March 14, 2005 (updated March 17)
BACKGROUND ON PAUL DeRIENZO’S HISTORY AT WBAI
Paul DeRienzo was a longtime unpaid producer of a late-night show called “Let 'em Talk,” broadcast on WBAI and focusing on a range of community and national issues. From the mid-1990s to November 2000, he was a public critic of the corporatization of the Pacifica radio network. In December 2000, following Pacifica National’s illegitimate firing of General Manager Valerie Van Isler and the appointment – over the objections of the Local Advisory Board – of Utrice Leid as interim General Manager of WBAI, in what activists called the “Christmas Coup,” DeRienzo abandoned his criticism of the Pacifica board of directors and called on staff to support the new management. DeRienzo was then appointed as paid news anchor for the radically changed morning show at WBAI (which had been purged of host Bernard White and executive producer Sharan Louise Harper, along with numerous unpaid producers.
DeRienzo sided with the illegally installed WBAI management throughout the reign of both Leid and her successor Robert Daughtry, following Leid’s promotion to the position of Pacifica National Program Director. He directed particularly venomous attacks against Pacifica producer Amy Goodman, producer/host of Pacifica’s Democracy Now program, going so far as to claim that she had fabricated her story about being a witness to the 1991 Indonesian massacre in East Timor. DeRienzo frequently used his position on the morning show to wage vicious attacks on the community activist movement that was seeking to take back the station and the network. Some observers charged that at times he made fabricated charges against the movement, including false accusations of violence.
On June 4, 2001, listener-activists upset with the takeover of the station by corporatizing forces, which purged dozens of staffers, nonviolently protested in the station for less than ten minutes (after which they left without incident). Kevin Pritchard, a reporter for the NYC Independent Media Center, arrived at the station shortly after the protestors had left. According to a press release issued by Pritchard’s lawyers, “Upon presenting his New York City Independent Media Center press credentials to one Paul DeRienzo, Pritchard was physically and verbally assaulted without provocation. He also sustained $300 in damage to his audio equipment. He is currently being treated at St. Vincent's Hospital for a badly sprained or broken finger, a cut lip and multiple abrasions.” Pritchard’s finger was later determined to be broken. Pritchard filed criminal charges of third-degree assault against DeRienzo.
In 2002, following the victory of the grassroots mobilization to save the network, the Pacifica National Board was returned (via a legal settlement) to progressive hands, and the new board mandated the return of the 30 fired, banned, and driven-out producers and managers. Within weeks, DeRienzo was dismissed from his positions at the station.
DeRienzo was soon hired by health entrepreneur and programmer Gary Null, as executive producer for Null’s “Natural Living” program, which at that time was being broadcast on WBAI five days a week. Null’s show was later reduced to four days a week to diversify the station’s health programming; he continued to be an unpaid producer at the station until December 2004. Null owns a successful vitamin production and distribution company and a publishing house, and sold his products through his website, garynull.com, which he promoted on his show.
In August 2003 Null’s attorney went before the judge that was supervising the settlement between the old corporate Pacifica Board and community activists, stating that he represented Null and two of what activists termed the “corporate hijackers” (former national board members). Null’s attorney called on the judge to put the foundation into “receivership” to restore the old board, which had presided over the firing and banning of hundreds of programmers and the elimination of popular programs such as “Democracy Now” that did not suit the board’s political sensibilities. The motion for “receivership” would have destroyed the network’s independence. The judge ruled against Null’s motion and allowed elections for the newly approved Local Station Boards to proceed.
In the summer of 2003, DeRienzo, while still a paid producer for Gary Null, announced his candidacy for a listener seat on the soon-to-be-formed WBAI Local Station Board. His candidacy was challenged by some staff members on the basis that, according to the by-laws, staff are required to run as staff, not as listeners (this was designed to reduce the unfair advantage that well-known hosts would have if they ran in together with listeners). But because of the unusual arrangement of a wealthy unpaid show host paying a producer out of his own pocket, the election supervisor ruled that technically DeRienzo was allowed to run as a listener-member candidate.
Later in the campaign, Null broke election rules by endorsing the Looking Forward slate, which included Paul DeRienzo and another close Null associate, Luanne Pennesi, on the garynull.com website, which Null promoted over the airwaves on a frequent basis. The independent election supervisor forced Null to remove the endorsements from his website, but neither he nor DeRienzo was sanctioned in any way. Null then blatantly obfuscated the ruling by having his technician set up a separate website ("Looking Forward" http://www.lookingforward.com/wbai/index.htm) containing the endorsements and linked to his own. The supervisor eventually ruled that this, too, was a violation of the election rules, but by this time it was so late in the campaign that the damage had already been done.
