiley Show, Smiley and West, and the news program The Takeawaywere back on the shelf until a new programming director was in place. Those additions won’t be implemented, listeners learned later in the week, until the station has moved. Some programmers who had been cut loose, like Ah and Caribbeana’s Von Martin—a WPFW linchpin since the beginning—were returned to the air.

To Hughes, who’s led the nonprofit WPFW for nearly two years, the solution is running a station of musical obsessives and anti-establishmentarians more like a business—which means, in his telling, crafting a less jarring programming schedule that he hopes will bring a bigger audience and fill the station’s coffers with more donations.

To the dissenting programmers, the schedule changes represent a betrayal of the station’s mission as a progressive, even radical, alternative to mainstream radio and a preserver of jazz, one which particularly serves the D.C. area’s black residents.

Now, a faction of supporters is petitioning Pacifica to fire Hughes, who must implement his changes, move the station, win back the confidence of his volunteer and paid staffs, and convince listeners that WPFW deserves their money, even though no one’s sure what the station’s schedule will look like in a few weeks.

Hughes thinks he knows the way to WPFW’s future. But is there room in his vision for ’PFW, too?


In the beginning, there was Von Martin. The Caribbeana host’s Trinidadian baritone was the first voice heard on WPFW, spoken into a live mic during an equipment check in 1976. The station officially went on the air in February 1977—not with the traditional “Star-Spangled Banner,” but with Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train.”

Founded in 1946 by the pacifist journalist Lewis Hill and envisioned as a network of stations free of corporate or government influence, the Pacifica Foundation had begun seeking a D.C. outpost in the late 1960s, on D.C.’s last remaining noncommercial FM frequency. Once it finally launched, the largely black-oriented WPFW and its frequently Afrocentric take on public affairs stood out from the mostly white Pacifica leadership and its news-and-talk stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and New York City. So did its half-focus on music: When it launched, WPFW played more than 100 hours of music each week, including international programs like Martin’s Caribbeana.

Music served a conscious-raising purpose. Talk shows were followed by jazz; many programs had hybrid formats. “The talk never stops and the music never ends” was how some programmers put it, according to Porter, an early host at the station. Some of the music was headier and harder than the handful of other local jazz stations. Jazz was politics; politics was jazz. When Elvis Presley died a few months after WPFW went on the air, the station didn’t air a tribute, “the explanation going that Elvis was a racist who stole his music from black people,” the Washington Post reported at the time.

The station’s left-wing mission—which includes a mandate for “programming which reflects progressive social change and democracy”—meant pushing the boundaries of D.C.’s normally staid airwaves. There were the commentaries of Communist activist Dorothy Healey; the feminist and lesbian program Sophie’s Parlor; analysis from pro-ayatollah Iranian-Americans during the 1979 hostage crisis. In 1980, an anti-proliferation program included a War of the Worlds-style simulated nuclear attack—one which some listeners believed was real, according to a 1981 Post article.

For the station’s audience, some of WPFW’s personalities became legendary: There was Martin, whose Caribbean program—a hybrid of news and music—led the way for a diverse lineup of Haitian, Jamaican, Afrobeat, and Latin shows. Later, there was soul programmer Bobby Bennett, a survivor of the old WOL-AM. There was Jerry Washington—“The ’Bama”—who punctuated his blues show with rakish, politically incorrect tales of love, loss, and how he got by. And there were expert mainstays like Willard Jenkins, Tom Cole, the Zydeco Cowboy, Larry Appelbaum, and Da Gator who remain on the air. Amy Goodman, who now hosts the progressive news program Democracy Now!—the Pacifica network’s flagship show—got her start at WPFW. In the early days, “it was a cauldron,” says WPFW’s news director, Askia Muhammad, who’s had several stints on staff and was an early programmer. “A lot of creative people, a lot of ideas, a lot of churning.”

The weekly cumulative listenership climbed into the low six figures in the early 1980s. But even then, because fundraising covered only a fraction of the costs and Pacifica’s bylaws wouldn’t let stations accept any kind of corporate underwriting, the foundation footed some of the bill for years.

Tension between Pacifica and the station—existent, some staffers say, since the beginning—peaked in 1993, when Porter, then the interim general manager, was passed over by a WPFW committee to keep the job permanently. When Pacifica’s national board confirmed the local board’s selection—Phil Watson, a long-time black media activist who’d had an early hand in WPFW’s founding—Porter denounced the move on his Morning Conversations show, resigning on air. “The top of this organization at this time has no interest for freedom and democracy and equality of people of color,” Porter, then also the station’s programming director, declared at the time. “The presence of people of color does not necessarily mean the presence of the proper ideological or philosophical perspective.” Porter’s confederates took to the air, opening up the phone lines to supporters. Worried that the anti-Pacifica invective could turn obscene or libelous, Watson had engineer Bob Daughtry instruct techs at WPFW’s transmitter at American University to pull the plug. For three days, WPFW was off the air.

