It was a crisp but comfortable fall day in 2000 when I was invited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace for a beer-summit about an interesting project-proposal. I was preparing to leave my career in commercial radio journalism out of disgust with the industry’s post-Telecom Act trajectory and had applied to the UW to start a master’s program in hopes of learning more about what had gone wrong with my chosen vocation, so the timing of this meeting was fortuitous.
It was the brainchild of then-UW School for Workers professor Frank Emspak: drawing on decades of experience in the labor movement and as an activist more broadly, Frank was worried that the voices of working people were being squeezed out of our media conversations, especially as business news increasingly focused on corporate executives and stock-prices, and our media outlets themselves were increasingly subject to the whims of finance capital. What if there were a news outlet run by workers, for workers, that put what passed for “business news” in the proper economic context?
A couple pitchers later, the four of us around that Terrace table had sketched out the framework for what would become Workers Independent News: the first national, labor-centric radio news program to be launched in the United States in several decades. We produced daily newscasts, feature stories, and other content from a DIY newsroom/studio in Madison and utilized our website for distribution — in effect launching a podcast long before podcasts became cool. Dry-runs of the production process began in late 2000, and WIN was officially launched in early 2001.
I look back on my time as an anchor/reporter with WIN with a mixture of pride and frustration. I’m proud because we managed to break the blackout regarding the voices of working people on the public airwaves, providing news from a perspective more meaningful than whatever Wall Street’s latest machinations might be. By the time I left WIN in 2004 for doctoral studies, our stories were heard on more than 100 radio stations around the world and had amassed a weekly audience of more than a million people both on-air and online. Some of the most meaningful journalism I’ve ever done occurred at WIN.
The frustration came from the fact that many who we assumed would be natural allies in this project never really understood the importance of cultivating an independent media outlet exclusively focused on labor. Organized labor itself was a surprisingly tough nut to crack: locals loved our stuff, while most national union bosses and mandarins thought of WIN as just another mouthpiece that would uncritically relay whatever they thought was important and expedient, like a PR adjunct to their own communications offices.
This led to friction as I, my co-producer John Hamilton (now at Democracy Now!), and those who succeeded us were adamant that editorial autonomy be inviolable: crises and controversies in the labor movement were part and parcel of our beat, and our audience deserved nothing less than comprehensive reportage. That was problematic because WIN wanted to make its content available for free to anyone who wanted to hear or carry it.
The service scraped by on incremental donations from national union headquarters, locals who worked hard to find affiliates to broadcast our stories in their own backyards, and labor-centric businesses. There were many lean times over the years, including a few instances when Emspak himself would donate money to the organization so that its fairly meager payroll could be met. Fundraising was a constant grind.
Yet as time went by, somehow WIN defied fiscal gravity and not only maintained its core production schedule, but dispatched correspondents to important events across the country and even produced special reports on various labor beats. Dr. Emspak retired from the University last decade, but stayed on as WIN’s executive producer, chief fundraiser, and guiding light for many more years. This spring, due primarily to compounding health issues, Emspak stepped down as the head of WIN and its parent organization. The new CEO had no meaningful background in labor or independent media, and looked at his role in the organization as more of a mogul than a working stiff.
Problems making payroll began again over the summer, and incrementally most of WIN’s staff was let go save for its two main producers, Doug Cunningham and JoAnne Powers, who soldiered on. But earlier this month they, too, received their layoff notices, and production of WIN ceased on November 17th. There’s still the possibility that whatever remaining assets WIN has might be sold to another labor-media organization (the prospects in this area are few), but for all intents and purposes WIN as a stand-alone news outlet is over and done. The WIN website remains online, but it’s not clear for how long. I do hope someone saves the archives of 16+ years.
I stayed in touch with WIN and its staff over time, and have written extensively on the curious controversies that the organization’s been embroiled in. The two that stick out the most were Viacom’s threat to sue WIN out of existence on a frivolous trademark infringement claim, and a much more severe challenge from the FCC which, in a convoluted case involving a sponsorship-identification violation at a WIN affiliate, declared in 2012 that Workers Independent News was not journalism.
Several years of trying to find out how this travesty happened, and attempts to challenge this blatantly unconstitutional determination, fell on deaf ears. It’s not clear just how much these attacks affected WIN and its ultimate viability, but they certainly didn’t help the organization’s fundamental precarity. The folks who instigated the FCC campaign against Workers Independent News must be proud now.
Since WIN was founded, corporations have achieved the dubious distinction of personhood in the United States, and a tidal wave of money into our political system has utterly corrupted it. Unions themselves have taken a massive beating, with membership at lows, as a percentage of the total national population, not seen since the days of World War II. WIN’s home state of Wisconsin has been utterly decimated by a corporatist governor and GOP-controlled legislature, who’ve defunded public education at all levels by hundreds of millions of dollars while gutting a variety of worker protections and the very rights of unions to organize. Income inequality and household debt loads of various types are at historic levels; the Trump era stands to firmly cement this into a new Gilded Age.
It’s not a good time to lose any voice for working people in America. But I do believe that the spirit of WIN will be carried on in new forms and through new channels as our democratic republic devolves into authoritarianism: crises of this nature are never weathered without a fight. In the interim, I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to WIN and what it was able to accomplish for so long despite the odds.