In this week’s issue… Local, national boards scuffle over WBAI’s future – Cumulus cuts in central PA – Auction opens new FM channels
By SCOTT FYBUSH
MONDAY UPDATE: Here we go again. Just as we were finishing up our analysis of the WBAI mess Sunday night, it got messier, potentially much messier. There’s now a split within the Pacifica national board, which manifested itself Sunday night with a board meeting convened by phone in which members voted to reverse what they called “the heist that occurred October 7.”
As soon as tomorrow, that could mean the return of all the local staffers and programming who were removed from WBAI’s airwaves – except that it’s not at all clear that the vote was legitimate. That’s because Pacifica’s interim executive director says the votes included several from members of WBAI’s local station board who had already been removed and thus weren’t eligible to vote.
There’s a news conference set for Tuesday and a rally on Wednesday, and it looks like all the chaos that has characterized the last few decades of WBAI is swirling once again. Stay tuned…
Last week, of course, the sudden decision by the station’s licensee, the national Pacifica Foundation, to pull the plug on its local programming and staff was enough on its own to prompt a rare same-day NERW Extra.
It would have been surprising if the local station board at WBAI hadn’t reacted by going to court – and of course it did, seeking and winning a temporary restraining order on Tuesday that it hoped would force Pacifica to reverse course and restore WBAI’s local shows and staff.
But that restraining order in a state court ran into a problem: WBAI’s license is a federal one, and federal law is very clear that the responsibility for programming and operating a radio station rests on that station’s licensee – which has never been the local station board in New York, but rather national Pacifica in California.
And so it was unsurprising (at least to us) that Pacifica quickly managed to get most of the restraining order reversed, allowing it to continue to feed a national programming lineup to WBAI from Pacifica headquarters in Berkeley while it addresses the issues that do actually apply at the state level.
How does that break down? Keep reading…
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*Here’s how we see the dilemma that WBAI’s local defenders now face: at the federal level, they don’t have much standing at all. It’s Pacifica’s license, Pacifica’s lease of tower space at 4 Times Square, and Pacifica’s decision about where to originate whatever programming it chooses to run.
But at the state level, there’s a different “WBAI” entity at play – not the federal broadcast license but the local employment unit, where Pacifica is subject to the same state labor laws and union agreements as any other business, regardless of what federal licenses it might hold. That’s where the restraining order appears to still have some teeth: while it can’t force Pacifica to put anything specific on its airwaves, it can force local WBAI employees to be treated according to state laws, which apparently require Pacifica to give them more notice than they received.
There’s a hearing scheduled for Friday in state court in New York, where we’re sure these issues will get aired at greater length (or postponed for future consideration) – but in the meantime, there’s plenty for Pacifica, its local staff and its listeners to be thinking about.
At the national level, Pacifica’s argument is that the local WBAI unit has continued to be a drain on the rest of the network. The 2018 deal that got WBAI out of its eviction proceedings at the Empire State Building was supposed to have put the station on firmer footing, but in fact appears to have just kicked the can a few more months down the road. While WBAI’s loan paid off the Empire debt, it started an 18-month clock before Pacifica would have to begin making payments on that debt.
And guess what? From all indications, none of the underlying issues locally at WBAI changed after that particular crisis was averted. Listenership didn’t increase, and neither did membership revenue.
“WBAI has accumulated $4 million debt to the Pacifica Central Services – a weight our stations, Archives, and National Office have had to carry. Additionally, we as a network of stations must secure $3.2 million to repay a loan that is due in full in 2021,” said Pacifica’s national board in a statement it posted to the barebones website that replaced the local WBAI site on Monday.
What now? As we began exploring in last Monday’s column, there are a few things that won’t happen. Selling the 99.5 facility still isn’t on Pacifica’s radar, even though it would likely bring $30 million or so into the network’s coffers. Instead, Pacifica says it intends to restart local operations at WBAI once things settle down.
“We hope you will join us in (re)creating a truly independent, resilient, economically viable institution from the people – for the people,” said the network’s statement. “We seek to create an eclectic mix of local WBAI favorites alongside new shows and best-of nationally syndicated content.”
That statement appears to at least leave the door open to some WBAI program hosts returning – but will the usual toxic stew of politics allow for that? There’s no reason to expect that the latest fight over WBAI control will end any more amicably than any of the other fights of the last forty-plus years. Any current program host who joins up with the new nationally-run WBAI will probably be on the receiving end of lots of rancor from the stalwart supporters of the “old” WBAI.
Is there any way any of this ends well? We’re not hopeful. A “new” WBAI that’s capable of attracting listeners and donors in large enough numbers to make a dent in $7 million of debt would have to sound very, very different from the WBAI of recent years. In 2019 or 2020, is it even possible to draw that many new listeners to a spot on the FM dial that few of them have ever thought about?
It’s a huge challenge, especially for a station that essentially has no studio facilities, little social media presence and the near certainty of months, if not years, of legal and political challenges to anyone audacious enough to even try taking on a management role.
*What else made news this week in NEW YORK?
How about the chance to put two new FM signals on the air way out at the eastern tip of Long Island?