Local Station Board Chairman Tony Norman listens to complaints from listeners and programmers outside the studio.

When it returned, small groups of listeners and programmers picketed for several weeks. Watson didn’t last long as general manager; few at WPFW have. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, the station’s weekly cumulative numbers began to reach past 200,000.

No showdown at WPFW had been as dramatic as the events of 1993, nor has any since. Still, tensions between programmers and management and between the station and Pacifica are “par for the course,” says Muhammad. “It’s a seasonal thing that happens with us.”

Plenty has changed at WPFW, though. Last decade, it began broadcasting some hip-hop with the Decipher programs. It now has a 24-member listener-elected oversight board—all Pacifica stations have since the early 2000s—that is as unruly as just about any experiment in microdemocracy. A 2008 programming update, the first since 1994, added slightly more jazz as the format slowly disappeared from other stations on D.C.’s airwaves. WPFW no longer has the reputation as “Radio Farrakhan” that it gained in the late 1980s; the speeches by the Nation of Islam leader and by radical black-nationalist thinkers like Frances Cress Welsing that sometimes appeared on the defunct program Freedom of Speech are gone.

The roots of the current face-off between management and programmers go back several years—to a decline in listenership and giving that preceded Hughes’ tenure, and to a conflict between Pacifica and Daughtry that did, as well. In 2002, while acting as general manager at Pacifica’s WBAI in New York, Daughtry was axed during a foundation board meeting broadcast on all five stations; he sued Pacifica and settled. He eventually returned to WPFW, where he’d been a programmer and a staffer beginning in the 1980s, and eventually became interim programming director. In 2010, Pacifica unsuccessfully attempted to force Daughtry out, burning through two WPFW general managers in the process.

Hughes, who had been chief operating officer of Howard University’s TV station WHUT, came on in 2011. The staff that are members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists had seen their pay cut by 50 percent; eventually Hughes restored them to three-quarters pay.

The discontent returned last fall with a song. Daughtry was filling in on a Saturday for soul DJ Andrea Bray, and played “Marvin You’re the Man” by the jazzy hip-hop act Digable Planets, which contains the word “shit,” an obscenity that could have lead to an FCC fine. As the staffer responsible for enforcing programming standards, Daughtry reported his own infraction. Hughes allegedly suspended him indefinitely, instead of the customary two weeks; he then transferred Daughtry to another position, Daughtry says, and eliminated that job soon after. Pacifica’s then-executive director declined to comment on Daughtry’s elimination at the time; last week, so did Hughes.

The programmers weren’t quiet. About two-thirds of them signed a letter declaring no confidence in Hughes, demanding that he meet with programmers, provide a plan for the station’s imminent move, and reinstate Daughtry. In a press release, the year-old Programmers Association declared itself “on the threshold of an ‘Occupy’ type revolt...” The board voted to pursue mediation between the parties—talks that ended without resolution, and with Daughtry still out.

The occupation never came.


John Hughes loves the word “ethos.” You notice, because when he says it—and he’s saying it a lot these days—it doesn’t rhyme with dose, but moss.

Ee-thoss.

Hughes, who is 61, has insisted in interviews and on the air that his proposed changes aren’t just in keeping with the station’s progressive, alternative ethos; they’re about rescuing it. He says WPFW pulls in a weekly cumulative audience of about 140,000 to 150,000 listeners, a drop from its peak in the 2000s. WPFW has seen a corresponding drop in fundraising, Hughes says, leading to several years of off–and–on six-figure deficits on its operating budget of $1.6 to $1.8 million. Listener contributions typically make up about 90 percent of WPFW’s budget, with the rest coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and occasional grants. But only around 6 to 7 percent of its listeners donate each year, while nationwide in 2007 17 percent of public radio listeners gave to stations, according to an Arbitron report.

Arbitron figures routinely rank WPFW in the high 20s among local radio stations. The December numbers placed WPFW one slot behind the Arlington-based religious station WAVA-FM and tied with African-American talk station WOL-AM at No. 30.

In fiscal year 2012 WPFW raised about $1.4 million through foundation grants, major gifts, events, and five pledge drives (in addition to funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), according to its development director, Tiffany Jordan—not enough. Hughes argues that listeners vote with their dollars: If they liked the programming more, they’d give more. “It’s the thigh bone connected to the hip bone,” Hughes says. His detractors say listenership and fundraising would be higher with better marketing and that there are too many pledge drives, leading to donor fatigue; they criticize Hughes for not seeking other revenue streams.

