Why I Left Off The Hook: WBAI Has Got To Go (Hey Hey! Ho Ho!)

As some of you know, since 2008 or so I have been a periodic panelist on Off The Hook, the WBAI radio show about digital rights and security. In the past two years I went on indefinite, then permanent leave. I haven’t spoken about it publicly for a number of reasons, the first of which being that putting “hacker” anywhere on one’s resumé or public blog is considered dangerous to one’s career; a majority of people don’t understand the meaning of the term within IT circles, where it carries less of a negative meaning. I’m slowly working on finding ways to talk about it, and hoping the right employers will recognize the value of my participation in the local hacker scene as I do: it has, I think, lent great insight and strength to my research, understanding, and teaching.

The reason I haven’t talked about leaving, though, has to do with WBAI’s stated discouraging of participants from airing the station’s dirty laundry. There are historical reasons for this. The community-supported, community-run station has gone through periods of infighting during which producers filled the airwaves with their squabbles. This was not a productive or pleasant way to maintain an audience willing to support a station.

But things have come to a head. WBAI is currently working out of a temporary station in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which flooded their usual Wall Street address. As a result, Emmanuel Goldstein, Off The Hook’s creator and producer, has finally been pushed to the point where he is speaking out about what’s going on at the station. He details why in a post on the 2600 Magazine site; the summary is that poor decisions and petty squabbles at the station have kept Off The Hook off the air for the past few weeks, making it hard to cover issues like electrical, telephone, and Internet outages which hackers could well shed light on for the community.

It seems clear to me that the current situation at the station is of a piece with the things which drove me off the air. So it’s time for me to voice my concerns.

Let me say first that I care deeply about retaining a space for alternative perspectives on the air in an age of ClearChannel monopoly. For a community station to lose a broadcast frequency with such a powerful signal would be a massive loss. I’ve shut up because of this, too; to some extent, I didn’t want to rock the boat.

But I believe WBAI is doing significant harm to its listeners, to the extent that I could not in good conscience continue on the show.

Emmanuel demands that any Off The Hook participant be there during pledge weeks, which is fair. But if you know me, you know one thing I am physically incapable of doing is lending my voice to sell something I don’t believe in. Pledge drives have become so frequent at the station that they put enormous strain on the team producing the show. We were constantly under pressure to hustle people we knew to donate premiums, which was uncomfortable. Pledge drives were always accompanied by weeks of nasty bickering about who was not doing the work to meet the station’s donation threshold for keeping the show on the air.

Our personal discomfort paled in comparison to what pledge drives asked our listeners to do. WBAI has made a number of terrible, costly decisions which can only be supported with constant pledge drives. Having worked the phones during drives, I know that much of our support seems to come from elderly shut-ins who barely understand what we’re talking about, periodically pledging for things like Arduino kits which I worried we’d hear about on the news when they suddenly ceased to serve as load-bearing items in some poor hoarder’s house someplace. For other reasons, I’m also aware that the station is supported by other vulnerable populations who cannot afford what it is dishing out, but I’ll explain that in a moment.

The station is the most expensive in the Pacifica radio network. Maintaining the incredibly valuable, powerful broadcast slot the network was lucky enough to obtain back in the 1960s is only part of the expense (and that is the one expense I would never complain about; the reach of the station is worth it). WBAI has also chosen to maintain a studio on Wall Street, which, though it is in a building devoted to nonprofits and as I understand it thus has reduced rent, is still very pricey. The station also made a very bad decision in recent years to buy an expensive new phone system which doesn’t work well and continues to need repairs. (They should have consulted with Emmanuel and Bernie about this, but they only did so after it was already installed.) Because the station keeps making these expensive mistakes, it always felt to me like we were asking listeners to throw their money into a giant sucking pit. I couldn’t stand this.

One of the final straws for me, though, was Gary Null, who is apparently the station’s most valuable draw on pledge weeks. As fate would have it, he’s also the one who’s providing the station with a temporary studio — the one from which Off The Hook and any other show after 6 pm was summarily banned in favor of broadcasting pre-recorded content and reruns.

Gary Null is a quack. He’s no better than a patent-medicine or snakeoil salesman. One of the premiums he’s offered during pledge weeks is his “red stuff” — a mystery mixture which he claims can cure cancer and other diseases. How WBAI can continue offering this without bringing the wrath of the FDA down on their heads is unclear to me.

