With a Restored Signal and New Shows, WPFW Tries to Move Past Its Internal Conflicts
Some new voices are appearing on WPFW-FM, and they'll be a lot louder than what listeners of the long-troubled jazz and lefty talk station have become used to: Following several years of weakened broadcast power—including one week last December in which the station dropped off the terrestrial airways entirely—WPFW announced this week that it has restored its broadcast to 50,000 watts. According to the station, that means listeners will now be able to tune in to 89.3 FM as far away as Richmond and Delaware.
Along with the strengthened signal, the station is debuting several new weekly shows, including one about entrepreneurship and social justice hosted by Busboys and Poets owner and recent Democratic mayoral candidate Andy Shallal (it begins next Monday morning) as well as a program on sports and politics hosted by former Washington Wizard Etan Thomas and The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin (it premiered yesterday). You can look at the entire new programming grid here.
The community station, which has a small paid staff in addition to a large corps of volunteer hosts, kicks off its spring fundraising drive this Sunday. The hope, says Public Affairs Director Gloria Minott, is that the updated programming grid and larger broadcast footprint will lead to more donations from listeners. In recent years, the station has regularly posted six-figure deficits. WPFW's finances, Minott said, are "still tenuous at best, but we hope that the picture improves dramatically with the new listening range and programming." (Several years ago, most full-time staff members saw their hours cut; they're currently only paid to work 30-hour weeks.)
The station's interim general manager, Michelle Price-Johnson, did not respond to several requests for comment
The announcements follow several years—well, decades—of turmoil for the station, known as much for its reliable jazz, blues, and soul programming as its passionate and eccentric on-air hosts. When the station's last general manager, John Hughes, faced off against volunteer programmers and members of his staff in 2011 and 2012 over programming and personnel changes, the conflict spilled onto the airways. For a while, it didn't matter if you listened to WPFW for the music or the progressive politics talk: Most everything was served with a side of dirty laundry.
That more or less ended last September, when Hughes was removed from his duties by Summer Reese, the interim executive director of WPFW's parent, the Berkeley, Calif.–based Pacifica Foundation. Hughes was replaced with Price-Johnson, who has faced some pushback over programming and personnel decisions. In a January blog post addressed to WPFW staff and volunteers, Price-Johnson suggested that a supporter who spoke against the station's management at a WPFW-sponsored jazz concert was engaging in something akin to "terrorism." "This was equivalent to tossing a 'verbal grenade' into that event with WPFW’s name attached to it," she wrote. The word "terrorism" and its definition were eventually removed from the post, whose title was changed from "We Do Not Negotiate..." to "Collaborating With Peace."
Still, in recent weeks Price-Johnson has made several promotions and hires that likely have wide support, even among many of the station's more cantankerous programmers and board members. She promoted well-liked staffer Katea Stitt to interim programming director and brought on Miyuki Williams, one of the station's most popular DJs, as programmer development manager. Programmer Jared Ball, who lost his show in December after criticizing management and some of WPFW's syndicated programming on the air, is now back on the station with a Friday show. Minott says she hopes the changes "lead to a new revival of the station and the people and the ideas that...it's there to serve.”
Ball says he's glad the station's signal strength has been restored and that he's supportive of changes made by Stitt. But he says he still has some concerns about Pacifica's management of WPFW and wishes the station had more programming appealing to younger, more politically radical audiences. He'd also like to see people like Bob Daughtry and Tom Porter—former programming directors and programmers who were essentially pushed out during Hughes' tenure—return to the station and the airwaves.
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Pacifica is facing its own upheaval. The Pacifica board fired Reese in March—so Reese and some supporters used a bolt cutter to break a padlock barring them from entering Pacifica's national office, occupying the building. The Pacifica Foundation is currently suing for a temporary restraining order against Reese, who hasn't left; the next court hearing is set for May 6.
In an April message to WPFW staff, board members, and volunteers, Price-Johnson attempted to use the California drama as a balm for D.C.'s problems:
I know that most of you know about the turmoil in California. My goal as GM is to make WPFW “bullet proof”. No matter what happens nationally, if we are a fully functioning, market focused station that can show its importance to the communities that we serve, we will be able to survive whatever happens to the network. In order to do that, I ask that everyone change their focus from fighting each other to pulling together for the station’s good. I have had my share of battles both in California and unfortunately here in DC, but in each skirmish after the fight was over, I think that people can see that my only focus is the success of the station.
In the letter, Price-Johnson goes on to ask everyone to direct their energy toward the May fund drive, both on the air and at station events. "We are at the dawn of a new day and this spring marks a major rebirth at the station," she writes. "There is no enemy in D.C. that is stronger than us, unless we are enemies to ourselves."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery