PHOTO: Alicia Solsman
Today . . .
Changes in the student governing body of WRPI indicate
that its legacy of “communiversity” radio cannot be taken
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
gotta take a stand at some point,” Smith says. “Riding it
out, I don’t see, as particularly an option.”
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.)
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?”
inspections work,” Downs answers.
you put these T-shirts on?” she asks.
you go over to the food court?”
they go to the mall before the invasion,” Goodman says to
the crowd, “doing the patriotic thing, they go shopping.”
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?”
you get put in handcuffs?”
Is it true that you are a retired attorney with the New York
State Commission on Judicial Conduct?”
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.
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.