I might have brushed Null off as so obviously bogus that nobody would fall for him if I didn’t know someone who’s gone for his crap, hook, line, and sinker. Jeremy, a thin, flighty guy I see at my African dance classes in Harlem, periodically bends my ear to try out ideas he’s heard on WBAI. Once it was “isn’t it terrible that they’re introducing martial law in the parks?” (The curfew had been lowered to 10 pm in Tompkins Square.) Another time, more worrisomely, he had been convinced by Null that he could cure his mother’s pneumonia better than a doctor could.

I cannot in good conscience support a station which asks for tremendous amounts of money to dish out information which can do harm to those who take it seriously. (I’m wondering why I didn’t write this sooner.)

Since high school, I have watched progressive movements be born, come into frenzied flower, be co-opted, ossify, and pass on, leaving an absence for young people to feel and fill with their own new sprouts. It happened to Our Nation Earth, our little movement to take over an abandoned city building near the Rose Bowl for a community center; it happened to Indymedia, which locally decided it needed to focus its efforts on a newspaper; it happened to Sesame Street, which turned to merchandising to support itself.

WBAI is well past its expiration date; it has been for years. (It was in 2000, working for Indymedia, that I first met people sunk in the soap opera of the station’s management and swore I would never get involved.) Nobody should be asked to pump money into an organization so riddled with rot and disease, no matter what its benefit to society. It is time to start over. It is a shame to lose the organizational memory of a movement — a terrible loss — but it is no shame to put an end to the exploitation of vulnerable people.

*     *     *

Emmanuel seems to think the crisis with WBAI should end Off The Hook as well. This is his personal decision, and what it’s based on is not clear. Is he tired? He has largely retired from local 2600 meetings in the past year. Does he see the show’s relevance as fading? A number of us who have participated in it don’t see it that way; we would like to see the show survive in some form. I wonder about satellite radio, or even YouTube. Yes, I’m fully aware neither of these options would provide the same reach to people who might otherwise never stumble across the topics and perspectives we cover. But let’s not be naïve: no broadcast medium provides the reach it used to. What matters most in these current, chaotic moments of history, this time of creative destruction, is building an audience by any means necessary. Broadcast is no longer a guarantee.

So there’s my tel, fare you wel. I cannot recommend that anyone give any further support to WBAI, even if Off The Hook continues on the air. But should Off The Hook go on without the station, I hope regular listeners will stay with us (and I say “us” because if the show leaves WBAI and continues I’d like to return to it, if there is no ill will, as I have said since leaving the show). The conversations we’ve had with smart people from around the world are worth continuing.

Comments 17

  1. patty wrote:

    Oh my dear!
    I hear you. I feel so bad that so many good efforts went into such a mess that it is now. Still they are fighting for control of the station. Many of the people I started with in the governance and saving the station have wasted most of their lives doing this to keep it away from the crazies, and now they too have become crazy.

    Glad I quit when I did. I love OTH when I listen and I know that OTH has given tons of time and $$$$ and premiums. You couldn’t ask for a better collective on there when it came to premiums donations and interesting ones at that.

    When there was no WBAI except for the first night some hours from Michael G’s kitchen (not bad and better than what followed), I thought, what a bunch of fuck ups! I am sad.
    I send you a giant hug and would love to see you if you are ever around!!!

    Posted 13 Nov 2012 at 2:32 pm
  2. kevix wrote:

    thanks for the perspective from someone who was there and tried to help. also, thanks again for the great chiptunes lineup @ HOPE.

    Posted 13 Nov 2012 at 4:54 pm
  3. Mitch Altman wrote:

    Thanks for your perspective on this sad state of things. I still love what WBAI has offered. And I still love OTH. I hope both can continue to offer they uniquely give to a world that so sorely needs it.

    Posted 14 Nov 2012 at 10:35 am
  4. Terry A. Davis wrote:

    God is just. Work is rewarded.

    Posted 19 Nov 2012 at 7:41 pm
  5. Tom wrote:

    Good for you for recognizing the situation as it is. You’re right. One of the biggest problems is the in-house fighting. All of these people only care about
    gaining control of an expensive and powerful tool (BAI). If it damages Pacifica’s reputation or drives away listeners, screw it. We don’t care. Re: Null, I’ve heard him blatantly lie on-air many times as well. It’s clear that Pacifica thinks he (and Amy Goodman) are their cash cows. We’ll literally put anything on-air for money. That’s just sad.

    Why then would anyone want to donate money to this?

    Posted 05 Dec 2012 at 11:28 am
  6. Gordon Hemming wrote:

    Understand this sentiment, but in the end its hard to ask that they not be around at all so what do people do ? Watch it go under and see even fewer voices on the air. WBAI is listener sponsored so its up to listeners to make it or break it.

