National Progressive Media: Who's Left?

When it comes to the question of why most progressive national media outlets reach such a small percentage of their potential audience, progressive activists are conflicted.


WBAI and Pacifica: Independent Media in the Balance

Laura Flanders interviews Amy Goodman of Democracy Now on the role of independent media, the situation at WBAI, and the future of Pacifica. Goodman was interviewed live on KWAB/ Friday, February 2, 2001.

Laura Flanders here with you on We're going to talk with Amy Goodman in just a moment about Democracy Now. She's been signing off her daily broadcast "From the embattled studios of WBAI in New York," we'll find out why.

Amy Goodman might be feeling a little isolated these days, but probably not; she has many, many thousands of fans all across the country. We've described Amy, a former colleague of mine, as the glue of the progressive movement. I don't know how she likes to be referred to as glue but we're going to find out. Amy, welcome to RadioForChange.

Amy Goodman: It's great to be with you Laura.

Laura Flanders: How do you like being referred to as glue, what holds the movement together?

AG: Well, I hope it doesn't just mean "stuck."

LF: No, definitely not [laughing]. Well we're going to talk about your signing off your show for the last few days as "From the embattled studios of WBAI." Can you tell us what you mean?

AG: Right. I've been saying, "From the embattled studios of WBAI, from the studios of the fired and the banned, from the studios of our listeners" and then I say I'm Amy Goodman. I used to say "with Juan Gonzalez for another edition of Democracy Now." But, well, it's just a very difficult workplace right now. I do speak as a worker and a member of AFTRA -- as a Pacifica national programmer -- and then here in New York at WBAI our union is UE local 404, that's United Electrical. We're working in a hostile workplace and it has happened since Christmas weekend right before Christmas when Pacifica management came to WBAI in the middle of the night and they changed all the locks and they prevented us from coming in.

They installed the new general manager and at 1:50 in the morning of December 23rd she went on the air and announced "I am the new station manager, there is no coup, there are no SWAT teams it's just me." And she said there would be no changes in programming, but that was not to be the case because five hours later, early on Saturday morning of that Christmas weekend, program director and longtime program producer of WBAI Bernard White got a knock on his door at around seven in the morning and a messenger was there with a letter. It was just a letter of a few sentences, and it said you are terminated from your job at BAI, if you try to come you will be considered a trespasser, your possessions will be sent to you in the mail. This is a man who has been at WBAI for almost 20 years. He's a beloved broadcaster here, a member of the community.

An hour later up in Harlem, Sharan Harper was at home. She is the producer of Wake Up Call, the program that Bernard hosts and I cohost. It's a local show in the morning at WBAI. Sharan Harper got a knock on her door, and it was again the messenger with a package for her. And in that package was a letter that said you've been terminated as a producer of Wake Up Call -- as I think it's called a production assistant - it will be considered trespassing if you come to the station. Your possessions will be sent to you in the mail. So within two hours, two major programmers were out, Bernard and Sharan.

We headed to the station on Saturday that Christmas weekend, we tried to go in as producers, we were locked out. There was a selective lockout except for people who were on the air at that moment. The programming required so much more than being actually on the air. Police were called in. There were hundreds of people outside. They told us that we would be arrested for trespassing if we entered. And since that time we have been in lockdown mode. All the locks are changed. We were not given the combination for the front door. There are guards here.

It has to say the least created a very chilling environment. Because coupled with the firings, which by the way started in November with the ouster of our long time general manager Valerie van Isler -- coupled with those -- have been a series of bannings. We don't know who is next. We don't know why people are banned. We don't know why the people have been fired who've been fired. We just learn as they come to the door and the guards turn them away that they are banned.

Among them Janice K. Bryant who is my colleague on the morning show, Wake Up Call. She's been a long-time producer. Wake Up Call is really the flagship program. It's the largest block of time, three hours in the morning from 6:00 to 9:00. It airs just before Democracy Now which listeners in Boulder and Denver may hear on KGNU and that airs live your time at 7:00 in the morning. But we are on at 9:00 and the three hours before that are the Wake Up Call show and almost everyone has been taken out of that program.

LF: Now you've said that this is a union struggle, that there are union members involved in this situation as I understand it who've lost there job, was there any due process in those firings?