This one’s my complaint: You can’t remain a station serving “underserved communities,” as WPFW professes to do, if your programming mostly reflects the whims of your more monied listeners.

Looking at Arbitron figures and the station’s pledge-drive data, Hughes says he determined a need to rethink WPFW’s schedule with the drive-time hours of 5 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. in mind. For the most part, that meant excising music from rush hour and the workday. “What it doesn’t do is create a flow, a symmetry,” Hughes says of the old schedule, which frequently jumped between public affairs and music. “We’re not traveling audience from one program to the next.”

Beginning last week, listeners found mostly news and talk throughout the workday and jazz at night. Democracy Now! still broadcasts at 8 a.m., and now repeats most days at 5 p.m. Morning Brew, a new program led by Muhammad, precedes it from 6 to 8 a.m. with news and some music. Many of the station’s in-house talk programs, like In Our Voices and DC Politics, kept their once-a-week slots, while others are gone. Porter was offered a shorter once-a-week show that would have also featured a panel; he decided to walk.

Hughes says that unlike many radio stations, WPFW has its highest listenership on Saturday and Sunday, which are dominated by music. Still, even there he’s made changes, dropping a couple of niche programs and bringing in a new one focused on go-go and other D.C. sounds, House of Soul, hosted by James Funk of Rare Essence and DJ Adrian Loving.

To Hughes’ detractors, however, the changes represent a violation of the station’s progressive, minority-serving brief: WPFW is supposed to be an alternative to NPR and PRI. But Hughes maintains that the new schedule is in line with the station’s historic values while pushing the limits of its audience. In the case of Michel Martin’s NPR program Tell Me More, Hughes stresses that it is “an alternative on public radio in and of itself” because it originated with the African American Public Radio Consortium. Although Tell Me More already airs on WAMU-FM, D.C.’s NPR affiliate, at 2 p.m., Hughes envisions it as a WPFW tent post.

But beyond the substance of the new grid, programmers, members of the Local Station Board, and even Pacifica’s interim executive director, Summer Reese, say the changes were made without enough input, sensitivity, or notice. “I do think some changes are necessary in the grid at WPFW,” Reese says. “I don’t think these were handled the way they should have been.” Although she approved the changes, Reese says she expressed concern about implementing them before a fund drive and the station’s move, which Hughes confirms. “These things can backfire, which clearly they have,” Reese says.

Reese flew to D.C. this week to attend a WPFW community meeting that drew around 200 people, as well as talk with the station’s staff and board. She says that after listening to stakeholders, she’ll make some kind of decision to calm the situation soon.

With the exception of Morning Brew, the Hughes Doctrine seems to separate music from news and talk, even in programs that historically blended the two. The proposed changes would have moved Caribbeana—with its mix of Caribbean public affairs talk and music— from 7 p.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday. Martin was asked to stick to music, he says, and contribute news to Morning Brew. Martin said he couldn’t do it, and prepared to end his show.

As opposition to the new grid mounted last week, Martin says Hughes called him and asked him to stay at Saturday—for two hours, not three. “If I didn’t take this time it would mean the Caribbean community would have nothing,” Martin says. Other programs that had been cut were offered their old slots—partially quelling the programming outrage.

Meanwhile, WPFW has to move. Like Washington City Paper, which also has its office in the building, the station’s lease is up at the end of December. (City Paper has also occasionally co-hosted political debates with WPFW’s DC Politics show, and City Paper Business Development Manager Sheila Alexander-Reid hosts a show on the station.) Sometime next year, 2390 Champlain St. NW is slated to be demolished—and although Hughes says it’s close, WPFW still hasn’t locked down a new home. Much of its aging, analog equipment won’t survive the move, Hughes says, but he says that with a stripped down set-up, the station won’t need to suspend live programming.

WPFW may stumble to a new location. The bigger hurdle is Pacifica’s fundamentally broken model. In the last four years, a 2011 audit shows, the foundation has lost millions and gone through its own internal putsches. Suggestions by WPFW programmers to allow limited underwriting—several people I interviewed dream of Ben’s Chili Bowl sponsorship—have almost always been rebuffed. (There was a one-year experiment with local sponsorship in the 1990s.) WPFW’s deficit is small enough—between $150,000 and $200,000, Hughes says—that it’s easy to imagine a few sponsors making up the difference.

On the air, meanwhile, Hughes faces an ongoing rebellion: Some programmers have referred obliquely to the programming changes, while others have taken more of an activist stance, weaponizing the station’s December fundraising drive by asking supporters to make “protest pledges”—that is, promises of funding that they won’t fulfil until the old grid has been restored. Miyuki Williams, one of the station’s more prolific fundraisers, said last weekend on her Sunday Kind of Love program that while she was grateful for the extra hour she now has each week, she wished it hadn’t been at the expense of some of the station’s Sunday-night Latin music programming.