That’s just one (OK, two) of the opportunities the FCC will offer when it opens bidding at the end of April 2020 in its “Auction 106” proceeding, for which it opened comments last week on auction procedures.
Those new FM channels, 94.5A Sagaponack and 103.3A Shelter Island, will each have starting bids of $45,000 for anyone willing to take a chance on adding two more signals to what’s already a very crowded dial. In Livingston Manor, up along I-86 at the edge of the Catskills, 107.1A will start at $25,000, while it’s a $40,000 starting bid for 102.9A in nearby Narrowsburg along the Delaware River.
Way upstate, it’s a $75,000 starting bid for 94.1A in Keeseville, with the potential to enter the crowded Burlington, VERMONT scene – and at the other end of the state, on the Pennsylvania border, it’s a $25,000 bid for another crack at 100.9A Westfield. (That channel was purchased at a previous auction by the ERIE Radio Company, but a glitch in payment for the auction win led to the bid being cancelled.)
*It’s convention week in New York City, with the NAB New York show and the co-located Audio Engineering Society conference taking over the Javits Convention Center beginning Wednesday. We’ll be there this year for events that include NYSBA’s Hall of Fame induction luncheon Thursday – and we hope you’ll join us for the AES broadcast and online delivery track, which includes the session we’re moderating Saturday on emergency preparedness, as well as sessions on the technical history of WNYC public radio, a tour of the Stitcher podcast studios, and much more!
*In Kingston, EMF is requesting new calls WKGW for WFRH (91.7), as it prepares to take the station over from Family Stations.
No request has been made yet for new calls for Family’s WFBF 89.9 in Buffalo, which is also part of the same Family-to-EMF deal. But there is a site change planned for the station, which never had a great signal in its Family days; under EMF, it plans to move to the former WBUF (92.9) tower on Cole Road in the Boston hills south of Buffalo, where it would run 16 kW/174m DA with what we’d expect will be a much more potent signal into the Queen City. (WBUF left that Cole Road site back in 2006, moving into the city with a shift to the Elmwood Avenue tower that was once the unrelated WBUF-TV 17. But don’t get me started on Buffalo tower history, because I’ll still be here next Monday sorting out all the different WBUFs and WBNYs and how they all interconnect…)
In Syracuse, Laura Hand’s final newscast on WSTM (Channel 3) on Saturday morning was celebrated by an entire studio full of family members and current and former colleagues. As befits a career that stretched back more than four decades, Hand was honored by having that very studio renamed – it’s now the “Laura Hand Studio,” with a plaque right at the door.
*And we’re saddened to have to share news of the death of Bob Burns, whose career started with summer relief work at WCAU in Philadelphia but really took off in 1954 when he became a staff announcer at WHAM in Rochester. Burns hosted late-night and afternoon music shows and appeared as “Ranger Bob” on WHAM-TV (Channel 5).
In 1957, Burns moved to management at the new WFLR (1570) in Dundee, then to WSFW in Seneca Falls in 1968. In 1976, Burns bought WMNS in Olean, built an FM sister, then sold the stations around 1980 and moved south.
*What’s going on at Cumulus in central PENNSYLVANIA? As RadioInsight first reported Thursday, two morning shows are gone from the Harrisburg-based cluster: the “Morning Madhouse” at WWKL (Hot 106.7) and Chachi Angelo’s morning show at WZCY (93.5 Nash FM).
Ryan Downes (aka “DJ Puff”) and Steph Pagliaro are out from Hot, after 15 years for Downes and three for Pagliaro. Angelo had been with WZCY for just over seven years, also serving as PD of the country station. (His co-host Jenna Clay will stay at the station in a different role.)
It’s not clear what either station is doing now in mornings – but it’s very clear, if you read the social media postings from the fired hosts that Lance shared in his RadioInsight article, that as Pagliaro said, “Radio is a tough business right now.”
*Outside of Philadelphia, little WFYL (1180 King of Prussia) is looking for a new site now that it’s lost its lease at the golf course where it had been operating from a Valcom whip antenna. Owner Trinity Associates Broadcasting has applied for an STA to keep WFYL on the air with 300 watts from a longwire antenna strung from the roof of the Lower Providence Township fire hall just north of King of Prussia, with a rather smaller signal than its licensed kilowatt (daytime only).
*Some good news from MASSACHUSETTS: at WBZ (1030 Boston), hard-working reporter Nichole Davis now has a show of her own. She’s been tapped to host “New England Weekends” on Saturday nights at 10, in a nice bit of recognition for years of hard work there.
*More Auction 106 opportunities across the region? You bet: in NEW HAMPSHIRE it’s just a $10,000 starting bid for 97.3A in Jefferson, 101.5A in Groveton or 98.7A in Stratford, and the same small bid for 105.9A in Hardwick, VERMONT. In more populous West Rutland, it’s a $25,000 starting bid for 107.5A, the channel once occupied by Brian Dodge’s ill-fated WRUT.
Will these little FM facilities find bidders and get built? The track record from recent auctions has been pretty anemic, but we’ll be watching closely as the April 28 auction date approaches.