The combination of the illegal endorsements on Null's website and DeRienzo's public exposure from years on the air helped him to win the election, after which he became a fierce critic of the two African American community advocates who are WBAI's managers, General Manager Don Rojas and Program Director Bernard White. DeRienzo specifically demanded their firing despite the responsibility imposed on Local Station Boards to conduct an evaluation of these two managers' performance - i.e., prejudging the outcome. DeRienzo also strongly advocated for expanding Null's on-air time. DeRienzo and the other Null associate who benefited from Null's illegal endorsement, Luanne Pennesi, joined forces on with the List-Prog Slate (Listeners and Staff for Progressive Elections), particularly on such issues as expanding Null's airtime and presence during on-air fundraising.
Gary Null himself, in violation of his contract with WBAI, refused to pitch for part of one fund drive, and posted many calls for a financial boycott on his website over the last year and a half (for details, see http://justiceunity.org/nullpennesidoc.html ). Pennesi also made a number of calls for listeners to boycott the station until Null was given more airtime, and at one point (in June 2004) actually made an on-air endorsement of a listener boycott. And the Looking Forward website listing DeRienzo, Pennesi and others as candidates in the winter 2004 election ( http://www.lookingforward.com/wbai/index.htm ) included this statement: "There are many reasons to boycott WBAI during the upcoming fund drive and to withhold money until changes are made." DeRienzo also publicly circulated this boycott call on Pacifica email lists.
During the Local Station Board Election in the fall of 2004, Null again broke election rules on several occasions, using his airtime to unfairly promote Pennesi and several List-Prog candidates. The independent election supervisor ruled these violations were so serious that he ordered management to remove Null from the airwaves. Just before the election was over, the Program Director gave notice of termination to Null's on-air show for programming reasons, offering Null a slot on Pacifica's internet radio broadcast instead. Null apparently never responded to this offer, and began his own Internet broadcasts through his website.
Since the return of the Pacifica National Board to progressive hands, DeRienzo has been increasingly caustic in denouncing the direction of programming. He has posted various attacks on his website http://pdr.autono.net and on various public email lists.
In a website piece giving his rendition of WBAI history, he referred to Samori Marksman, the visionary Pan-Africanist Program Director through the mid- and late-90s who helped greatly broaden the programming to include more voices from communities of color, and who died suddenly in 1999. DeRienzo writes that soon after his death, "Marksman was soon elevated to the position of demigod in the WBAI pantheon." He later describes the programming since the return of Program Director Bernard White in 2002: "The on air sound has been transformed to an unlistenable, whining siren of hate, racism and ignorance that offers few constructive solution to the world's problems."
In another 2002 piece, DeRienzo launches a classic red-baiting attack on Pacifica's then-chair of the National Board: "The role of leftists and other organizations in the Pacifica civil war is a source of concern for a network that has been historically controlled by radio professionals. Current interim Pacifica National Board chair Leslie Cagan was one of the original founders of the Committees of Correspondence (CoC), a group that split from the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) over he CoC's support of the reforms begun by Gorbachev in the late 1980s. After a decade of trying to form a Communist Party 'lite' Cagan's organization grew close to Democratic Socialist and left wing Democratic Party groups and factions of Ralph Nader's Green party. The lack of transparency in the organizational leanings of Pacifica's new rulers is a great potential threat to the Foundation potentially alienating listener donors and inviting attack by conservatives."
In that essay, DeRienzo concludes: "In this time of political turmoil, war and the threat of bigger wars Pacifica has to be more careful than ever in not broadcasting the appearance of close minded one-sidedness because there are other views that deserve a hearing besides those of the dissident group and their supporters. It's only a matter of time before Pacifica is criticized on the floor of congress or its license challenged by conservatives, libertarians and other ideologies that may feel maligned by what's broadcast on Pacifica. ….The best way to forestall a right-wing attack on Pacifica is to hew to a path of strict political independence by station news departments."
Besides fiercely opposing WBAI’s progressive Black community-oriented management, DeRienzo has taken up the longtime claim by conservative forces that WBAI is “anti-semitic hate radio.” As far back as 1993, DeRienzo attacked WBAI programmer Mimi Rosenberg for stating that “Israel is committing genocide,” and claimed that this was an example of the station’s anti-semitism. In December 2002, in a public statement, he decried what he called “growing incidents of anti-semitism leading to public warnings by respected organizations such as the ADL.” This was a reference to the Anti-Defamation League, a conservative lobby group that fiercely supports Israeli policies, including the illegal occupation, and has openly bragged of spying on leftist groups for the FBI. In a 2001 press release, the ADL stated that it was “extremely distressed…about one-sided anti-Israel programming” on WBAI, and that “WBAI has engaged in this type of on-air intolerance concerning Jews and the State of Israel for many years.” This is typical of the anti-WBAI chorus that purposely confuses the issue of genuine anti-Jewish animus, a real issue in the world, with criticism of the oppressive and illegal policies of the Israel government in its treatment of the Palestinian people. (For more background on the campaign claiming that WBAI and Pacifica is systematically anti-semitic, and that voices of Black liberation engage in “hate radio”, see “The Purge of Black Pacifica” at http://www.radiojustice.net/Publish/Purge.htm .)
