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Elonge Ekalele
PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Hear Today . . .

Changes in the student governing body of WRPI indicate that its legacy of “communiversity” radio cannot be taken for granted

By Chet Hardin

 

It’s a sober crowd that fills Christ Church in Troy to hear Amy Goodman speak. Just yesterday, Oct. 17, President George W. Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and the gravity of the moment is not lost on many of the 500 people waiting for Goodman to arrive. Throughout the crowd, there are quiet discussions of corruption, torture, surveillance, and the ongoing wars.

One of the many antiwar activists who drove in from outside Troy for the event is 73-year-old former pilot Frank Houde. Houde retired from the Air Force in 1974, after spending 20 years of his life in the service to his country.

“I am a Vietnam vet,” he says. “I’ve been to a few of the hot spots. I got out at 20 years because Vietnam started me thinking, and you don’t want to think a lot about philosophical things if you are dealing with war, if war is your business.”

For the past 15 years, Houde has been a member of Veterans For Peace. He says he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. He was convinced that the leaders were lying to us to get us into the war—that there was no Al Qaeda link to Baghdad, that the weapons of mass destruction would never materialize—he was being told this by his sources still within the military.

“I think you will find a lot of the kids serving in Iraq, whether they see themselves as patriots, or they see themselves as antiwar,” Houde says, “are very clear in their minds that this war is being terribly mismanaged.”

Houde scans the crowd in the church and picks out many local peace activists. He has been to more than his share of rallies, he says. But also he sees many more people in the crowd that he doesn’t recognize, and this, he says, gives him hope.

Goodman is stopping in Troy during her 80-city tour of North America to mark the 10th anniversary of Democracy Now!, her progressive news broadcast, and to promote her latest book, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back.

She is introduced by Albany Law School professor Eleanor Stein.

“Amy, I was thinking about our community,” Stein says, “and how we are feeling in the face of war, in the face of torture, in the face of surveillance, of racism and xenophobia, environmental devastation and the shameless redistribution of wealth that we have been living with. And we tend to feel isolated—our protests that we work so hard on tend to feel small and local, and we often feel powerless in the face of the might of the corporate state which seems so overwhelming. So what do we do? In this neighborhood, we turn the dial to 91.5.”

The crowd erupts into applause at the mention of 91.5. Many people in the Capital Region rely on WRPI-FM for progressive, antiwar and activist programming. From nationally syndicated shows like Goodman’s Democracy Now! to locally produced shows such as On the Barricades, From the Belly of the Beast, and Rezsin Adams’ Nation Magazine, WRPI’s left-leaning programming has drawn a wide and dedicated audience. What these loyal listeners tend to forget, however, and what has been illustrated clearly this year by the removal of many progressive shows, such as Free Speech Radio, Africa in Motion, Necessary Radio, and The Portside, is that WRPI, although important to the community, is just a club for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s students. And it is the students who, ultimately, have the final say.

The station WRPI is licensed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but is managed by a student organization, whose officials comprise an elected executive committee, or E-comm. It has been that way pretty much since the beginning. To maintain its license, the station must be on the air for a specific amount of time each day, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. Achieving the appropriate airtime is not always a realistic goal for the students, whether it is because many leave for the summers, they don’t want to get up too early, or they have classes; the students through the years have come to rely on community members to fill up those open time slots. The community is always eager to get behind the microphone of this 10,000-watt, free-format station. This dynamic has helped create the WRPI we hear today—a “communiversity” radio station.

There are community members who have worked at WRPI for decades. Considering the time they have invested, they have naturally come to view the station as theirs. These members even operate a group called Friends of WRPI that helps raise funds to attend to the station’s many needs. But as much as the community members feel that the station belongs to them, it doesn’t. It belongs to the students, and to the extent that the students want the community members there, they are there. If the students don’t want the community members there, they are out.

So what happens when the students in charge decide that they want to steer the station away from the progressive talk and news favored by the older community members, and to good-old youthful, angry, commercialized rock & roll instead?

