by Our Own Correspondent (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 15, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1420)
In the age of the Internet and cyberspace, radio programming may appear small potatoes. But it is not, especially in North America ,as the protests since last March against Pacifica Network policy, which owns KPFK Radio Stations, show. Most Muslims complain about their lack of representation in the mainstream media but few do anything about it. Muslims have set up small publications and periodically buy airtime on television to present “cultural” programs but that is about it.
One person, however, has done far more. For five years, from 1990 to 1995, Loraine Mirza, award-winning journalist and author of The Internment Camps of Bangladesh, hosted the ‘Islamic perspectives’ Program on Pacifica Radio Station KPFK from Los Angeles. It regularly featured such well-known Islamic scholars as the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, Zafar Bangash of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, and other Islamic spokespersons in North America. Topics ranged from the Islamic movement, Palestine and Kashmir to Bosnia from the Islamic points of view on any and every issue arising in the US or the Muslim world. In January 1995, however, her programme was abruptly cancelled without explanation and she was purged from the newsroom when Mark Schubb took over as station manager.
This purging of a small but vital Muslim presence was part of a larger move by the Pacifica Network in Washington DC to turn away from the concept of alternative, community radio, and begin to attract a more affluent white audience to eventually secure corporate sponsorship. The removal of the Muslim presence was quickly followed by removing programmers of colour, beginning with African Americans, Indigenous People, Asians, and programmes that reflected the large influx of immigrants who had become the majority in the signal area of the station. Programmers who reflected alternative political views were the next to be purged. Soon KPFK and its affiliates in New York, Berkeley, Washington DC and Houston were reduced to braodcasting little more than music or so-called life-style programming.
Despite the purges, however, those left at the Pacifica stations did little to protest until March 1999 when Pacifica suddenly moved to purge itself of its last vestiges of alternative programming. That and the discovery of secret plans to sell the stations, awakened those programmers who were left. So some of the most prominent programmers began to break their silence and speak out on the airwaves. They were then fired for ‘breaking the gag rule’ that had been in force at all the stations. As a result a mass movement of 15,000 protesters converged at the Berkeley Station, and a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the listeners/sponsors of Pacifica stations. The protests are joined by those at KPFK in Los Angeles, where regular demonstrations are also being held.
What does the Free Pacifica movement means to Muslims? There is currently no Muslim presence in the broadcast media. Buying airtime at enormous cost from stations with a weak signal and limited range is a waste of money and resources. For five years, there was at least one station with a powerful signal that was capable of reaching a large listenership in a wide area featuring Muslims in key roles. If successful, the Free Pacifica movement now offers the chance to bring back authentic Islamic programming in the news departments of five major cities in the US.
‘Islamic Perspectives’ was among the first programmes to be purged, on the assumption that despite their numbers, Muslims would not organize a viable protest. Mark Schubb and his bosses at the Pacifica National Bureau were correct in their assumption. It is time for Muslims to stop complaining about their lack of presence in the media and to take a stand and join in the Free Pacifica movement as a strong presence.
When Loraine Mirza first got pulled into the Free Pacifica movement, she says she wasn’t sure where it was going. So she tested a bit, and openly let those on the Free Pacifica list know pretty clearly what her agenda was. A few Muslim-haters and bashers did come out of the woodwork immediately. But within a short time, the vast majority on the list began postings of total support. No, she did not suddenly convert several hundred into accepting Islam, but her presence did persuade many not only to respect Islam, but to understand that one billion people worldwide have been systematically excluded from all major media, print, electronic and publishing. This was something that would not have occurred to any of them before, and this was the point that her presence has brought to light so effectively.
Loraine Mirza is a plucky journalist. She is fighting this battle on behalf of all the Muslims in America; the Muslims in America need to give their support and join the Free Pacifica campaign to get it back with programmes on the air that would reflect the diverse voices that exist in what is commonly referred to as the American ‘melting pot.’
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999