On December 20, 1976, Pablo Yoruba Guzman was named program director of New York radio station WBAI (99.5 FM), a nonprofit noted for its outspoken independence from corporate influence and its willingness to provide airtime for a wide range of viewpoints, often progressive and controversial.
In the abstract, that sounds like a good gig for Guzman, who was still in his 20s, but had already co-founded New York’s Young Lords, a radical group that was patterned after the Black Panthers and among other things demanded empowerment for Puerto Ricans, Latinos and other marginalized groups. He had also served nine months in prison after refusing to report for military induction to fight what he saw as an unjust and immoral war in Vietnam.
All this did not equip him, however, to tame WBAI, where trying to get a consensus on programming is like having a hundred people for lunch and trying to get them to agree on one topping for the pizza.
Guzman, working with new station manager Anna Kosof, proposed a format that decreased jazz, technical, medical and public affairs programming and replaced much of it with more popular and Latino music. Guzman himself would host a three-hour daily show, “El Barrio Nuevo.”
Some of the staff liked the idea. Others, to put it mildly, did not. On February 11, 1977, management decided to shut down the station until the impasse with hosts and staffers was resolved. Some of the staff responded by barricading themselves in the WBAI transmitter room at the Empire State Building, keeping the station on the air and explaining their side to listeners.
After five and a half hours, management cut the power off. WBAI remained dark for the next two months, by which time Guzman had resigned.
Recalling that drama 20 years later, in 1997, he had no apologies.
“I was not trying to turn WBAI into a pop station,” he said. “I was trying to save it.
“I was not a front for corporate interests. I’m a WBAI person. I started at the station in October 1969. When I became program director, the station was deeply in debt. Con Ed was about to pull the plug on our power because we hadn’t paid our bills.”
Money was always a problem for WBAI. Still is. Unlike commercial stations, WBAI relies on listener donations for much of its operating revenue, and in 1977 its listenership was shrinking. So the solution was to get more listeners, Guzman said, and the way to do that was with programming that didn’t surrender its goals, but appealed to a wider audience in a more accessible way.
“The station had marginalized itself,” said Guzman. “I felt it was not getting to the true masses because it was not speaking in a language people could understand. It was a top-of-the-mountain approach.
“I see no reason progressive politics can’t be presented in a way that brings people in. That to me would make it truly radical.”
“Radical” is a word with which Pablo Guzman, who died of a heart attack Sunday at the age of 73, was comfortable.
Democracy Now, the syndicated show that started at WBAI and is hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, remembered Guzman Tuesday in part with a clip of a speech he gave after the Young Lords took over East Harlem’s First Spanish United Methodist Church in December 1969 with a plan for turning it into a community center.
“Whatever happens [here] is going to be important for the fate of the world,” he said, “because we’re in the belly of the monster.”
That’s not the Pablo Guzman most New Yorkers remember. Most New Yorkers know him as a long-time reporter for Channel 2, the local CBS TV affiliate. While he covered often-neglected communities there, he also covered everything from city hall politics to shopping, sports and weather. He became one of the most recognizable, and well-liked, TV reporters in the city, while also finding time to write about politics and music for publications from the New York Daily News to Rolling Stone.
He packed a lot into 73 years, and his wide range of activities and accomplishments underscored a critical truth that often gets submerged in writings about organizations like the Young Lords or the Black Panthers.
Thanks in part to the way their provocative rhetoric scared a lot of white Americans — a consequence not wholly unintended — and the way both the FBI and much of the media portrayed all such groups as dangerous subversives, they are often summarized in history as gun-wielding domestic terrorists.
The facts are a little more nuanced. The original goals of both the Young Lords and the Panthers focused heavily on nuts-and-bolts community projects like day care and breakfasts for schoolkids. The founders also stressed education, both for the communities involved and for outside communities, which is where things tended to get tense. They weren’t saying anything Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t said — “We’re tired of being oppressed and we demand it stop” — but they said it in a much sharper tone and warned that what they weren’t given, they were prepared to take.
Guzman, a Bronx High School of Science graduate, had studied the influential media theories of Marshall McLuhan. Gonzalez, another co-founder of the New York Young Lords, noted in the Democracy Now tribute that some of Guzman’s skill lay in his ability to frame the group’s message in less threatening ways.
“As our minister of information,” Gonzalez said, Guzman “grasped from the start the critical importance for any people’s movement of controlling its own narrative, not allowing it to be determined or defined by others.
“He insisted that we had to tailor our messages to each medium, and also to use humor and bravado. He was an extremely funny guy, and he basically captivated the corporate media. Thanks to his approach, the Lords received perhaps the most sympathetic press coverage of any ’60s revolutionary organization. Pablo Guzman was, in short, the first great public relations expert of the U.S. Latino community.”
Guzman’s explanation for what he was trying to do at WBAI reflects a similar approach. The same was often true for his reporting at Channel 2.
On a personal level, he defied the image of 1960s radicals as humorless ideologues. Talk to him for two minutes and it was clear he was shockingly normal.
He would, for instance, complain about his bosses. “I do all this work that no one sees because I’m on Channel 2,” he said in 1998. “I increasingly find people asking what happened to me.” What percentage of workers in any job haven’t at some point said or thought that?
He loved to dissect the Yankees in good times and bad, a lifelong gift from all the games to which his father took him when he was growing up. He devoured music, with a fondness for Latino musicians like Ray Barretto but no less interest in Michael Jackson or David Bowie, whom he reviewed for Rolling Stone.
He was among the first music writers to declare Prince was going to be a star, even as he was among the first news reporters to identify the 1993 World Trade Center bombers as Islamic jihadists and the Oklahoma City bomber as a white separatist, not a jihadist.
Twenty years after his plans for WBAI fell through, he said, “I still listen to WBAI. I support WBAI.
“And it’s not true that after we had to shut down the transmitter — because we would have lost our license if we couldn’t control it — the FBI said, ‘Yoruba, how does it feel to be on this side?’ “