Pacifica Radio in talks to air Al Jazeera in major U.S. markets

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pacifica Radio, the nonprofit organization that runs the nation's oldest public-radio network, is in talks with the Al Jazeera Network to put the Persian Gulf-based news service on its five stations, including WPFW-FM in Washington.

If an agreement is reached, Pacifica would become the biggest American broadcaster to air Al Jazeera, whose news reports have at times drawn criticism from Western governments, including the Bush administration during the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Jazeera is perhaps best known for being the first network to broadcast video communiques from Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Pacifica's parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., has been negotiating with Doha-based Al Jazeera to carry the audio portion of its English-language TV channel, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Closing a deal with Pacifica, which is known for its liberal-leaning programming, would be a boost for Al Jazeera. The network, owned by the emir of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, has struggled to gain a foothold in the American market. After four years of operation, Al Jazeera English can be seen only in the Washington area and two other cities, Burlington, Vt., and Toledo, Ohio.

The negotiations, which have not been disclosed publicly, are already drawing criticism from within Pacifica. In an internal memo to the organization's national board, Steve Brown, a former member of the board overseeing Pacifica-owned WBAI-FM in New York, advised Pacifica to consider "the blowback" from associating itself with Al Jazeera.

"Al Jazeera is a totally government owned and funded broadcast entity," Brown wrote. "It claims to be independent and unbiased, but what broadcast entity can afford to bite the hand that feeds it (especially when that hand can also, literally as well as metaphorically, cut out its tongue)?"

Brown also criticized Qatar's human-rights record and its treatment of women and political prisoners.

But the most critical issue, he said, was "the Jewish Question" -- that is, the reaction of Pacifica's Jewish listeners and financial contributers to airing a network funded by the head of an Arabic state. "It is not even surmise, but an absolute certainty, that if we broadcast Al Jazeera . . . support from many and perhaps most of our Jewish listeners could vanish overnight."

While Brown conceded he didn't know the religious affiliation of Pacifica's donors, he wrote that the loss of support from a fraction could damage Pacifica. "Could we survive without having to sell off a station?" he wrote.

Brown did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday.

Arlene Engelhardt, Pacifica's executive director, declined to comment on any negotiations. But she spoke favorably of Al Jazeera, saying, "I appreciate the viewpoints they bring and see them as offering an international perspective that our news media doesn't always offer."

In addition to WPFW in Washington, Pacifica operates stations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Berkeley. Some of its news and commentary programs, such as "Democracy Now!," are carried on about 100 affiliated stations.

Pacifica was founded in 1947 by pacifists and conscientious objectors. Its mission statement declares that it will use its radio assets "to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors [and] to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups."

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