Before Williams went on the air, she was told by Hughes that she had “jeopardized the financial future” of WPFW, she says, by appearing on another program several days earlier and telling listeners to withhold their credit card information as part of protest pledges. She related the conversation to her listeners on Sunday, leaving out the offending credit card language. (She later received a one-week suspension for saying the URL of a site, thepeople4pfw.wordpress.com, about the current controversy, in violation of the Local Station Board’s election rules.)

Near the end of her show, Williams played “You Take My Breath Away” by Tuck & Patti. “Hopefully we’ll meet again, but that may not be the case. You never know,” she said to her listeners. “I wanted to let you know that you take my breath away.”


So who the hell does want to hear Cornel West on WPFW?

The Princeton African-American studies professor and public intellectual may be one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent critics on the left—and Hughes’ plans may only have him on WPFW for one hour a week—but there’s a reason his name, as well as Martin’s and Smiley’s, were cited as evidence of WPFW’s centerward drift in the days after the new programming was announced.

While even WPFW’s homegrown talk tends to focus more on international news than local issues, the station remains a uniquely D.C. institution.

WPFW’s founders were five years into their struggle to get on the air when D.C. gained home rule in 1973, and their station shared the era’s DNA. It was a station for a majority black city newly empowered to run itself; it was thoroughly ideological, coming just after the civil rights and anti-war generations; it was a station for black thought and black music and the highest intellectual aspirations of both; it was a space for ideas and anxieties—nutty ones, maybe, to the radio-dial wanderer—shut out of the mainstream.

WPFW was kind of like D.C. And Pacifica was its Congress, with 1993 its control board era.

Eras end, and if the overall alchemy stayed the same, much of WPFW still changed. In the “Radio Farrakhan“ years, the station followed the radical drift of some schools of black nationalism; as the rhetoric became angrier and more violent, Muhammad says, the station pulled back—or depending on your viewpoint, became more P.C.

What’s different, this time, is that the tensions between Pacifica’s white, Berkeley-style liberalism and WPFW’s historically black focus have manifested themselves in the programming grid—affecting what the station presents publicly to listeners—while earlier controversies largely involved behind-the-scenes power plays. “The white left doesn’t think they have a black problem,” says Muhammad. Many staffers and programmers say WPFW’s outlier status in Pacifica—and its string of short-tenured, foundation-appointed general managers, some of whom have tried to change its culture—results from a kind of racism.

“I call it the gentrification of WPFW,” says Tony Regusters, a former general manager whose Sounds of Brasil program was axed, of the new changes. Former volunteer programmer Clinton Yates made the same charge in his column for the Washington Post’s Root D.C. website.

But even if Hughes’ opponents turn back his ambitions, who will they be saving WPFW for?


Last Friday, Hughes hosted his weekly “Manager’s Mailbox” edition of Community Watch & Comment, bringing on Public Affairs Director Gloria Minott and DC Politics co-host Chuck Thies to interview him about the programming changes. Thies asked Hughes to respond to Yates’ article. “It’s emotional,” Hughes said. “What we do in this business goes to your head and your heart.” He understands where the outcry comes from, he said.

“This isn’t about gentrification,” Hughes said. “This is about transformation.”

From the other side of a pane of glass, my eyes followed engineer Luke Stewart as he crossed the room. The phone was lighting up with callers.

Hughes said WPFW needed to expand its audience—to bring in younger audiences and “respond and adjust with respect to social media.” In an earlier conversation, he’d told me the region’s changing demographics required that the station evolve.

The general manager quickly realized he’d been making the wrong argument—that he was talking like a gentrifier. “The charge of gentrification is so off-base,” Hughes said, redirecting course. “Yes, we need to stay true to our ethos. We are here to serve underserved communities.”

Hughes looked haggard as he stepped out of the studio—weathered, unshaven. He says the comments have ranged from “the sublime to the ridiculous,” and that he’s even received some threats. But he insists he’s been listening to the community’s feedback.

Much of WPFW’s current upheaval centers on how you define the station’s community. Is it a community of mostly black leftwing jazz fans who are also interested in foreign affairs, zydeco, and alternative medicine? Hughes’ vision for WPFW, as embodied by his proposed new grid, retains plenty of the station’s eccentric programming, and despite its faults, it makes tuning in much simpler: There’s talk during the day and jazz at night. On Saturday, there are mostly soul and oldies programs; on Sunday, mostly jazz, Latin music, and reggae.

Is the WPFW community old? Hughes says research by the Radio Research Consortium shows it’s largely over 55. But the proposed new programming—except perhaps a neosoul show from Atlanta that was quickly ditched—hardly seems to change that.