    Posted 06 Mar 2013 at 12:51 am
  7. Michael Casey wrote:

    Hi,

    I was an ‘Off the Hook’ listener for three years and a
    supporter for OTH during WBAI fund drives. Also, a 2600 subscriber.
    As time past, I had concluded, that. the on the air people of OTH were disingenuous to say the least.

    Posted 06 Mar 2013 at 8:07 pm
  8. gus wrote:

    Hey, remember I was one of those people! ;) It took me a while to sort out what was going wrong, though.

    Posted 21 Mar 2013 at 8:31 pm
  9. Larry Hughes wrote:

    Didn’t Gary Null work somewhere else on-air?
    Was he on WOR or WMCA for a time? I think it is significant that he is no longer on commercial radio.
    It is possible this may have factored into possible
    conflicts when awaiting license renewal. I listen to him for what he appears to be, one of those patent-medicine merchants that used to travel around in the horse-and-carriages and travel from town to town.
    I take much of what I hear with a grain of salt, much as I do when I watch so-called Paid Programming or direct-response that airs overnight. Do I believe all the claims about the Ginsu Knife or the Bamboo Steamer? No, but I know better.

    Posted 16 Apr 2013 at 10:22 pm
  10. Kevin White wrote:

    In the 1970s Gary Null ran a “psychic surgery school.” You know the kind. They stand over your and, with slight of hand, are suddenly holding chicken livers. Then they tell you they just pulled the cancer out. Normal, intelligent people would tell me that he brings in too much money to judge him so harshly.

    I hate both Juan and Amytoo for tearing a part the station so they can steal Pacifica resources and charge them back to the network for $500,000.00 Plus a year.

    Posted 17 Jul 2013 at 4:06 pm
  11. Harvey Phillips wrote:

    I’ve listened to Gary since his original ‘BAI broadcasts. At times I also think of his health messages in the Traveling Quacks category. But it’s hard to put down someone who presents researched peer- reviewed data. It’s interesting also that he’s taken the quack busters to court and won. It’s also hard to fault a guy who doesn’t charge for his services and instead pays good salaries to his team of certified nutritionists.

    But Gary covers more that just health issues. Listen to his streaming shows on Progressive Radio Network; he provides researched information and interviews with world renowned experts on important issues of the day. Where have you heard documented alternative views about the 911 tragedy? Do you know about ALEC and the way that group influences our elected officials? How about the reasons for today’s financial breakdown? I’ve learned an awful lot about global warming, solar flares and fracking. I grimace as I see my neighbors spray the weeds with Round-Up. I get shivers down my spine as I hear about National Security and encroaching comparisons with Nazi Germany and the fascist politics of Mussolini.

    As to ‘BAI? I’ve been a supporter/subscriber since the early ’60’s. My favorite programs from that time were Larry Josephson and Steve Post. And I was mesmerized by a three-day live tribute to rag-time music. Today I listen to Off-the-Hook, the Personal Computer Show and Micheo Kaku. But the pledge drives get in the way of the programs. I renew my membership, but get annoyed with each persistent fund drive. I hesitate now when its time to re-subscribe. I don’t need the station anymore. Progressive Radio Network now fills the space that used to belong to ‘BAI.

    Posted 25 Aug 2013 at 3:59 pm
  12. gus wrote:

    Harvey, I think you’ve been taken in when it comes to Null and 9/11. I don’t find any of the evidence presented as convincing as you do — in fact, I have no evidence that Null has ever used valid peer-reviewed data. Same with the 9/11 stuff. But I really don’t want to get into this argument here.

    Posted 26 Aug 2013 at 8:39 am
  13. Harvey Phillips wrote:

    O.K. No arguments. Was I taken in? I’m a middle man. I was interested in the subject and over a period of time listened to over 20 hours of shows. I listened to people who did forensic studies, discussed architectural design, metallurgists, chemists, demolitions experts, engineers and investigative journalists as well as first responders and people in the building who described what they heard and saw. No one pointed fingers, just presented their findings.

    I couldn’t help but come away with questions. How do two buildings that get hit from the top fall from the bottom? How does another building in the complex that wasn’t hit by any plane also fall from the bottom? The information on the towers and the Pentagon differs from our government’s version. Is it a cover up? In spite of all the info, I find that hard to believe. With all the hundreds of people who would need to be involved, someone, just one “whistle blower” would need to “WikiLeak” his findings. We’ve heard nothing.

    All Gary’s shows are archived. I have dates of the broadcasts and even saved some excerpts. And I’m sure that key words in all my comments have probably triggered illegal eyes but that’s another subject.