AG: There was no due process in those firings. Sharan Harper was not only the producer of Wake Up Call, but she was our union steward. This is very serious that she to this day, it has never been explained to her why she was fired. Interestingly enough while Pacifica management in Washington fired her -- Bessie Wash the executive director of Pacifica -- Bessie Wash came on the air shortly after that and did an interview with Utrice Leid who was installed as the new general manager replacing Valerie. And Utrice Leid asked Bessie Wash, "Are these firings irrevocable?" And Bessie Wash was very clear, she answered twice, she said, no, you can rehire them. She said Utrice Leid could rehire the programmers but that she has not chosen to do that so they remain fired and the banned list grows whenever management feels like banning someone. So it's a very chilling environment. United Electrical in our meetings has issued two statements about the situation condemning a union busting environment. The kind of chilling actions that are taking place here that are a threat to us all.

LF: Well let me give listeners an idea of what kind of chilling Amy is referring to. On the 24th of January and I received this via fax, a memo was sent to all programmers and staff by Utrice Leid the general manager of WBAI saying, "discussion on air by any programmer or staff member of station business, station policy, personnel issues or meetings regarding these topics or other confidential matters will result in immediate suspension and/or dismissal." She went on to say that facilitation by on air programmers and staff of such discussions on the air similarly will result in immediate suspension and/or dismissal.

Now I don't know how many times this memo has been heard by the listeners of WBAI, but the question of gagging the discussion of internal station business has been a critical question across the Pacifica network with people on one side saying well it only makes sense because you don't want to have all this dirty laundry being aired on the station and turn away listeners and others saying this is a community station owned by the listeners they have a right to know what's going on. Where do you stand on that issue, Amy, and how is the so-called gag order holding?

AG: I think it's very important not to confuse internal business with major changes in policy. And that is a discussion which must be had with the whole community radio listening audience. And I know from experience covering foreign policy issues when a country says this is an internal matter. I think that policy at the highest level of Pacifica must be discussed because this is a more than 50 year institution, begun in 1949 by a guy named Lew Hill who was a conscientious objector when he came out of jail because he refused to fight in World War II. He said there has to be a media network that is not run by corporations that build a drumbeat for war because they profit from war, but a media network that is run by journalists and artists. And so Pacifica was born. Now we're five stations -- Pacifica KPFA the first station in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, in Houston and Washington, and WBAI in New York. Now there are major changes that are taking place at the highest levels. And this goes to what happened in the last few days with Juan Gonzalez resigning for the time being as co-host of Democracy Now.

LF: We're going to bring Juan Gonzalez on in the next segment of this program. And we're going to go to a break and be back with more from Amy Goodman.

You should know listeners that Media Alliance, an organization that we've had on this program before, headed up by Andrea Buffa in the Bay Area is sponsoring an e-mail action on the Working Assets activism site, And if you want to send a message to a representative of the Pacifica Foundation Board, you can, courtesy of this radio station and Working Assets.

Save Integrity of Pacifica Radio Network
Concerned Pacifica listeners should e-mail John Murdock of Epstein Becker & Green and tell him to resign from the Pacifica Foundation Board. From Media Alliance and Working Assets.
If you go to the Web site associated with the home page for this program, go to my page, go to you will find a way to send an e-mail. Check it out during the break and we'll be right back with Amy Goodman.

[break] LF: Amy Goodman on the line with us from Democracy Now, For those of you who are unfamiliar with Democracy Now, Amy, tell us a little bit about what your mission is, what you do and the job you serve for the community you work with.

AG: Laura as I was saying coming out of the Pacifica mission which is to bring out a diversity of voices, it's a nonprofit network, the only independent media network. We don't take advertising or corporate underwriting. We have a huge responsibility to keep the airwaves open for, as you were saying, what I think is the majority-representing the voices that are locked out of the mainstream media. The corporate media broadcasts the voices of a minority elite fringe, just continually brings us those voices to kind of manufacture a consent around that minority opinion. I think the voices that are left out are the majority of people in this country and around the world. Democracy Now is trying to bring out those voices in conversation.

