ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County Commission’s unanimous vote revoking funding to a local Black radio station constitutes a political attack on free speech and the Black community, the station’s supporters said Monday.
Commissioners pulled funding last week after Commissioner Chris Latvala decried the allocation to the station, WBPU 96.3, also known as Black Power 96, over its association with the Uhuru Movement, the African Socialist group. The FBI raided the group’s St. Petersburg headquarters last year.
The County Commission had approved the funding — about $36,000 to the station’s parent nonprofit, the African People’s Education and Defense Fund — in November as part of a round of American Rescue Plan grants for capital improvements at local nonprofits.
“The point that the Pinellas County Commission made when they voted to revoke these resources is that Black people are not allowed to disagree with them,” said Uhuru spokesperson Akile Anai. “Because if we do, they will attempt to make it impossible for us to succeed.”
The nonprofit said in a statement that it’s considering legal action against the commission “for violating the federal grant rules” and “for slander, libel and false accusations.”
A news conference Monday, held steps away from the radio station inside the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue South, included the most detailed comments by the station and nonprofit since the commission vote. The money would have gone toward a new emergency alert system and other equipment to stay on-air during severe weather, a listener call-in system, and audio equipment to expand educational programming, the nonprofit said in its statement.
The grant also would have helped the station improve accessibility for its manager, Eddie Maultsby, who is blind, Anai said. Black Power 96 subsists entirely on community donations, she said, and the promised money would have given it room to focus on what it offers in return without worrying about keeping the lights on.
Many in the Black, low-income communities around the station rely on the radio for news, the nonprofit said in a statement, and the station was a crucial source of information during the pandemic. Several speakers emphasized that it also acts as an important cultural outlet for local Black artists who can’t access corporately owned airwaves.
St. Petersburg City Council member John Muhammad didn’t speak at the conference but attended in support. The station shows community resilience in action, he said afterward, and fills the gaps left by mainstream media outlets that have long failed to build inroads in the Black community.
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“If it’s a legitimate nonprofit that completed all the requirements” for funding, he said, “I think funding should be granted.”
Maultsby, who started at the station five years ago as a DJ playing gospel music, invoked a higher power.
“It’s sad when you can give someone something and take it back,” he said. “Imagine if Jesus did that.”