AFTER 13 YEARS in radio, Amy Goodman can't help but speed up at the end of each hour of Democracy Now!, and the effect is still a bit endearing. She quickens her pace mostly to squeeze in all the phone numbers and Web sites she routinely gives out at the end of the show. See, this isn't an ordinary feel-good gabfest of the airwaves: When was the last time NPR's Linda Wertheimer gave out Amnesty International's e-mail address or the White House phone number?
Launched to bring activist voices into the hallucinatory '96 campaign season, Democracy Now! and its anchor continue forward with a galvanizing formula: Present the issue, let those fighting on either side speak for themselves, then tell listeners how they can get involved. Leave the polite academic exchanges to National Purse-strings Radio: This program would rather bring in angry Chicano strawberry pickers to punch it out with politicians. (The show airs weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. on KFAI, 90.3 FM in Minneapolis and 106.7 FM in St. Paul, with red-eye rebroadcasts at 5 a.m.)
Goodman, who will speak in the Twin Cities this weekend (see below), is a journalist of rare intelligence and courage. Her show's irritatingly cheeky sub-title, "The exception to the rulers," reflects the host's mixture of gall and commitment. As long-time colleague Alan Nairn says, "Amy's good at getting access to White House Press conferences, and when she asks questions, you feel these ripples go through the press crowd. Suddenly their little love-fest with this spokesman has been disturbed." When she was news director at WBAI in New York, Goodman covered the Zapatista peace talks and Aristide's return to Haiti. Goodman and Nairn were beaten by Indonesian soldiers during the notorious 1991 massacre of East Timorese protesters, and the two broke that story to the world. Both are still banned from Indonesia, though they've sneaked back in to East Timor under false names.
Speaking from her New York office, Goodman says she still thinks about the massacre every day and takes pains to emphasize U.S. culpability; Clinton continues to support the Suharto dictatorship, recently through the personage of the now-infamous James Riady. She was politicized at a young age by her father's efforts to desegregate schools in her Long Island, New York, community and professes no polite reservations about combining her activist and journalist hats. "As a journalist, I'm an activist for social change," she says flatly. "And I believe bringing out the voices of activists around the world is a critical part of the social-change process."
Facilitating the social-change process might not cut it in the cushy confines of the Washington press corps--and Goodman can own pride in that--but the show's take on editorial balance is equally startling to behold; Goodman points to Tuesday's segment about the Global Exchange report on Nike's labor rights abuses in Asia. In the kind of debate that's rare elsewhere but commonplace on Democracy Now!, Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin squared-off with a Nike senior spokesperson. "We like to bring the voice of grassroots activists and also provide a forum for them to speak to power," says Goodman. "So often on these Washington talk shows, you have a Democrat versus a Republican. That's such a narrow part of the spectrum."
Her commitment to airing suppressed voices led to broadcasting commentaries by death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal earlier this year. "We're not entertainers," she says of the decision. "We're reporters. And it's our responsibility to go to places that are not usually covered, that are difficult for the public to get to--to go to where the silence is and say something."
In a political culture where lazy reporting begets lazy thinking (and lazy politics), the no-bullshit journalism Goodman brings to radio is not only vital but (sorry, Amy) entertaining.
Goodman is the keynote speaker at the "Making Connections: Democracy Now!" conference this Saturday, October 4 at Augsberg College. Call Women Against Military Madness, 827-5364 for information.