In a debate in 1997 we aired nationally the commentaries of Mumia Abu Jamal from prison, from death row. With the death penalty being so controversial - we're the only industrialized country in the world to have it - we think it's important to hear from people on both sides of the bars on criminal justice issues and in general. Well, when we aired these commentaries, the minute before we go on at 12 stations, in Pennsylvania [Mumia Abu Jamal is on death row in Pennsylvania] as well as on the other stations around the country, that public radio network, Temple University network, dropped us, the whole contract with Pacifica. They said it was quote inappropriate to air Mumia Abu Jamal's voice. Well in a free democracy we don't think it's inappropriate to air anyone's voice we think people can make their own decisions and that it's important to hear different points of view especially when we're talking about the prison industrial system.

So that's the philosophy of Democracy Now. Our slogan is "the exception to the rulers," to go to where the silence is and say something, that we are not on bended knee to power. We did an interview with President Clinton on election day when he called about 40 radio stations in New York to get out the vote. He thought he could just go on the station, because he did on most of them, and it would be a platform for power because who was going to dare challenge the president of the United States? I mean that's our job and you know it well because you were an expert at doing it this way as well, Laura. And that is we are not here to applaud politicians, we're here to challenge them. And I do think that the reason we are under so much pressure now at Pacifica -- the programmers, the most successful shows -- is precisely because of their success, because we are penetrating into the national conversation. There is pressure from our own organization so people within are saying who is on our board and can we get union activists and social justice organizers, people who embody the spirit of Pacifica for the last 50 years to represent us at the highest levels of our organization. Otherwise, we're in trouble.

LF: We've got a caller. Jan from Denver calling in with a question. You're on the air, Jan.

Caller: Hi, I would like to say that Democracy Now and the Laura Flanders Show are the only two sources of information that I really look forward to it makes me feel not so alone in this cold cruel world that we seem to be launching under W. A lot of people that I know are very confused as to just how did the board members since this is a community-supported radio station, take over? How did they get their toe hold? How did they end up with the authority to do these kind of firings?

AG: The board changed the bylaws a few years ago and it became a self-selecting board. That means, each board member that comes on, those members can select the next board members. But now what's of great concern are the proposed bylaws that have just been put out and they've been written by a law firm and their representative on the board John Murdock. The law firm is Epstein, Becker & Green. And this is one of the largest anti-union law firms in the country. Not said by the opposition but they themselves say on their web site that they work to maintain "union-free workplaces." This is of grave concern to us because the by laws allow for a number of things including that the whole board would no longer have to vote on the sale of a station.

LF:Amy Goodman, thank you so much for being our guest.

The Laura Flanders Show can be heard from 8-11am PST and 11am-1pm EST on For more information, visit or To learn about Working Assets and Media Alliance's campaign to save Pacifica, visit



On the one hand, we're exhilarated when we reach large numbers -- whether it's the Independent Media Center website getting 1.5 million hits during the protests against the World Trade Organization, or the Chronicle running a rare cover story on an issue we care about. On the other hand, we insist that progressive media must hold firm to their progressive missions regardless of how large an audience they draw.

Nowhere has this conflict been sharper than in free speech activists' struggle against the right-wing assault on the Pacifica Radio Network. For the past several years, the Pacifica board of directors and national management have been forcing structural and programming changes in the network that they claim will increase audience size and diversity. Since many of these changes have led to a tempering of Pacifica's programming, community organizers and activists contend that the issue of audience size is a red herring -- what Pacifica managers are really trying to do is eviscerate the politics of the only progressive radio network in the United States. Free speech activists call for Pacifica to pursue its mission, rather than pursuing high audience ratings.

At other progressive media institutions, editors and producers offer their own excuses for their small audiences: when there is no mass social justice movement, they say, there will not be a socially conscious mass media outlet. But those who are active in social justice movements often see a different problem. Among ourselves, we criticize the left press -- from The Nation to Mother Jones to the Pacifica Network News -- for being boring, academic, homogenous, and out of touch with social justice activists.

Rarely, though, do activists or independent media producers go beyond the mainstream measurements of audience size and financial success to evaluate our own progressive media institutions. As we enter 2001 with apparently growing progressive political movements -- the anti-corporate globalization movement, the Green party, youth fighting against the prison industrial complex -- we owe it to ourselves to grapple with the difficult question of whether or not our national progressive media are serving the needs of our movements and helping promote social change.

