Amy Goodman's 'Empire'
In early February 1996 Democracy Now! went live for the first time over the airwaves of Pacifica, the country's largest progressive radio network. But a more significant marker for the purposes of this story might be early September 2001, when Democracy Now! made its first leap beyond radio into the multimedia world of television and beyond.
It was a few days before 9/11, and Goodman had just been forced from the studios of WBAI, the local Pacifica station, during what is commonly known as "the Pacifica crisis"--a period of several months of fierce debates over the mission and management of the network. In the scramble to keep broadcasting on affiliate stations, she had landed at the firehouse, a small limestone castle of a building owned and operated by Downtown Community Television. The independent media collective also rented space to Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a cable access channel, and in early September a MNN producer had the notion of switching on the TV cameras and videotaping Goodman's radio broadcast. The idea was to air the show on MNN once or twice a week.
Then came 9/11: All of a sudden Democracy Now! was the closest national broadcast to Ground Zero. "About two days after September 11, I was sleeping at the firehouse and Anthony Riddle, then the head of MNN, called," recalls Goodman. "'We'll go live with the show today,' he said. 'The camera will go on; we'll flick the switch.' And then it just started."
The news that Democracy Now! was going live on TV and needed volunteers traveled quickly through New York's lefty grapevine, and before long a group of refugees from the topsy-turvy post- 9/11 world began appearing at the bright red doors of the firehouse. I was one of those refugees, a stray who showed up during the confusion of mid-September and ended up staying for nearly a year. It didn't seem to matter that I had no radio or television experience (heck, I didn't even own a TV); such was the nature of the times--or the desperation--that on my first day in the studio I was plunked behind one of the cameras and told to shoot. Eventually I began helping produce the program.
Those early weeks of Democracy Now! TV were a surreal, and occasionally comical, brew of trial, error and improvisation, served up daily against the backdrop of the steroidal news cycle (War! Anthrax! Patriot Act!). While the radio portion of the show remained strong--Goodman was adamant about that--the television component was very much a spit-and-glue kind of operation. The set, for instance, was little more than a black table backed by a wall of newspaper clippings meant to convey "serious news program" while also reducing the glare from the lights. The show's billboard, which was intended to identify the program for the audience, was written in masking tape against the control room window. And when a guest couldn't come in to the studio but had to call in to the program, as was often the case (this was still primarily a radio show), the crew simply trained its cameras on the telephone--for five minutes at a time. "It looked like a televised radio show," says Goodman, with a good deal of generosity.