    Posted 26 Aug 2013 at 4:25 pm
  14. David wrote:

    The trouble with Gary Null is that the guy has come to believe that he’s Gary Null. Remember when he almost died from taking one of his own products? About a year ago I had a chance to see him on the street and he really looked like a tired old angry man. The guy just gave me the creeps. Nevertheless, every good con artist is going to try to be as truthful as possible in order to obtain credit. Fact is there are a lot of good medical sources out their that agree with a lot he has to say. the center for medical consumers, public interest health research group, organizations and so on. I believe you said that he makes up the sources he uses. did you take the time to really check on his sources? I did not, but I would do that first, if just to be fair to the guy. fact: heath care is a leading cause of death. and you might what to look that one up. and while I don’t need null to tell me that, it is also true that his program is not 100% lies and misinformation, if you would take the time to do some checking. as for 9/11. that whole thing is really up in the air. I am not going to buy anything I hear from Null or anyone else because what we really need is a real investigation, witch we never had, just like the assassinations of the kennedys and Dr King. I think the most important thing is to know how to think. it’s one thing to have an open mind, but it’s another thing to have a hole in one’s head. that works both ways: to agree with everything from Null because it came out of his mouth or to disagree with everything that comes out of his mouth because it came from his mouth is wrong. let’s just be fair when we judge people.

    Posted 20 Nov 2013 at 3:45 pm
  15. David wrote:

    WBAI was doing a special on the JFK assassination today the day of the murder of the President, when who should they have on to talk about the subject but Mark Lane, a man with close ties to the Liberty Lobby, the Leading Nazi party in America and a former buddy of Rev Jim Jones of Jonestown cool aide fame. And the station wonders why they keep losing supporters..

    Posted 22 Nov 2013 at 9:58 pm
  16. David wrote:

    Anyone thinking he knows all there is to know about the problems between Israel and the Palestinian People would be wise listen to “yer mamma works for the mossad” by Dave Emory at spitfirelist.com and read, “why jews fled arab countries, by ya’akov meron. I am not saying that Israel has always bee right in how they have tread the Palestinians, but there are two sides to every story and Gary Null and WBAI are not interested in that. Instead what we get is Palestinians good Jews/Israel bad. and nothing but lies and half truths about what is going on between these two people.Remember when Israel troops came aboard a supply ship and a fight came about between the troops and the shipmates of that supply ship, which of cause wbai blamed on the Israeli troops, of cause. such boarding of supply ships for Palestinians takes place all the time. it’s a simple procedure where Israel checks the cargo and gives the ok for the ship to proceed. while this is going on, all volunteers wait in their cabin for the troops to leave, just to be on the safe side. not this time. the volunteers where down where they be in the thick of it should any problems come up. remember that things got hot when a crew member attacked a solder. in other words, the crew wanted the volunteers to be in danger and even killed in the fighting that took place so israel could be blamed. The whole thing was very clearly a set-up. But that is something WBAI would never talk about. now, i have something to say about amy goodman.she did an interview with glen greenwald to talk about how america is losing it’s freedom. well, here are two articles fans of amy goodman should ask her why she never said anything about: “how glenn greenward became glenn greenwald” “glenn greenwald defends jew hater,by nick nipclose, in which he spoke about how proud he was to defend people who stand up for what he believes in. the people he believes in defending in court are members of the Nazi Party. so the next time this joker talks about how so concern he is about the government listening in on our private conversation and reading our mail, which is clearly wrong, just remember this guy’s background and ask if it is really our freedom is so worried about when he calls defending Nazis in court, standing up for his principle. and there is lot more i could write about goodman and Null and t he way they twist the truth. but mind you, not everything they say is incorrect. globe warming is real. citizens united is wrong. but this truth masks a body of lies people are easier fooled by because Null and Goodman usually give a lot of good information – mixed with bad information against 100% bad information. so if the other side is giving all bad information, this must mean goodman and Null are giving all good information. right? wrong! while it is easy to spot really bad information, it is harded to spot it when it is mixed with good information, which allows lies not to be challenged because it comes in the same package as good information, so no one questions the parts that are not true. a very cleaver way to deceive people. very cleaver way, indeed.

    Posted 18 Jul 2014 at 2:05 pm
  17. Harvey Phillips wrote:

    I see that Micheo Kaku is now on “Gary’s” station, PRN.net. Without further comments about Gary, the PRN station seems a good alternative to WBAI. Off-the-Hook and PC radio Show are the only two programs I still listen to on ‘BAI; maybe it’s time for those programs to migrate to another non-commercial station.

    Posted 21 Aug 2015 at 4:13 pm

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