Elonge Ekalele started his call-in talk show Africa in Motion nearly a decade ago. A native of the Republic of Cameroon, Ekalele loves media and radio, but upon arriving in this country, he became convinced that it would be impossible for him to get his own show at a corporate-owned radio station. For someone like Ekalele, who expresses a deep belief in the power of communication, WRPI presented a golden opportunity.

“The purpose of my show was to give people the opportunity to have a civilized discussion,” Ekalele says. “The show wasn’t Republican, Democrat, right- or left-wing. We talked about real issues. We talked about politics around the world. Even if David Duke came to Albany, I would be the first to invite him out for coffee. If he accepted, I would sit with him. This is just the way I was brought up. I wasn’t brought up to make a judgment.”

Africa in Motion has been off the air for months now, Ekalele says, and although he misses it, he doesn’t miss the hostile environment that he says overtook WRPI since the most recent E-comm was elected last December. The students in charge were not interested in talk radio, he says, and they were definitely not interested in progressive talk radio.

He says that his problems at the station started after he garnered some attention from the local press. “The Times Union wrote an article about the show, which said, ‘WRPI talk show host brings courtesy and civility back to public discourse.’ And that was exactly what I was doing,” he says. “But immediately after this article, there was a change around a couple people in the E-comm. One person, for instance, took it upon himself to monitor my program.”

One time, Ekalele says he was accused of issuing over the air an invitation to the upcoming E-comm meeting, to anyone in the audience, so that they could voice their complaints about the direction the station was going.

“I saw four members of the E-comm walk into the station and they said, ‘You have to stop the broadcast. Play music. We have to talk to you,’ ” Ekalele recalls. After he was told what he was accused of saying, he went to the cassette deck, took out the tape of his program and gave it to the E-comm members to listen to.

“They are young, aggressive. I am looking at them and think, ‘Oh my goodness, this world is really coming to an end.’ And I gave them my cassette and I say, ‘I am not leaving the station until you go listen to what I had broadcast.’ So they came back and said, ‘Oh Elonge, we are sorry. No, we were wrong.’ ”

Ekalele was eventually dismissed after he allegedly engaged in a confrontation over the air with a listener. Ekalele says that this was another simple misunderstanding, but that certain members of the E-comm were convinced that he had broken FCC regulations, and were happy for any excuse to remove him.

“The E-comm is like a dictatorship,” Ekalele says. “The station has to lean to certain programming.”

When contacted, the student leadership of WRPI refused to comment for this article. Instead, Metroland was directed to Mark Smith, dean of students at RPI. He has served as one of the advisors to WRPI for the past four years.

“It is my understanding that this is the only station that includes, in that kind of role, folks not affiliated with the institution,” Smith says. “That’s part of the challenge. That’s the fun of it. You do have a range of individuals, a range of interests, of programming that makes the station vibrant and alive.”

As for the programming that so many in the community enjoy, Smith says: “The media is constantly changing, in terms of what is offered and what is not offered. Shows you may like suddenly are not there anymore and shows you don’t like replace it. It isn’t unlike any other radio station other than it is a college station and it is noncommercial.”

Though he claims he isn’t aware of any real issue with the station, he says that when personality conflicts arise between the students and the community members, sometimes riding it out isn’t always the way to go.

“You gotta take a stand at some point,” Smith says. “Riding it out, I don’t see, as particularly an option.”

‘The day that I decided to quit,” says Bonnie Hoag, of Necessary Radio, “I found myself referring to the current E-comm . . . as being akin to the Brownshirts.”

(The Brownshirts were an aggressive band of Nazi thugs who swept through German radio stations and newspapers shutting down dissident speech.)

“And I know it seems a bit inflated, but that was the way it felt to me,” Hoag says. “There was a PSA [public service announcement] that I had played for years. It was from the American Friends Service Committee, which is Quakers. It had to do with the death penalty, and it unceremoniously disappeared one day. And I asked Gino [D’Addario, the station manager] where it had gone, and he said that there had been a complaint. I wish I had had the wherewithal to say, ‘Oh, I’d like to see that,’ because complaints are supposed to be in writing, they are supposed to be on public file, but I didn’t because it had gotten to a point where things had gotten so uncomfortable that you could be ousted for almost anything.”