Hughes insists that the programs he wanted to drop either had low listenership, poor fundraising records, or didn’t fit into the new, clarified grid. But his solution—to professionalize the sound of WPFW’s broadcast by bringing in more outside content, most of which he says would have been relatively cheap—is tantamount to a resource-starved newspaper filling its pages with wire content: The quality will be high; the opportunity cost is the local charisma. While WPFW’s new programming is simpler to comprehend, perhaps less jarring from program to program, it’s also less diverse—no Haitian show, no Brazilian show, no feminist show. Certainly, those are among the “underserved” communities Hughes was talking about.

Then again, even resolving the problems with Pacifica’s model won’t change this: Consumption habits and media consolidation mean that radio is no longer a medium around which communities gather. You tune into WAMU, or WTOP, or WOL, or WNEW for news on your morning drive. At work, you’re on Pandora, or Spotify, or Sirius XM, or you listen to your own music collection. Maybe you’re listening to a local radio broadcast over the air, or maybe you’re listening to a station from another city (or country) over the Internet. Maybe you’re in a music mood, maybe you’re in a talk-show mood. At home later, you’re cooking dinner—but there isn’t just one station that fits however you identify. There’s a whole universe of them.

Which is a shame—especially when you want to hear, say, world-class jazz presented with a D.C. sensibility and you realize, now that WAMU only plays trad jazz on Saturday nights and the genre’s real estate on WPFW is shrinking, you can’t always find it. In a decade or two, when Internet radio comes standard in every new car, we might all be listening to the same jazz programming everywhere. Even if the listeners and programmers of WPFW beat back Hughes’ proposed changes, how long can the magic reasonably last?

Talk to WPFW’s mainstays and you hear the same prescription (“WPFW has to change”), the same caveats (“but it should change sensitively, and stay true to itself”), and a diversity of forecasts. Porter thinks the station’s been going downhill since 1993, and sees little hope; staffers like Stitt, Minott and Muhammad think it can thrive with limited corporate underwriting; everyone wants more transparency and dialogue.

Muhammad, who says he doesn’t think much of Smiley and West, is nevertheless optimistic.

“The management issues usually work themselves out,” says Muhammad. “The people who have been here the longest—the Von Martins and the Tom Coles—have never been in the management. They’ve seen the managers come and the managers go, and they’re still here. And their listeners and their loyal supporters are still here. There will be an 89.3 FM, there will be a product on these airwaves whether it’s Pacifica or it’s WPFW or whether it’s ‘jazz and justice’ or whether it’s NPR lite...I believe it’ll be something awesome, I hope it will. And, you know, we’ll all just wait and see.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified Jay Winter Nightwolf as James Winter Nightwolf.

Our Readers Say

Please make the correction. His name is Jay Winter Nightwolf not James.
Elvis Presley was definately NO RACIST. He was the Greatest Entertainer who ever lived and NEVER had a bad word to say about another person. His backing vocal group were The Sweet Inspirations, a black group, and at one time Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother, was part of it. She would be the first to tell you that Elvis was NOT a racist. It was Elvis who broke down social and cultural barriers in 1950's U.S.A. making it easier for all artists, of whatever race, colour, gender or creed, who followed in his footsteps and in doing so paved the way for The Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr., whom Elvis had great respect for.

It's a pity that Elvis was not alive today to put right those ridiculous claims of being racist. It would deeply hurt him.
Thank you for your in depth look at much of what is happening at WPFW where I have been honored to be a programmer for 17 years. I offer another example of WPFW management's complete disregard for the community. Over the years, via my mental health/relationship show, MyNDTALK, I have approached the concept of mental health from a broad based, interactive, inclusive perspective - and have talked about such things as human trafficking in America, blood and organ trafficking in/outside of America, sexual assault of women and men and children, domestic violence, the mental health/or lack thereof, of our presidents, how to grow self-esteem, how to set healthy limits, the mental health value of peace and forgiveness and much, much more.

At one point, I was doing in depth one on one interviews with every day people who have achieved magnificent things as well as One Magnificent Musial Life interviews with WPFW Jazz programmers - it was my way of giving to the community more of the 'PFW programmers we have all come to enjoy and revere. This year, With "The Healing Tapestry" series,I was focusing on various approaches to healing from a multi-ethnic, multi-religion perspective including some of the very fine 'PFW talk programmers - NANA KWABENA BROWN AND JAY WINTER NIGHTWOLF. But it seems that bringing the multi-ethnic, diverse community that is WPFW - broad based conversations about mental health was/is not important to WPFW management - as all of this had to stop when management chose to pull the plug on Pamela Brewer/ mental health/relationship programming for WPFW listeners. And the truth is - it is our mental health or the lack thereof that drives and guides our very lives.

