Long before she began working as a Grit TV producer-host, Blue Grit author Laura Flanders used to co-produce and host a non-commercial daily alternative morning news show called Undercurrents with Dennis Bernstein and Robert Knight of KPFA’s Flashpoints (http://www.flashpoints.net/) daily alternative evening news show. Following is the first part of a 1991 interview with Flanders that appeared in the June 26, 1991 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly Downtown.
What are you trying to accomplish with the Undercurrents show?
Laura Flanders: I think the goal of the Undercurrents program is to do two things. One is to try to go beyond the surface level of a lot of stories that people are aware of—stories about U.S. intervention in other countries, about covert manipulation of situations in this country and others. Stuff like that. So one part of it is to go deeper into stories.
And the other part of it is to make connections between issues that people are dealing with on a domestic level, on a personal level, and the global outlook. So that, for example, when we talk about a story about worker rights—or what’s happening with certain corporations’ employment practices in Honduras—I really like to be able to look at that same corporation in this country. And try to make a connection to what people are working on here with respect to worker rights or ecology or the involvement of corporations in their government or local administration.
Had you thought you were going to get into radio before you started working on the Undercurrents show?
Flanders: I hadn’t really thought about it. I had been working in film and video. And before that writing a little bit. And it didn’t seem completely foreign to go into radio. I grew up listening to the radio. I was always aware of the existence of radio and would listen to it. I listened to Contragate before I ever worked with the team.
What was Contragate?
Flanders: Contragate was the original program out of which Undercurrents developed. It was an investigation that was begun by Robert Knight and Dennis Bernstein and others into the `Iran-Contra Scandal.’ And it really helped to unravel what became `Contragate.’ Often months and months before details emerged in the mainstream—if they ever did—they were kind of dug up by the reporters of Undercurrents, which at that point was called Contragate.
Why did they change the name, by the way?
Flanders: After two years of fairly strict concentration on the “Iran-Contra Affair” and U.S. covert operations in Central America and the Middle East, the program expanded to address U.S. foreign policy and its impact at home and abroad—and its execution through covert and overt policies—on a much broader scale. I was actually brought in at just the time at which it was kind of expanding beyond just the “Iran-Contra Affair.” We started to address a lot more issues. So we thought we should change the name. And Robert Knight actually came up with the name of Undercurrents, which was meant to suggest the sort of current that flows against the mainstream. It was a play on those two words that represents a kind of alternative way of thinking of things, and an alternative body of opinion and strength. It’s a very sort of strong current that flows against what appears on the surface.
How do you go about producing Undercurrents? Does it involve a lot of work—or do you just go into the studio?
Flanders: A lot of work. Enormous amounts of work. On the producing side, it involves the work, obviously, of any report. Of doing research and trying to understand the issues and look at, in any given situation, what has been written before about a story. What angle has been taken before. What areas haven’t been covered. What areas connect to what other areas we’re involved in, in terms of issues and stories that we’ve been following.
But I think the one thing that people don’t understand is that Undercurrents is more than just a radio program. It’s actually an institution. Because we’re not funded by any sort of parent organization. So a lot of the work of the producers is to actually keep the bills paid. And to try and maintain our office and phone and all of that kind of expense, which isn’t very glamorous or very much to do with straight reporting. But without it, you wouldn’t hear the program in the morning.
Are you limited by having to devote so much time to searching for funds?
Flanders: Yes, I think we really are. And I think particularly in the last few months I’ve really noticed the limitations imposed on us by having to do that work. Because it is very easy, when a crisis is breaking, to go, and delve into a particular story. I think it was quite easy at the beginning of the `Iran-Contra Affair’ to focus all the attention of the programmers on the research and in the investigation. I know, for myself, at other times when I was functioning more just as a producer it was much easier to spend my day calling this resource and that source and trying to piece together a story, when I didn’t have to carve out some part of the day to write grant proposals and write letters to foundations. And I think it really affects the type of research that we’re able to do, in terms of in-depth research. It’s part of the control mechanism imposed on us by the market. That we don’t have the liberty just to devote ourselves to the research that we could be devoting ourselves to…I feel very constrained by having to do the institution-building side of things.
How does Undercurrents differ from a commercial radio program and why don’t you just try to get a job with a commercial news network?
Flanders: The quick answer to that is that the way it differs is that we have no money.
There are a lot of more complicated answers. Everything from the freedom that we have to say whatever we want at 8 o’clock in the morning to the freedom that we have to really challenge what’s being said in the mainstream and question it and, in some cases, deride what the mainstream reporters are pretending is their coverage of a story.
As far as, would I ever take a job or why don’t I go get a job?
I don’t see anywhere where I would like to work at this moment. I don’t see the opportunities to do the kind of political reporting that I’m interested in in the mainstream. I come at my reporting work very much as an activist. I came out of an activist background. I mean my experience before reporting was organizing and being involved in progressive movements. And I see journalism as a way to empower people to act. But that’s not the attitude of most mainstream news purveyors.
But I don’t have a principled position that if some wonderful job was offered to me I would oppose it because of allergic reaction to a healthy income.” (end of part 1)
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