“Oftentimes they would say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that because of the FCC. But in my experience, in the previous 10 years of being there, it had more to do with asserting power,” she continued. “The old people, the community members were on their way out, that is the feeling I got.”

She said there was a very tangible sense that the community members were not welcome any more, but she couldn’t figure out where that attitude was generating from, whether it was from RPI’s faculty or the students in charge.

After a while, Hoag says, the tensions at WRPI got to her. She finally had had enough. On her last show, she voiced on the air her opinion that the station was going in the wrong direction.

“Which you cannot say on the air,” she says. “You know, you can’t defame your own station, and I knew that I couldn’t. So after I had, I said, ‘You know, I think this is my last show.’ Then I got an e-mail the next day that I had been fired. That I could never, ever, ever have another show on WRPI, because I was very bad.”

Hoag, like most community members involved with the station, belonged to Friends of WRPI, which puts out a newsletter three times a year. After Hoag quit, concerns over the direction of WRPI were voiced in the following newsletter.

“In the late 1960s and early ’70s,” Hoag wrote in her farewell address, “WRPI was my daily companion. It expressed a rare and courageous point of view: opposition to the Viet Nam war. I was grateful to feel less isolated, less endangered by my community’s war lust. It wasn’t just the politics; it was the music, too. Even though I didn’t know who else listened I felt part of a WRPI family.”

“Now I feel like an outsider. In the last year or so something has shifted at the station. WRPI’s long and venerable history seems of little interest to the students. The community members are treated poorly. Our sense of the station’s history seems irrelevant and our accomplishments, including endurance, don’t elicit a natural appreciation.”

In the same newsletter, Steve Pierce, president of the Friends of WRPI, wrote: “The community service/alternative programming philosophy that marked much of the last decade at WRPI (and perhaps much of its nearly 50 year history as a full power FM station) is now being challenged. Over the past two years, the on-campus awareness of the radio station’s importance to the community outside of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has eroded. While some students understand that WRPI is a 10,000 watt radio station reaching hundreds of thousands of people in three states and has an educational and non-commercial mission that extends far beyond the campus community, others don’t. . . . For years student leaders cultivated and supported a student/community partnership that produced a truly unique radio station. It is with deep regret that I note that partnership is in jeopardy now.”

chardin@metroland.net

If It Makes Amy Laugh

Amy Goodman moved easily through her hourlong speech on Oct. 18 at Christ Church in Troy. She was comfortable engaging the crowd of mostly antiwar activists, progressives and fans of her award-winning news broadcast, Democracy Now!. At one point, Goodman called on Stephen Downs to stand up, and together they retold the story of how Downs had gone to Crossgates Mall before the invasion of Iraq and gotten himself arrested for wearing a shirt inscribed with a peace slogan. It is a story Goodman has told at every stop on her 80-city tour, she says. She enjoys the story so much, she even wrote about it in her latest book, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back.

“Yours said, I remember it was something extremely radical: ‘Peace on Earth,’ ” Goodman teased Downs about the shirt that got him arrested. “And your son’s was a little more specific?”

“Let inspections work,” Downs answers.

“And you put these T-shirts on?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“And you go over to the food court?”

“Yes.”

“So they go to the mall before the invasion,” Goodman says to the crowd, “doing the patriotic thing, they go shopping.”

“And a security comes up to you while you were eating?” Goodman asks Downs. “And said to you you would have to take off those T-shirts or you would be arrested because there is no protesting allowed in the mall?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Did you get put in handcuffs?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh-huh. Is it true that you are a retired attorney with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct?”

“Yes.”

At this, the audience breaks out into laughter, applauding and twisting around in their seats to see Downs. Goodman can’t help but laugh, too.

“Is it true that a few days later 150 people in similar T-shirts descended on the mall?” she asks. “Is it true that the security guards locked themselves in their office?”

She then asks if there were any of those people in the church, and a dozen or so people stand up. They are happy to be given this chance to stand in front of their peers, looking proud as the audience applauds them loudly. This is why the people had come to Christ Church—for laughter, comfort and solidarity in dark times.

—Chet Hardin


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