Local station dishes out Democracy
By HANK HAYES NET News Service
At almost 6 o’clock on a Wednesday night, the public radio program loved by liberals and loathed by conservatives is about to hit the airwaves. In the middle of a spring fundraiser, four volunteers at a table inside WETS-FM prepare to take phone pledges from listeners and raise money during what WETS Director Wayne Winkler calls “about the liveliest hour we have” — the time slot for the controversial New York Citybased show known as “Democracy Now!” The left-leaning national radio show has garnered a niche audience on WETS — in addition to its own area support group — despite coming under fire from conservative listeners in GOPfriendly Northeast Tennessee. While DN host Amy Goodman talks about the much-publicized flap between the Rutgers women’s basketball team and former radio talk show host Don Imus, studio volunteers Joseph Fitsanakis and Keith Pilkey field calls and take pledges from listeners hungry for Goodman’s politically charged “War and Peace Report.” “It has been a very easy sell,” Fitsanakis, founder of the DN Tri-Cities support group, said of the show’s appeal to its so-called “progressive” group of listeners. Fitsanakis said he founded the support group about two months ago for two reasons: To keep the DN show on the air at WETS and to use the show as a platform to stage environmental events and Iraq war vigils. DN is the only show on WETS that has its own support group, which has grown to about 100 members, according to Fitsanakis. “Because we live in a very conservative part of the country and a conservative part of the state, those who live here who are not conservative feel very isolated,” Fitsanakis said. “They feel their backs against the wall. As a result, there is a thirst for programs like Democracy Now! They will go to great lengths to make sure this program stays on the air, and they are excited about meeting other folks who listen to the program.” But the show’s success at WETS has been countered by listener pressure to drop the program. “We hear from people who tell us they are not going to contribute anymore. There haven’t been all that many of them, but it has alienated a group of listeners,” Winkler said of the show, which began airing on WETS in July 2005. WETS apparently isn’t about to pull the plug on DN. Fitsanakis said that during one fundraising hour, seven of 10 calls supported the show, including one couple identifying themselves as Iraq war veterans. Pledges were said to be matched “dollar for dollar” by another contributor during the fundraising part of the show. Pilkey and another volunteer got calls and pledges from Western North Carolina listeners who said they couldn’t find DN anywhere else. “In the past hour every call I’ve had has mentioned Democracy Now!” Pilkey said. Across the nation, Winkler said DN is heard mostly on low-power FM stations and also can be seen on satellite television and on the Internet. Winkler said the pledges coming in more than cover the $5,000 annual cost for the program. He added that the volume of calls one hour last fall beat out “Car Talk,” one of National Public Radio’s most successful programs. “The primary positive response we get is that this is a program that presents news that is not always available through the mainstream media outlets,” Winkler said of DN. “A lot of times there will be people who aren’t part of the talking heads group who show up on all the shows so you get a different perspective. ... The other positive is the perspectives that are offered aren’t on other radio outlets.” Winkler noted this is the first time in WETS’ history that a group of listeners organized to support one program. “That was a sign how important this program is to a number of people,” he said. “If we can maintain the support ... I’d like to keep this program on the air. I just run the station. I don’t own it. ... You never say never, but as far as I’m concerned this program is a keeper.”
Keith Pilkey, left, and Joseph Fitsanakis, “Democracy Now” support group organizer, man the phones during the WETS fundraiser.