Management first came to me in September and took my show - MyNDTALK (WPFW's only mental health program - 17 years on the airwaves) off its Friday 3-4 pm slot for 3 weeks - without explanation - than offered "every other week" on a different day and time as of October. Then, in November, 2 weeks AFTER my last show (which by the way was an examination of the Presidential election results from a psychological perspective),I was told I was no longer on the air at all - but that I "could participate" in Morning Brew, the new weekly news show "if I wanted to" for up to 5 minutes per week - talking about whatever mental health issue "I wanted to". THEN, my program was restored WITHOUT the confirmation I was TOLD to wait for - on a day and time I am unable to interact with my audience live. By happenstance, a MyNDTALK listener called the station to complain about the absence of MyNDTALK and was told it was I WAS on the air and scheduled to come on that Friday. So the way I knew I was back on the air - was from a listener. Despite ongoing personal and public pleas to the GM throughout his tenure for dialogue and transparency - I, along with the rest of us, have yet to receive either. So in addition to there being no respect for the community regarding the Jazz programming - this is just another example of no respect for the community regarding much of the talk programming grid as well - including mental health programming.

It would seem that the current approach to the programming changes/drops/etc. has been grossly disrespectful and disregarding of the programmers and the community and it appears to be based, at least in part, on singling out those who have softly and loudly asked for dialogue, transparency and respect... It would appear that multiple past and ongoing attempts are lodged at those who have spoken loudly for the WPFW community's right to hear what is of importance to the community, what is empowering to the community WPFW is supposed to serve. - "If it's unacceptable"...it's unacceptable is the way I have ended my show for years....little did I know that my home station would engage in such mean spirited - secretive - disregarding - disrespectful behavior.... and it IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!
@Brian Quinn

