Before she began working for Democratic Party-oriented mainstream left-liberal groups like F.A.I.R., Pacifica, Working Assets Radio, Air America Radio and The Nation magazine, Radio Nation (www.radionation.org) producer-host and 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 (www.flashpoints.net) daily alternative evening news show. Following is the third 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 about the argument that Establishment media people give—and pollsters—that “women in the United States aren’t interested in politics. They’re not interested in geopolitical issues. They’re primarily interested in personal concerns, raising families”? And therefore, that’s why you won’t have many women analysts or women commentators?
Laura Flanders: Well, that brings up two things. One, is the old question about which came first: the media representation or the reality. If it’s true, for example, that little boys won’t watch little girls on kids’ TV. Is that because they are just not used to it and they haven’t been encouraged to see girls in heroic roles? And, if so, is it okay for the networks to capitulate to that and say “Oh, well, that’s why we don’t have any girl heroines on children’s TV? And that’s just on the children’s level.
But I think the evidence is clear. Almost every progressive organization in this country is run largely, predominantly by, women. I mean many organizations are headed by women…You know, women are visible in the progressive community. They’re visible in issues of concern way beyond so-called “women’s issues.” And at the point where we’re looking at an economic crisis that is devastating our society, those “women’s issues” even are the key issues of the day: health care, housing, reproductive rights, family. And women are out front talking about these issues. There’s no way that anyone can say that they’re not.
If you look behind most congress people or senators they have a whole staff of advisers, a large number of which are women. And most likely the most active and the most energetic are women because they have to be, still, to get to the places that they’re in.
What is the relationship between WBAI and Undercurrrents? Often WBAI has marathons. Isn’t the money that WBAI raises at the marathons…doesn’t that go to Undercurrents?
Flanders: In some respects, it does. Undercurrents is an independently-produced program that is aired on WBAI and by WBAI. We produce in the studios of WBAI and, hence, the money that goes to WBAI and keeps the station alive makes it possible for us to continue producing the program.
The people that subscribe to ‘BAI during the Undercurrents time, and think that the money then somehow goes to Undercurrents, are mistaken. The money goes to the overall pool for the station and for our other costs: any salaries that we might pay, any expenses that we have of tape and cassettes, and telephone, mail and an office. Those kinds of things are part of a budget that we have to raise independently. Which is why we formed Undercurrents as a project of the Institute for Social Justice, through which we raise money to cover our costs and are able to distribute and syndicate the program. All of which is paid for by ourselves, not by WBAI.
So it’s two separate organizations which are interconnected and kind of co-dependent, interdependent. But the money that goes to ‘BAI does not come to Robert [Knight] or I.
You used to be into filmmaking and video before you got into radio. What kind of films and videos did you make and how was that work different?
Flanders: I got into film and video through connections to people who were involved in film and video. And the two films that I was active in producing: One was about domestic violence in the north of Ireland and its relationship to the political violence that was taking place on the streets. The other one was about the miners’ strike in Britain of 1984-85, which was a study of a women’s group that kept striking miners alive throughout a year of strike in a small village in South Yorkshire. From that film, footage was produced: one short film about the women and a longer film on which I was a co-producer that featured many news items that had been taking place in the years 84-85, that hadn’t been covered. And one of which was the “New York 8 Trial.” So the film kind of jumped from the New York 8 Trial to the miners to the women’s peace encampment up at Seneca and various other stories.
What was the New York 8 Trial?
Flanders: The New York 8 Trial was the trial of, in fact, nine defendants charged with “terrorist” activities, with trying to free a colleague out of jail. That was a trial that was brought under the RICO statutes in 1984, I believe, to intimidate the Black Liberation Movement in this country. And it was dependent on the evidence of a turncoat witness whose evidence fell apart in court. The group was actually finally acquitted.
Who did you work with?
Flanders: I worked on the miners and the New York 8 case film with a woman called Andrea Kirsch. And on the Ireland film with another woman called Mary Jane Sullivan.
Are they still working in media?
Flanders: Andrea Kirsch is still working in film. And Mary Jane Sullivan is the director of a production company called Now and Then Productions that co-produces video and film and poetry and other projects in the New York area.
We had an article in Downtown a few months ago talking about the boom in the sale of video cameras and the article argued that this was an effective means to fight the Establishment media on the media world level, on the level of culture. As far as radio and video compare, what are the advantages and the limitations of each? Can an alternative media based on video be an effective tool for social change?
Flanders: It can be. We need all the tools we can get and it certainly is one, I think…I think that independent video and radio both can perform a very important function in terms of being witnesses to a scene. Video and radio can both record a scene right there that moment, very cheaply, very accessibly, that is then a document that can be used.
As far as really affecting the mainstream, certainly there’s evidence of the Gulf Crisis television project, much of which was put together out of nonprofessional video stock. But that was effective. It was seen all around the world and got a lot of questions stirring in a lot of hearts and minds, I’m sure.
But when I was working in film and video it became very clear to me that production values do count. That if you’re going to convince the unconvinced, “the unconverted,” your product does need to be appealing, does need to be attractive, does need to reach out and affect someone. You can’t depend on them sitting there in front of the television or the screen and giving you the benefit of the doubt in a culture that is so hyped-up that it’s just kind of saturated with video images and film images. What eventually pulled me out of working in film was that I felt that, in order to produce a product which would be seen by enough people to really be effective, it required so much money that it ultimately—unless you were really going to have enormous distribution—wasn’t worth the money. That it was not an effective use of funds. And that’s where radio and noncommercial video come in. It’s that, for the impact they can have, they’re incredibly cheap and accessible. (end of part 3)
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