For over 50 years, WBAI-FM in New York has been a mecca for people seeking real news and information about major social and governmental issues.
While commercial stations up and down the radio dial bombard their listeners with news about fire, crime, sex and celebrities, or subject them to endless blather by right-wing commentators or hours of mindless “sports talk,” listener-supported WBAI does something else --- it educates people.
Whether it’s the acclaimed investigative news show, Democracy Now, or Law and Disorder, Economic Update, Guns and Butter, the Gary Null health show, Where We Live, or Building Bridges, WBAI does so much to help people better understand a range of vital issues.
Now however, that beacon of light in a media wasteland is threatened with extinction. WBAI is in serious financial distress, and it’s an open question whether the station can survive.
On August 10th, Summer Reese, the interim executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns the station, said in an emotional report to listeners that due to the station’s substantial debt, a majority of the paid staff at WBAI had to be laid off. In the process, most of the existing day-time programming would be dropped. Only a skeleton crew would be kept on to maintain operations, she said.
“We didn’t have the ability to continue the payroll at this station without making these layoffs,” said Reese.
In addition to the day-time cuts, WBAI’s award-winning nightly news cast was knocked out, with long time news staffers such as Jose Santiago and Andrea Sears laid off.
The reductions will save WBAI about $900,000 a year. The operating budget for WBAI runs about $2 million a year, said Reese. The station accepts no advertising and survives largely on donations from listeners.
Already-produced programs from other stations at Pacifica, as well as FSRN news, have been slotted in to fill the gaps created by the cuts.
The Pacifica Network has five main stations in New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston and Washington, D.C. and 200 affiliates.
Reese said WBAI has run a deficit of “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” for each of the last ten years. A number of factors have led to the shortfalls --- sky-high rental costs the station incurred while it was housed in offices on Wall Street; damage from Super Storm Sandy last fall; and in some cases, lackluster programs which failed to attract new listeners.
To date, the Pacifica national office has subsidized WBAI to cover the station’s debt. But that’s no longer possible because Pacifica’s resources are now dried up.
“There is no money,” Reese said.
To right the ship at WBAI, Reese has brought in Andrew Phillips to be interim program director. Phillips was recently the program director at KPFA in Berkeley, and 20 years ago, the program director at WBAI. Both Reese and Phillips said it is imperative to upgrade the programming in a number of time slots and expand the audience.
Currently, that audience is not very big. WBAI has just 15,000 paid subscribers, despite being in a metropolitan area with 19 million people and a 50,000 watt antenna sitting on top of the Empire State Building.
“This is a huge market. We have to adapt and change,” said Phillips in his remarks during the listener report.
“We have to move forward. I don’t have to tell you why. NSA. Edward Snowden. Bradley Manning. Drones flying overhead, scaring the hell out of people in Pakistan and around the world….You all know what I am talking about. You all know other stations don’t carry these stories like Pacifica carries them,” said Phillips.
Phillips called WBAI “the most important progressive radio station in the country.”
Reese expressed her determination to preserve WBAI with its current powerful signal --- coming from a transmitter which costs $50,000 a month to rent --- instead of selling the station’s lucrative licenses, and becoming a smaller operation.
The next few months will be critical as changes take place at the station, and hopefully, there’s a positive response from listeners. Reese said there’s no margin for error.
“The fate of this radio station, honestly, is in the balance as to whether it will continue to exist,” she said.
She also noted that if that if the situation at WBAI is not stabilized, “it could pull down the whole network with it.”
The threat to WBAI and Pacifica couldn’t come at a worse time for progressives and really anyone who values quality journalism.
The vehicles for providing good, hard hitting journalism are disappearing. On the print side, well-regarded newspapers have either folded up or been sharply reduced in size. Others are being taken over by billionaire businessmen intent on using the publications to gain political advantage in Congress or with the White House. The objectivity of those papers and the credibility of their reporting could be undermined.
As for commercial radio and television, with a few exceptions on cable TV, coverage of important news is a joke.
At the same time, the need for strong reporting and for providing a forum for the discussion of key issues has never been greater. As Phillips noted, America is becoming a surveillance state, with privacy rights going out the window; the Obama administration is attacking people’s first amendment rights and the rights of journalists themselves to practice their craft; global warming grows worse by the day; the economy remains mired in a recession and an increasing number of Americans see their economic fortunes declining while a tiny minority live like kings; and racial injustice persists.
It is critical to preserve WBAI, the Pacifica Network and all community radio stations, as they provide the space where vital news about their region, the nation and the world can be heard, and where issues can be analyzed and discussed in a free and open manner.