Measuring Our Effectiveness

Laura Flanders has thought a lot about this question. Flanders did media criticism with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for nearly ten years. She now hosts the only progressive talk show on AM radio at the Working Assets radio station in Boulder, Colorado. Flanders and Working Assets are trying to make in-roads in a medium that is dominated by the radical right. "My listeners were listening to Rush Limbaugh," Flanders says. "[Working in commercial AM radio] does bring me smack up against the failures of the alternative media movement. I put on what I think is a great show, and there are no calls."

By traditional measures of success, such as audience size and financial support, Flanders' show isn't doing well. (Nor are most national alternative media institutions, which not only reach small numbers of people but also consistently lose money.) But she measures her effectiveness in other ways. She considers listener response, call-ins, emails, the level of listener participation in activism, and whether or not her show has raised important issues. "I think I do a good job raising social justice issues. I just don't know if I raise them in a way that AM talk radio listeners can hear."

Flanders says that progressives should realize that it takes years to develop a large audience for a radio show, and that audience size should be but one factor in measuring effectiveness. "Apple gave itself seven tries at a successful computer before they got the iMac and G4," she points out.

For Peggy Law, executive director of the International Media Project (IMP), one of the most important measures of success for the IMP radio show, Making Contact, is the activists' ability to use it in their outreach and education efforts. For example, the National Housing Law Project just bought 15 copies of a recent Making Contact show on housing, which they will use in presentations to organizations, activists, and students all over the country.

With a skeleton staff of four paid employees and numerous volunteers, IMP has succeeded in six short years in convincing more than 160 radio stations to air Making Contact weekly. They have also produced numerous special shows, especially around the large protests that were organized this year in Seattle and elsewhere. "One of the reasons we're pretty exhausted right now is because we want to be as responsive as we can be to movement changes, so we were in Seattle, in DC in April, and did unconventional coverage at both conventions, even though we didn't even have a travel budget," Law says. And in response to demands from Pacifica Radio listeners, IMP will soon pilot a new progressive national daily news show to replace the Pacifica Network News.

"The tension between content and audience has to be addressed constantly. Pacifica has lost track of the mission," says Law. She acknowledges the value of getting Making Contact on as many radio stations as possible. "The number of stations is important, but also the diversity of stations. We like it when we have a station that has a huge listening audience, but we're equally excited when we get an Alaskan fishing village or stations that are not in the group of stations which would normally carry Pacifica programming. One of our goals is to reach beyond the circle of communities who are already looking for this." At the same time, she is not willing to water down the content of the show to appeal to more mainstream stations.

Flanders and Law see their shows as part of the social justice movement and, therefore, measure their effectiveness very much by whether or not they are serving social justice activists. By contrast, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who's worked on and off at The Nation for the last 20 years and now holds its top editorial position, says that The Nation "doesn't pretend to be a social change agent; first and foremost, we are an independent publication."

"What The Nation can do," vanden Heuvel says, "is provide progressives with information and a context within which to consider important ideas." Vanden Heuvel describes the readers of The Nation (circulation 100,000) as activists, academics, and journalists, as well as people outside of urban areas who consider it their lifeline to the progressive community. She believes The Nation has been most effective when a story it covers pushes leaders in Congress, the labor movement, and elsewhere to act on issues they would not have acted on. A good investigative story can provoke a Congressional investigation of U.S. military complicity with paramilitary groups in East Timor. Or, consistent coverage of the living wage issue can put the term into the general discourse and have it accepted by the labor movement.

Not that vanden Heuvel ignores the role of social justice activists. The street is not the only place where social change happens, she contends. There is a national battle of ideas, and progressives need a publication that can insert itself into that battle.


On the subject of how national progressive media outlets could improve their effectiveness, vanden Heuvel looks more to external structural barriers than to the failings of the left press for an explanation. She believes that there are millions of progressives in the United States, "but TV -- let's be honest -- is the media which millions of Americans get their news from." The left has no television station nor does it have a talk-radio network.

"We need daily outlets for the progressive media," says Amy Goodman, co-host of Pacifica Radio's popular national show, Democracy Now. The left has neither a daily national newspaper nor a daily wire service. Goodman does not give credence to what she calls the "mainstream media point of view" that the public can be divided along liberal and conservative lines, and that liberal issues are of no interest to a larger public. Referring to the pathetic coverage of the annual protest against the School of the Americas, where thousands have been arrested in the last three years, she points out that if people had known about the protests and the history of the school, they would have cared. Military people would have been concerned about it; journalists would have been interested in covering it. But most people just never heard about it. "I think there's a big audience out there. The audience doesn't share the point of view that the media puts out," Goodman says.