If Elvis was so racially enlightened, where was he during the Civil Rights Movement? LOL. Elvis was as racist as you'd expect a Southern white male to be during the height of his career, specifically referring to the 1950s. Don't try to rewrite history and make it seem like Elvis broke down racial barriers in the music business, when in reality he profited greatly from that racism by covering songs by black artists that were unfairly labeled race music and prevented from reaching that plateau that white artists covering their songs could reach, through wider radio play and more tour opportunities (particularly in the South). Every white person of courage had their chance to prove their commitment to racial equality. History looks at those who were silent as cowards and those who spoke up as HEROES. Elvis was the former.
When I heard two years ago that John Hughes was being considered as a possible general manager for WPFW-FM, I was pretty excited. I knew John from earlier years when he was program director of the Clark/Atlanta University-based FM station WCLK, and I'd approached him with a concept I helped create with Donna Limerick, formerly of NPR who'd started her own company: Northstar Communications. Donna and I created a satellite-driven broadcast concept called "Jazz From Space" which allowed stations programming Jass across the country to do intervies, by satellite, with great Jazz artists like Nancy Wilson, Joe Henderson, Shirley Horn and vocelese legend Jon Hendricks. John Hughes was one of the first program directors nationally to sign on to take these weekly interviews from Jazz stables like CTI, Sony/Columbia and Blue Note Records. I felt that John Hughes was a visionary and certainly he became a friend. Years later, when John was an executive at Howard University's PBS-affiliated station WHUT-TV, I got word that he was being considered for the long vacant GM position at WPFW. I believed John Hughes would be a real asset and savior for WPFW. I saw John at a WHUT-TV presentation and we talked briefly about that, making an appointment for lunch at Busboys & Poets to more deeply explore the possibilities; I (mistakenly) . As a former interim-general manager at WPFW, one of the most embattled but most successful by all accounts, e.g. listeners, programmers and others, and the first executive in the station's 27 year history at that time to raise one million dollars in a single fundraising drive, I agreed to have a discussion woith John to talk about the Pacifica cultuire and its erstwhile, often contentious relationship with WPFW: the netwrok's "colored stepchild". After that talk I also agreed to organize an additional lunch meeting at Busboys & Poets between John and some of WPFW's programmers, including Jim Byers, Joni Eisenberg, Robyn Holden and Captain Fly. They questioned John about his ideas, persepctives on programming, fundraising and commitment to the listening community. The meeting went well, though there were doubts expressed after-the-fact by some of those attending, about who exactly John Hughes was, as he was very cagey, I'd noticed, about describing himself outside of corporate think. Flash forward. John Hughes does accept the position at WPFW. He starts out well, but then an about face occurred when he fired station operations manager and interim program director Bob Daughtry, who'd already endured a witch hunt by Pacifica's executive director and had been fired but rehired due to efforts on his behalf by WPFW's new 'PFW Programmers Association (of which I am a founder). From that point on, the relationship between John and the programmers became increasingly contentious. He became non-communicative and rejected numerous excellent ideas by programmers to help pull the station out of the red, citing anything from "The programmer's association isn't licensed to raise monies for the station" or something obscure relating to Pacifica Foundation bylaws, which from his recent actions intended to bring on-air "sponsored programs" - a program no-no since the found ing of the foundation and its five station network! Somewhere along the line I became one of John Hughes' most vocal, upfront, in your face opponents at WPFW, especilly regarding his nonsensical programming and execvutive decisions and the heavy-handed way in which he dealt or refused to deal with WPFW programmers. This was exacerbated by complaints from members of the listenership that John Hughes wasn't a friend of the community, which he's certainly demonstrated with his unprofessional, hidden agenda program cuts and intentions, aided and abetted by interim Program Director Bobby Hill, a shocking alliance that WPFW programmers and listeners found just unbelievable, that is, that Bobby Hill would willingly allow himself to be used to abuse the listeners and his own long-time friends among the WPFW programmer group! Hughes also cancelled "2K Nation" the only programm on WPFW that showcased the thoughts and pespectives of teenagers in our city. This happened just after a week that he declared to listeners at an LSB meeting that he was very concerned about young people in DC. I spoke out forcefully against John Hughes lack of vision, unprofessionalism and heavy-handed management, totally reversing my position of support for him two years ago. As a esult of that stanbd, my popular program, "Sounds of Brazil", co-hosted with Zezeh Ilheuma as part of WPFW's award-winning Latin Flavor Stream, ironically created by Bobby Hill, was cancelled; clearly a vendetta move. My thought is that John Hughes was hired to do exactly what he has doen at WPFW: destroy it by abusing the audience with endless pledge drives, enfuriate listeners and programmers, stir up a hornet's nest of acrimony resulting in refusal by listeners to financially support WPFW, with the result being an excuse for the floundering Pacifica Foundation, which has always seen its five stations as "cash cows" - to sell WPFW and perhap[s one other station, to relieve it from the devastating deadfall of debt it finds itself in. All of this should tell the Washingtron, DC community that has loyally supported WPFW for thirty plus years - along with the new, young listeners who have recently discovered the station on their own (WPFW does no promotional marketing of itself beyond its own airwaves!), about the character of John Hughes. My question to Summer Reese of Pacifica, who attended the recent "town hall meeting" at Howard University where Hughes was supposed to explain himself and was booed down by the community is this: "Why hasn't Pacifica fired this divisive incompetent?" perhaps because it agrees with his tactics and was the source those tactics from the very beginning, transforming willing marionettes like Hughes and former iPD Hill into destroyers and betrayers of WPFW's amazing legacy. Pacifica must immediately fire him - and the WPFW listening community must continue its efforst to force him to resign.
Programmers who want Hughes fired ought to propose an alternate plan for making the station solvent and explain how they'll make it happen. Ripping off the hydra's head in itself isn't going to work -- what will prevent Pacifica from appointing someone with the same agenda? But I have yet to hear an alternate plan for viability, and, more importantly, an idea about who will have the authority to execute it well.

As for underwriting, look into why the station doesn't carry it. Ask Local Station Board member Pete Tucker and see whether he'll explain to you his rationale, which he has declined to explain to me.

Regarding the service to "underserved communities": To serve underserved communities, the underserved communities actually have to be listening. And there still has to be some sort of business model to make it work. If the underserved aren't stepping up with donations, maybe foundations can fill the gap in some cases. But I doubt that foundations want to throw money at a business with no other viable source of revenue. The listener donations have to come up first -- meaning the audience also has to grow first -- and WPFW needs to be on stable footing to look attractive to foundations.

Full disclosure: I previously hosted a late night music show before the format was revamped.
did anyone record--audio or video-- either busboy and poet meeting or the dec 11th one at howard university for those of us who couldn't attend???

thanks for letting me know.
Rumor is that WPFW would be moving into the portion of the office space vacated by Westwood One when they sold Metro Traffic to Clearchannel, turning it into Total Traffic in Downtown Silver Spring. WPFW is slated to take over the space that formerly housed CBS Radio's 94.7 Fresh-FM before it was moved to Lanham.
We Ourselves was not cancelled but was renamed to The Super Funky Soul Power Hour w Jared Ball on Fridays at 11a.
As long as PFW has Da Gator, Cowboy Fred, and Captain Fly and James Funk I'll ALWAYS tune in, AND renew my membership. You start messing with those folks and you'll truly lose me. But I also listen to a few of the talk programs (Gloria Minot) occasionally and am glad to hear such disparate voices way outside the mainstream.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to have so much syndicated programming during the day. If you need to do that fine, but your claims to be a community based and funded radio station will ring pretty hollow. I always thought that was (is?) the beauty of PFW, it really WAS a DC community radio station, not a pretender like so many others.
It seems if WPFW was incredibly selective of businesses chosen to underwrite programs you wouldn't lose any credibility with me or a lot of people. Just make sure you research them thoroughly--hell, I'd do that for you for free--keep it local, and make sure they know they have zero say in content beyond a 30 second ad every 10-15 minutes.
i didnt even know it existed...and now i want a show. its not rocket science...you got to have commercial underwriting...if the oldheads currently doing it dont get it or cant make it happen...shuffle off the airwaves & let some youngsters have the mic for once

