Have WINGS, Will Fly

Frieda Werden's Women's News Projects Take Off

In a small bungalow in South Austin, Frieda Werden slides on a pair of headphones and revels in the rhythm of the voice. She loves the power of words, the energy that comes from a story told by a woman in South Africa one minute, a woman in South Korea the next. Using state-of-the-art audio equipment, Werden mixes and weaves these stories, and countless others, into tightly edited 30-minute news programs that glide across radio airwaves in the form of WINGS -- Women's International News Gathering Service.

The Austin-based WINGS celebrated its 10th year in May -- a major feat for any feminist news outfit, certainly for one that spent its early years struggling in the San Francisco living room of Werden and her late partner, Katherine Davenport, a longtime radio producer and ardent news junkie.

"It was pretty hard," Werden recalls of those hand-to-mouth days. "But we ate a lot of beans and I did part-time work as a tele-fundraiser for the San Francisco Symphony. There was one point at the end of '87 when I thought we would have to give it up. We were just about to run out of money when we got a major grant -- $10,000 from the Skaggs Foundation -- and that pulled us through."

After Davenport's death from leukemia in 1992, Werden packed up WINGS and moved back home to Austin, determined to keep their labor of love airborne. By that time, Werden and WINGS had already become well-acquainted with the generosity of Austin-area resident Genevieve Vaughan, the founder of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society and arguably one of the most altruistic donors around where common cause is concerned. Werden goes a step further by proclaiming Vaughan "the largest single funder of alternative women's media projects in the world."

Vaughan still provides substantial funding to WINGS and Werden draws a salary from Vaughan's Foundation for work that includes training women in radio production. The training ground takes place at WATER -- Women's Access to Electronic Resources (see accompanying story) -- a project founded and funded by the Foundation to groom women in the use of audio, visual, and electronic media. After learning in WATER's audio studio, which Werden helped design, some women continue to ply their newfound skills as WINGS interns.

One woman under Werden's tutelage, Lisa Hayes, proved to be a quick study and now divides her time between both projects. "I started out going to WATER and then everything kind of took off with WINGS," she says. "I'd always wanted to learn to use electronic equipment because I was interested in documentary work. But I never had access to that kind of equipment and I just figured that, since I didn't have money, there would be absolutely no way for me to learn. For me, WATER provided a way to have that access."

To Werden, those kinds of success stories serve to reinforce the value of women's media and similar collectives that thrive on the "by women, about women, for women" school of thought. That concept has its rightful place in WINGS' newscasts, says Werden, because the same themes of human rights, health, labor, economics, and violence against women provide common threads for women in all corners of the world, not just, say, the gals in Winnipeg, Manitoba, or Lexington, Kentucky.

"The international women's movement is constantly making news that isn't being covered by the mainstream media," says Werden, who also produces the Women's News Hour on Austin's cable access television. The universal appeal of WINGS' topics is borne out in the 130 stations in the United States and abroad that carry the programs. Werden, by the way, cheerfully reports that men account for half of the orders made for cassette copies of programs.

Werden's video endeavors take her to cable access studios each Friday for a live weekly news show, 6-7pm. With two or three guests on each week, topics have ranged from high-tech pollution to computer keyboards and carpal tunnel syndrome, to the mistreatment of elephants at zoos and circuses. Doing a live show each week is not without its embarrassing production moments, but Werden brushes off goof-ups in good humor. "That's the thing about live shows -- every little mistake is right out there for everyone to see," she says.

While video offers some nice visual advantages in delivering news reports, Werden's first love is the airwaves, for which she produces WINGS programs using two different formats. A weekly show features a single-story, 30-minute format, while a second arrangement presents a full-fledged newscast containing multiple stories from around the globe. The latter format is offered only once a month because of its time-consuming nature. At any rate, the newscasts are smooth and pithy and pleasing to the ear -- evidence of producer Werden's editing skills and her flair for drama (Werden is a one-time performance poet). What sets WINGS apart from National Public Radio shows is that reporters inject very little into their stories, allowing the women being interviewed to speak for themselves.

WINGS' 10th anniversary newscast that aired in May, for example, gave an El Paso woman the floor to talk about a little-heard-of emergency contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy after sex. Another story gave us Cecile Richards, who talked about her efforts to counter the religious right through the Texas Freedom Network, which got its start in Richards' living room. Then another story examined child labor practices in India's agricultural and textile industries. The flip side of the anniversary program carried Gloria Steinem's speech on feminist family values, presented at the Austin Convention Center in March.

To those who question why WINGS doesn't balance its news stories with "the other side," Werden has a ready response: "The mainstream version is already out there. They've already had their say. The women's side of the story serves to round out the picture of the world, and it's constantly a revelation." Indeed, Werden's endeavors in women's history taught her that much. As the associate curator of the Texas Women's History Project from 1979-1981, Werden learned that women were the primary community builders in Texas, yet their work gained scant attention in the record books.

Werden has made certain that WINGS' own contributions don't fall by the wayside in years to come. The Center for American History at the University of Texas houses the WINGS archive. That's not to say WINGS is anywhere close to being history. The news service, after all, holds the distinction of outliving the so-called women's decade of the Eighties. Werden says three factors contribute to WINGS' longevity: continued station interest, continued funding and, of course, stubbornness -- all of which help feed the project's modest but stable budget of $30,000 each year. On the face of it, WINGS is a mighty voice to be reckoned with. "We hold significant power," says Werden, "to put information out there." n

WINGS airs locally at 5pm Tuesdays on KOOP (91.7 FM) and at noon Sundays on KAZI (88.7 FM). The news service can also be picked up on short-wave radio, and on the Web at

http://www.wings.org. Women's News Hour airs on Fridays at 6pm on Cable Access Channel 10.

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