Currently under pressure from Pacifica management to soften her reporting on issues like police brutality and the death penalty, Goodman is perhaps reluctant to critique the progressive media establishment. Other progressive media journalists, however, have no problem articulating their criticisms and offering opinions about the self-marginalization of progressive media institutions.

Don Hazen is one of them. A former editor at Mother Jones, Hazen now directs the Independent Media Institute, which puts out AlterNet, a wire service for the independent press. What does he think about a television station run by progressives? "To yearn for one is to operate in the world of unreality," Hazen says. "Nobody would watch a progressive TV channel, at least not enough people so that anybody could make any money with it. Some would say that progressives already have a televison network, represented by FreeSpeech TV's full time DISH Network (channel 9415) which is a major accomplishment. While FSTV is carried by some local public access stations, nevertheless we will need to motivate a lot of people to buy satellite dishes if this strategy is going to work in the long run."

Hazen believes that progressives need to think more strategically about media, especially the role of corporate media. "In the final analysis, change doesn't happen because of progressive media. So we progressives need to go beyond progressive media, using a combination of grassroots organizing, demonstrations, the Internet, paid ads, effective PR, and on and on, and be campaign oriented," he says. Progressive media does not identify and hone in on the audience that is most essential for bringing about change, he says. It may mean making use of mainstream media, but he fears that many progressives, including leaders of progressive media institutions, would rather marginalize themselves than chance being "corrupted" by their participation in the corporate media.

In Flanders' opinion, progressive media outlets tend to talk down to people and don't collaborate effectively with each other. When some of Flanders' colleagues interviewed some regular listeners of RadioForChange -- employees at a Toyota body shop -- they were shocked to learn that these people would never consider calling in to the show because they didn't think they were smart enough. "How do we sustain our listeners and sustain our communities and at the same time have it not be a closed conversation? Are we having our conversation in a way that excludes other people?" Flanders asks. Vanden Heuvel -- whose publication The Nation is often criticized by activists as being too academic -- is also concerned about opening up the conversation. "If corporate power is the most important issue of our time, we need to find a language that describes corporate power that is more accessible to others," she says. Peggy Law's own observation is that "many of us [in the media of the Left] are better at critiquing and resisting than we are at building something helpful. This becomes discouraging."

On the issue of collaboration, vanden Heuvel agrees with Flanders. "I do think that progressives are too reluctant to act together until they agree on everything," she says. This is particularly troubling, Flanders believes, because the result is multiple progressive media institutions with almost identical mission statements and projects, duplicating each others' efforts -- something cash-strapped organizations simply cannot afford. Worse still, independent media outlets often pit themselves against each other because they are competing for limited funding, says Law. Of course, this leads to even less collaboration.

Flanders also criticizes what some call the "unbearable Whiteness of the national progressive media." "Movements of the last 20 years have said that racism, sexism, and homophobia are not just details or side issues -- they're central issues. And our alternative press hasn't taken these on," she says. Hazen agrees that the audience for progressive media is predominantly White and middle-aged, but he sees it more as a matter of media matching the culture of a group. "Intellectual magazines don't cut it for most young people," he says. "Hip hop, the Internet, zines, slams, Napster, are all more appropriate because they are part of their culture, just like The Nation, ITT [In These Times], et al, are part of ours."

Where Do We Go from Here?

If Hazen is right, and the popularity of the left press is limited to the generation that is now in its middle age, the future of traditional progressive media institutions looks bleak. Fortunately, the popularity of Internet media outlets, particularly the IMC website, give reason for hope and a glimpse of the possible next phase of development for progressive media.

When he hears talk of the decline and failure of the left press, Don Rojas of The Black World Today website is quick to point out that in the last year, progressive websites have experienced a boom. "We should not overlook the fact that usage of progressive websites and progressive new media in general is on the increase. I expect this will continue," Rojas says. His website is a case in point. Launched in July 1996, The Black World Today ( has had more than four million visitors and experiences a five to ten percent increase in traffic every month. Rojas says that web users -- especially young people -- are very receptive to progressive messages. Like Working Assets' RadioForChange, The Black World Today is a commercial venture -- albeit one that has yet to turn a profit.

