Early in 1972 Nanette Rainone, program director at WBAI-FM, asked me if I’d be interested in doing a lesbian show. Would I ever! I knew nothing about radio production but jumped at the chance. She told me to come in for training.
WBAI—for those who’ve never lived in NYC—is a member of the Pacifica network of noncommercial, listener supported stations. Given the lack of advertising revenue, most of us who worked there were volunteers. Rainone had created some of its first feminist programs and was the first woman to become program director there. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/business/media/nanette-rainone-early-creator-of-feminist-radio-shows-dies-at-73.html
She assigned me to work with Gary Fried, another volunteer and one of the few gay people at the station. He told me to buy a cassette recorder and then showed me how to transfer cassette to reel-to-reel, how to edit tape on those reels using the editing block, a razor blade, and adhesive splicing tape, and how to fade in music.
Shortly after I started at WBAI, I needed another place to live. I kept getting robbed, even after having the building superintendent put iron gates on the windows and a police lock on the door. The super, it turned out, was a junkie—his wife admitted it to me. Only after that did I notice the track marks on the backs of his hands. A third former member of the RAT collective, Miriam Rosen, had also joined the radio station, and at the time that I needed new digs, she happened to be giving up what she called her “squalorific slum apartment.”
It was another immigrant tenement, like the one I was leaving, but here the landlord—a sad-faced guy in his 40s—lived on the premises and kept an eye on things. Rosen, or perhaps the tenant before her, had painted each room a different color, and sometimes several colors. The light was good. There was an elementary school across the street, and the happy shouts of children drifted up during recess.
My program, Lesbian Nation1 came on the air every Friday evening, from 1972-1974. As far as I know, it was the first lesbian radio show anywhere. With arranging to meet guests, taping them, and then editing the results, it took me 20 hours to produce each half hour show. That became my new (unpaid) part-time job.
I interviewed feminist authors2, most of whom were obliging enough to read from their work. When Judy Grahn came to town, I recorded her at the women’s center. Her magnificent elegy, A Woman is Talking to Death, knocked my socks off, and I ended the show by segueing into Olatunji’s Drums of Passion. Apparently listeners were blown away as well, because they responded with a flurry of contributions to the station.
I carried my mic to demonstrations. One of these was by men protesting laws requiring the payment of alimony (now known as spousal support). The National Organization for Women staged a counter protest in favor of alimony laws and increasing child support. I interviewed both groups.
A different kind of demonstration, of martial arts and self-defense, took place at the women’s center. The instructor explained what she was doing as she showed the moves, and I scrambled around her, pointing the mic at the mat as she threw a would-be attacker: Thud! Pow! Ki-ai! Her running description and sound effects were sufficient; you didn’t need visuals to get a kick out of the show.
Another show was a sportscast from a feminist softball game, with interviews of the participants.
In the spring of 1972, students at the University of Arizona invited me to speak. They were paying my air fare! I packed my mic and cassette and flew out, and from Phoenix hitchhiked around the West, interviewing women in various cities. (More about that adventure in a future post.)
When Sharon Krebs, a former colleague of mine at RAT Newspaper, was released from a three-year sentence after a failed attempt at bombing to protest the war, I invited her to the studio. A brilliant woman, she had lots to say about the way our prison system treats women, and soon was teaching a course on the subject at the New School for Social Research. https://www.ubspectrum.com/article/2011/03/today-in-ub-history-march-4-1974 When another former RAT comrade, Jane Alpert, sent out her manifesto Mother Right from underground, I read it on the air. That was in June 1973. In September I read the response to Alpert from women of the Weather Underground. Ms. Magazine published Alpert’s manifesto in 1974.
Working at WBAI changed my life in many ways. Rainone and Fried are deceased, and I regret never thanking them enough for giving me that opportunity.
To be continued…
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1Jill Johnston published a book by the same title in 1973.
2Some of these were Esther Newton, Bertha Harris, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, Myrna Lamb, Phyllis Chesler, Frances Doughty, Jill Johnston, Barbara Love & Sydney Abbott.