After the victory of the Justice and Unity slate elections a year later, DeRienzo – now part of a board minority -- began loudly disrupting board meetings with increasing virulence and personal attacks. This pattern of abuse, undeterred by numerous warnings and patient requests to come to order, finally led to the motion to suspend him from the board.
A Press Statement by Kevin Pritchard's Legal Team
10:14pm Mon Jun 4 '01
An update on Kevin Pritchard, the NYC-IMC (Independent Media Center) reporter who was assaulted earlier today by a WBAI employee.
This press statement was released by Kevin Pritchard's legal team earlier this evening.
Kevin Pritchard visited the studios of WBAI this morning to interview staff and volunteers about the station's recent troubles. He was alone.
Upon presenting his New York City Independent Media Center press credentials to one Paul DeRienzo, Pritchard was physically and verbally assaulted without provocation. He also sustained $300 in damage to his audio equipment. He is currently being treated at St. Vincent’s Hospital for a badly sprained or broken finger, a cut lip and multiple abrasions. He intends to press charges against DeRienzo later today.
CONCERNED FRIENDS OF WBAI * www.wbaiaction.org
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 5, 2001
Contact: Rosalie Hoffman
ACTIVIST GROUP CONDEMNS VIOLENCE AGAINST REPORTER BY RADIO STATION STAFFER
Attack Followed Peaceful Protest by Listeners at WBAI Radio (99.5 FM)
An activist group campaigning to reverse the corporate-style takeover of noncommercial radio station WBAI (99.5) in New York has condemned Monday's violent, unprovoked attack by a station staffer on a visiting reporter. Minutes after the end of a short, nonviolent protest by 18 WBAI listeners inside the station, Kevin Pritchard, a working journalist wearing prominent identification from the Independent Media Center and carrying a microphone, arrived seeking to interview station personnel about the just-concluded action. He was verbally and physically assaulted by WBAI News Department employee and producer Paul DeRienzo, according to published accounts. Pritchard suffered a broken finger, cut lip and multiple abrasions. He was treated at St. Vincent's hospital and released Monday night. DeRienzo also destroyed Pritchard's microphone and tape recorder. According to Pritchard's attorneys, the reporter plans to press charges against DeRienzo.
Concerned Friends of WBAI, an eight-month-old multiracial coalition of listeners, producers and community activists seeking to restore WBAI and and its parent Pacifica Foundation to their traditional progressive mission, has consistently opposed the use of violence in the struggle between listener-sponsors and the Foundation's Board of Directors that has been hijacked by corporate and governmental interests.
In that vein, the Coordinating Committee of Concerned Friends of WBAI on Monday condemned Paul DeRienzo's unprovoked attack on a journalist engaged in the legitimate conduct of his duties. The Committee also expressed outrage at WBAI management's ongoing portrayal of the incident as an attack by Pritchard, when in fact the opposite is true: A WBAI staff member, who has made threats against WBAI producers in the recent past, assaulted a journalist trying to get information about a peaceful event that had just occurred. This is the latest example of a flagrant double standard by management on the issue of violence, in which dissident producers are summarily dismissed after flimsy and unsubstantiated allegations of violent behavior, while documented acts of violence by pro-management staff are not even investigated, let alone punished.
Monday's protest at the station was carried out by an ad hoc group calling itself LOUD RAPP (Listeners Outraged, Upset and Determined to Restore a Progressive Pacifica). According to a statement LOUD RAPP released after being unable to read it on the air, the activists entered the station to express their outrage at the "sharp rightward political turn in programming and attacks on workers' rights" at WBAI. By all accounts, the group's activities during the short protest-which included chanting, an attempted banner hanging, and passing out written statements-were completely nonviolent. The listeners left the station without incident when asked, and there were no arrests.
The LOUD RAPP event was not an action of Concerned Friends of WBAI or any of its committees. Nevertheless, the Coordinating Committee of Concerned Friends expressed strong support for the right of listener-sponsors to free and open access to WBAI and all Pacifica stations, especially to convey their opinions on the crisis afflicting the network, which receives 85% of its funding from listeners.
The Coordinating Committee also supported the demands made by LOUD RAPP in its statement, namely: the restoration of all cancelled progressive programming; the return of the fired and the banned WBAI programmers and staff; the immediate restoration of the award-winning news show "Democracy Now!" to WBAI's airwaves; the elimination of the WBAI gag rule and all forms of censorship in the Pacifica network; a two-hour on-air forum to discuss the Pacifica crisis with representatives of both sides; and the resignation of WBAI interim general manager Utrice Leid, with her replacement to be selected via a transparent and democratic process.
Update: June 6, 2001- Late yesterday, Kevin Pritchard, the assaulted journalist, filed criminal charges of third-degree assault against WBAI staff member Paul DeRienzo.