Interesting article, but I am mystified as to why there was no mention of Ron Pinchback's abrupt and unexplained removal in 2009 as general manager of WPFW. This was traumatic for many listeners, including myself, to the extent that I lost faith in the so-called "WPFW family" and stopped contributing to fund drives after that.
What is not mentioned in the article is the early morning weekday show. I could turn to WAMU for the NPR wrap-up, but I choose to listen to the eclectic mix of jazz and commentary the five early morning weekday hosts provide. How wonderful to start my day with music and occasional commentary, rather than news. I can get that all later. PFW offered me a way to greet my day with positive, hopeful music and thoughts--rather than being besieged with the inevitable news of the day.
WPFW is essential for the DC community. We simply must have the jazz and multi-cultural programming it provides. Also, it offers the unique voices of the local community in its commentary. However, the lack of practical information, such as local time, weather and traffic is often discouraging to listeners. If I really need to know the driving landscape/conditions during the morning and evening commutes, I can't listen to WPFW during those hours. Volunteerism and radicalism is great, even necessary, but professionalism and practicality are also necessary. Also - Put Jay Winter Nightwolf back on primetime. Native American interests should not be further marginalized.

-Connie, Concerned Listener
Thanks for the excellent article. I have been a listener to PFW since the early 90s, but did know about all of the history in the article. I am not so concerned about who is the station manager, but they need to get Jazz back on the air during the day! And why not add some reggae, African and Latin music? Shame on whoever thought that more talk is the way to get more popular!
Thanks Jonathan Fischer for a great article. One thing I am going to miss when all of my favorite "alternative" papers stop printing is having that long article I really want to read in a pile next to my bed and the feeling I get once I finish something great like this.

I moved to DC this year and was happy to see that there were two public radio stations. I, being the last of the radio junkies, quickly gave to both. I had no idea of the history of WPFW.

It was pretty obvious that WPFW was to WAMU what your college radio station was to the local NPR station: same medium but well back as far as quality.

Something has to be done if WPFW wants to be around in 2014. I suspect that many there are so far to the left that there is nothing that can be said to get them on board with helping. I think I have a solution:

Charge the programmers for their shows. If they believe in them then they will have no problem coming up with, I don't know, $1000 / month to stay on the air. This will both wipe out the red ink and will ensure that the programmers have some (more) skin in the game. (The current programmers don't so much as tweet that they are about to go on the air so there is a long way to go.)

I have witnessed a bunch of these "time to get rid of the jazz" situations. WBEZ did it a few years ago and you would have thought that many a hep cat would have died because of it but that does not seem to have been the case and the station has gotten much better. I think the time for anyone to expect to hear true jazz music over the air more than a few hours a week is well over. Can't we just all agree on this? Real jazz heads (and real music fans of all stripes) know where they can get it online. Those that don't are just pretenders.

I plan on living the next 40 - 50 years here in the district. I hope WPFW will be here too.

To WPFW Leadership: If you want help with social media, why not reach out to your listeners? We are on social media. We can help you. You have an army...er...street team of people you can tap. Why not do it?
In my ramble I forgot to discuss some things that Connie M said in her note a couple of spots above mine:

Her point, "Volunteerism and radicalism is great, even necessary, but professionalism and practicality are also necessary," could not be more true.

Her other points, "WPFW is essential for the DC community. We simply must have the jazz and multi-cultural programming it provides," I think could not be more false. It would be nice to have the WPFW perspective but, really, can you say that it is essential? Even in its heyday few listned. Also, seriously? Jazz is essential? Really? How? Why? Please explain. My jazz collection is bigger than everyone who will read this combined (OK, a couple of you have me beat but not many) but I can't find any reason to say that listening to it is essential. Neither is it essential to hear classical, blues, gospel, or any other genre that you might bring up.
Is WPFW off the air? I enjoyed listening to Capt.Fly and James Funk House Party on Saturday mornings.It really made my day.If so, are you all coming back on the air?
Is WPFW off the air? I enjoyed listening to Capt.Fly and James Funk House Party on Satur day mornings.It really made my day.If WPFW is off the air;When is WPFW coming back on the air?

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...