Most progressives would agree that the IMC phenomenon is the most exciting development in national progressive media of the last 15 years. The large audience for the IMC sites is paralleled by the enthusiasm of independent media makers wanting to work for the IMC for free. "We had no idea that 450 people would come and sign up [as IMC journalists] to participate in Seattle," says Sheri Herndon, a Seattle-based radio journalist and activist. "In DC [at the protest against the IMF and World Bank], 800 people signed up; in LA [at the Democratic convention], 1400 people showed up ... during the week of the presidential election, we got over 100,000 hits per day at the main site."

Herndon believes that the IMCs are effective, because "movement" activists see them as something they can use. "It's not that we're exporting the IMC. It's that activists are requesting an IMC. The model fills a void," says Herndon. It doesn't cost much to create an IMC, and the self-publishing software already exists and can be replicated for any city. The software allows activists to create their own media rather than having their ideas filtered through a journalist, even if that journalist works for the progressive media.

As alluring as it is to romanticize the IMC as the perfect progressive media institution for the 21st century, it is an institution that is still going through the growing pains that many established national left media outlets went through decades ago. The decision-making structure at the IMC is still evolving, with each individual IMC developing its own structure, and larger issues for the IMC network being discussed on IMC email lists. Some people would call it process hell. Herndon counters that the "constant collective reflection" shows a dedication of IMC participants to democracy and access that is revolutionary.

More problematic is the fact that the IMC network is run entirely by volunteers, some of whom are working 60 hour weeks without pay to keep this miraculous media phenomenon on track. "Some people feel the IMCs should remain a volunteer organization. Those people don't tend to be the ones who are working full time on the IMC," Herndon says. There is also the question of how the IMC will sustain itself in the months ahead without a major activist mobilization effort to cover. But Herndon believes that the IMC has already found a niche outside of major events -- as a wire service for news about activism.

Aside from the IMC website and several Internet portals for progressive information (Common Dreams, for example), the only other national daily source of news with a progressive slant is Democracy Now. It is also the most often mentioned example of successful progressive media. "I think Democracy Now is a model of a kind of journalism that inspires and motivates people," Flanders says. Goodman, her co-host Juan Gonzalez, and the show's producers seem to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the progressive movements.

What is it about Democracy Now that makes it so effective? Although Goodman is one of the harshest critics of corporate media around, she has picked up certain lessons from the mainstream press. The main one is that issues have to be covered regularly and persistently. Otherwise, they don't sink in, Goodman says. She gives the example of her coverage of Leonard Peltier's clemency hearing in November 2000. "Now that Peltier's case is being decided on, we'll talk about it every single day, like mainstream press covers celebrities," Goodman explains. She believes that if the journalist is unabashed, unafraid, determined to uncover the truth, and unwilling to temper the message, and if she covers the issues over and over again, the audience will come. Democracy Now is proof that her philosophy works.

What's next, then, for the national progressive media? Rojas of The Black World Today is pushing for progressives to come together on an Internet radio station that would broadcast programming 24-hours a day. Hazen also believes that progressives should sink their resources into the Internet. But whatever the form of the new national left media institutions, it's clear what their goals need to be.

We must have some progressive media institutions whose charge is to keep our growing cadre of social justice activists informed and inspired to take to the streets to demand change. We must also have progressive media institutions that use mainstream media methods (or spin their stories to the mainstream press) to reach the masses of people who have yet to decide where they stand on the important issues of our time -- not to mention the political and economic elites who hold power in this country.

The audience has a role to play too. Hazen worries that people who read The Nation and listen to Pacifica Radio stations like KPFA believe that the action of consuming progressive media in and of itself constitutes political activism. "As [Ralph] Nader points out, there are powerful stories on the front page of the New York Times; whole issues of Time Magazine devoted to corporate corruption. The corporate establishment yawns. Nothing happens ... Articles, ads, stories without campaigns and organizing are futile. They fall into the hole."

Progressive messages -- whether in print or on the Internet or on radio -- are not going to create social change on their own. This means that audience members must go beyond just reading and listening; they must also take action.

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