Remembering Samori Marksman

Samori Marksman died in his sleep during a heart attack the night before last. He was 51 and the program director of WBAI in NYC, the local Pacifica station. A brilliant political analyst and inverviewer, he was born in St. Vincents and belonged to the grand tradition of Afro-Caribbean Marxism begun at the turn of the century. It included such figures as CLR James, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, Maurice Bishop and Richard Moore.

Before assuming the post of program director, Marksman had hosted a nightly show called "Behind the News" that I used to listen to religiously in the late 1980s. On a typical evening he'd speak to Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky or retired Navy admiral and peace advocate Gene R. La Rocque about key global political questions. He knew how to draw out the best from his guests. What was also noteworthy was his ability to trip up ruling-class experts by revealing facts that undercut their own unsupported claims. When the guest was someone like the Ivy educated and self-important William Colby, ex-director of the CIA, the pleasure of seeing him turned into a fool as well as a knave by Samori was unsurpassed.

Marksman studied political science and cinematography at NYU and was the producer-director of an acclaimed documentary "Grenada: The Future Coming toward us". His main interest was in African and African-American politics, but he was also extremely knowledgeable about European and Asian politics. While academicians such as Cornel West and Skip Gates have been singled out as "public black intellectuals", I couldn't think of anybody more qualified for this title than Marksman.

Last night WBAI, which I haven't listened to in ages, played brief testimonials to Samori. Later the on-air host considered the possibility that strife at Pacifica might have broken his heart. There had been a gag rule at all Pacifica stations, but since the national board has basically carried out a coup and destroyed local autonomy, local hosts have decided that there is no point in remaining silent any longer.

>From what I can gather Samori was caught in the middle. The national board had made a decision to turn Pacifica into a minority radio network based on Corporation for Public Broadcasting standards, so as to continue to receive funding in these difficult times. African-American board members like Pat Scott and Jack O'Dell, who had been involved with the Jackson campaign and local Democratic Party politics, were pushing for an expansion of minority voices in the network stations. While nobody could question their motives, unfortunately what went along with this was an agenda to rein in the highly radical voices typical of local broadcasting. Most people thought that the board's aim was to turn Pacifica into NPR light.

As program director, Marksman found himself caught in the middle of this fight. While helping to implement the Pacifica "turn", he remained committed to the characteristically radical voice that WBAI had carved out for itself. However monotonous or humorless the station could sound, it was always a place to turn to when you needed to find out the latest about Mumia or anti-war demonstrations such as the kind that will be mounted against NATO bombing of Serbia. I myself turned to the station shortly after the 3 indigenous activists were killed in Colombia and found myself both informed and deeply moved by the words and the voice of a woman in NYC from the Amazon Network who knew the 3.

While the Internet has replaced Pacifica for many of us, there will always be a need for such an important medium. Doug Henwood has a weekly show that he has been doing for the better part of a decade and it has provided in-depth analysis of economic issues. It is difficult to say where Pacifica is going, but certainly the memory of Samori Marksman will be a guiding light for those people who want to preserve the best of community-based radio.