WRTI and Mumia Abu Jamal: Falling Outside the Thinkable

The prison diaries of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a native son from North Philly, a former award-winning NPR reporter and an early student at Temple's own WRTI who had been convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman, were being heavily advertised by the university station at the beginning of its Spring Pledge drive in February 1997. WRTI's station management (separate from the university administration and, over the years, intermittently at odds with it) was hoping to get more dollars from listeners who were expectantly awaiting the collection of prison essays called "Live From Death Row" to be broadcast on Democracy Now! (WRTI's highest rated and listener-supported show) on the 24th.

Earlier, Mr. Abu-Jamal's published essays had attracted the attention of National Public Radio in 1993 and producers recorded him reading his thoughts about prison life, planning to broadcast the series. However, due to national conservative antipathy (a Bob Dole speech from the Senate) and pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, NPR decided not to air the prison diaries and scuttled the project to much public outcry of censorship at the time. The Pacifica Network, a Quaker-based non-profit broadcasting system dedicated to alternative advocacy journalism, decided to pick up the series NPR had dropped and planned to broadcast "Live From Death Row" on their syndicated show Democracy Now!

It wouldn't be heard though because Peter J. Liacouras was traveling to Harrisburg the very next day to beg for more money from the state while Governor Tom Ridge, the most conservative governor in Pennsylvania's recent history, the man who had signed Mumia Abu-Jamal's death warrant and 105 others during his first term, was touring the Rome campus of Temple University. Political pragmatism dictated that Liacouras pull the plug immediately on the politically embarrassing voice that would be storming across Pennsylvania, over those wonderful repeater stations that, he had felt for so long, would eventually do so much for Temple's image. What would those white suburban parents think hearing an eloquent and angry black man from North Philly (home of "Temple Town") talking about contemporary American justice?

Julie Drizen, the executive producer of Democracy Now!, described Temple's decision to cancel the series the "most pernicious form of censorship," and perceptively attributed the reasons to be Temple's fear of losing state funding. When she did so, Temple spokesman George Ingram dismissed it as "baloney." A WRTI employee said that "no one else at the station was permitted to speak publicly about the issue." Steve Geinman, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said Temple's move outraged him and was part of "a disturbing pattern of keeping the public from hearing voices within the prison system," and Drizen said that she only found out they had been dropped "when calls started pouring in from Pennsylvania asking what happened to the Mumia segments?" The national media commented on the situation too and on the CNN show Reliable Sources host Bernard Kalb asked reporter Britt Hume and the other talking heads on the show what they thought about Temple's move. Initially, Hume and the other "reliable sources" on the program agreed that what Temple did was not censorship, and that a forum shouldn't be given to a convicted murderer, but later in the broadcast, Hume played the devil's advocate, saying:

I think there may be a role for essays from a talented radio journalist...who may have some insights into death row, into criminal justice, into what his life is like now. That is not necessarily off limits for information for our culture...if we don't want to hear from a cop killer...why do we constantly interview the Jeffrey Dahlmer types of the world and we consider that fair play for news, but the voice of this guy, who is talking about what it's like to be in jail and so forth, why is he automatically out of bounds?

Before the dust could clear, the Temple Law faculty, students and supporters of Democracy Now! protested, circulating petitions demanding that university officials restore the program. Burton Caine, a Temple Law professor and, coincidentally the father of noted Philly jazz pianist Uri Caine, organized a symposium on censorship at the law school (which Temple officials didn't bother to attend), and said "This whole thing involves freedom of speech. Temple is a public institution [Author's italics] bound by the Constitution of the United States...freedom of speech is an academic value of the highest degree." In an eerie foreshadowing of what would happen months later when the all jazz format would be gutted, Temple administration spokesman George Ingram replied that "the issue is not free speech. The issue is: Does a radio station have the right to determine its own programming? [Author's Italics]"

But again, Temple's aversion to free speech shouldn't have come as a surprise since back in September of 1995 they deliberately undercut their own freshman composition instructor when she tried to make Mumia Abu-Jamal's book required reading for her class. The Fraternal Order of Police complained and the university didn't say one word about intellectual honesty or integrity and the discussion of potentially controversial thoughts; however they did promise the FOP they would allow students who objected to the material to transfer out of the course.

Activist Frank R. Hughes, who also became involved when the station would later change its jazz format, circulated a handbill entitled "The Shame of Temple University" that described a sampling of "Temple's atrocious behavior."

1. Arbitrarily eliminating WRTI's most financially lucrative, educational and popular programming without any prior notification or dialogue. Pacifica's contract was canceled literally moments before the show was to air, surprising and infuriating not only listeners but the entire WRTI staff.
2. Refusing to attend a March 18 symposium at the Law School to explain the University's position, clearly a calculated act of disrespect for the more than 150 listeners and staff in attendance. Not only did the University refuse to send a representative, it deliberately discouraged the event, allowing it to go on only after the coordinator threatened to convene on the Law School steps.
3. WRTI continues to masquerade as a public radio station. During the Spring Pledge drive it deliberately misled listeners and duped volunteers about the nature of the station and its relationship to its audience. The ongoing use of the phraseology and imagery of public radio to entice financial support was blatantly fraudulent and amounted to little more than a well organized confidence scheme.
4. Perhaps the most odious...has been the complete disregard for the emotional well being of the WRTI staff and volunteers. It is they who are subject of a "gag order" denying their right to public and private comment...

Needless to say, JAZZ-FM members and contributing fans did not give much money on that Spring drive due to their anger over the cancellation of Democracy Now! This "lack of support" for the station was later thrown in their faces as evidence of their cultural complacency and was also used as one rationale when Temple officials decided to go "half" classical. Temple brass played the desperate ends against the middle saying jazz fans weren't supporting the music they supposedly loved so maybe classical listeners would be more appreciative. In other words, jazz listeners deserved to lose their music. Another institutional plus that wasn't an explicit part of the dialogue was that it wouldn't hurt to have this completely socially acceptable, non-confrontational music wafting over the gated communities of suburban Pennsylvania to convince those living there, who'd been spared the disgruntling voice of prisoner Abu-Jamal, that the ideological bent at Temple had changed. Another inside bonus was that more corporate underwriting would be floating over the station transom. No longer would there be all that nasty haggling with tiny, struggling jazz venues and minority cultural/political advocate organizations over $50 advertising. PNC Bank, who had closed a needed community bank branch in North Philly, offered to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsor the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera! [More]

Next: The End of an Era: The Dismantling of WRTI
Back to Part Three