In this week’s issue… WBAI picture gets cloudier after return to local programming – Silent LI AM to return – Translator fight in Maine – Canadian station owner recovers from damaging power surge
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*Just a week or so ago, your editor had the great fun of seeing Dean Friedman in concert, doing an energetic live rendition of his 1977 hit “Ariel,” wherein the hippie heroine is first spotted in a New Jersey shopping mall, collecting donations “for the friends of the B-A-I.”
After the show, we chatted with Friedman for a few minutes, wondering if he was following the soap opera surrounding Ariel’s favorite radio station, WBAI (99.5 New York). He was – but little did we know that just a few days later, that soap opera would take yet another turn: WBAI’s local station board won a court order restoring their local programs to the 99.5 airwaves, replacing the “Pacifica Across America” feed that had been coming from Pacifica national headquarters in California since the national board ousted local programmers in October.
“I think it’s time to get WBAI back on the air and back to fundraising,” the Post quoted Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Melissa Crane as saying during a hearing last Wednesday in the suit pitting the local board against the national organization that actually holds the station’s license. Pacifica national had already lost one battle with the local board, being forced to continue to pay the local staff after the state determined it hadn’t properly handled the shutdown from a labor standpoint.
What happens now? As with everything in WBAI’s tangled story, it’s a mess in the making. So let’s help out Ariel (who’d now be nearly 60, has moved deeper into Bergen County, and is probably listening to WLTW or maybe WNYC) to understand what these latest developments might mean to the station she used to support back in the 1970s…
-WBAI was never silent. The return of local programming on Thursday was being billed in some quarters as “WBAI returns to the air.” That wasn’t the case, of course: the 99.5 frequency in New York never went off the air amidst the turmoil of the last month, and listeners to some of its most popular shows, such as “Democracy Now!,” never noticed any disruption at all with the switch to the Pacifica Across America schedule. What did go away when the Brooklyn studio was closed in October was a hodgepodge of block programming that was a far cry from the 1970s programming for which Ariel was collecting her “quarters in a paper cup.” And what returned Thursday morning was, from what we’ve heard, a resumption of the nonstop pledge drive that characterized a lot of WBAI’s output in recent months.
–The local WBAI wasn’t financially sustainable. That’s the argument Pacifica national made when it took over in October, saying those nonstop pledge drives simply weren’t bringing in enough money to pay WBAI’s bills, especially as the first installment of the station’s loan was coming due for its new transmitter site at 4 Times Square and the repayment of its debt to its old transmitter landlord, the Empire State Realty Trust. And if the numbers we’re hearing (audience cumes of under 80,000 listeners a week, on a class B signal reaching more than 18 million potential listeners) are accurate, it seems somewhere between unlikely and impossible that WBAI could ever bring in enough listener revenue to be sustainable in its current form.
–Who owns 99.5? The Pacifica Foundation. At least, that’s what the FCC license has said since 1960. So where the local station board might have seen a “coup,” a “seizure,” or a “takeover,” it’s equally valid to look at the October action by the national board as simply asserting its control over the license it owns, as the FCC requires. The local employees in Brooklyn may have had a voice through the local station board, but in the end, they’re still employees of the licensee, which is the national Pacifica Foundation. Except…
–Who’s controlling Pacifica national? And here’s where the ruling from Judge Crane exposed the problem that could make WBAI’s mess far messier in the months to come: she agreed with the local board’s lawyers that there were problems with the way Pacifica national conducted the vote in which it decided to lock out the local staffers and take WBAI’s programming national. Several local board members were excluded from that vote on conflict of interest grounds, a move Crane determined violated Pacifica’s bylaws.
Pacifica national says it’s appealing Crane’s ruling – but that assumes the existing leaders of Pacifica national remain in charge amidst what appears to be some turmoil at that level, too. (There was reportedly a vote to oust the current interim executive director who oversaw the WBAI takeover, but it’s not even clear to us whether or not that interim ED remains in place.)
And so WBAI muddles along, for now. Will its current local programming continue, or will some version of national take over again after the next court ruling? Will already-low listenership get lower amidst the uncertainty, or will the latest crisis rally donors to step up and better fund whatever WBAI is this week? Most critically, how will those loan payments get made – and if they don’t, will Pacifica’s national finances be affected, with whatever that might mean not only to WBAI itself but to the network’s other stations in Washington, Houston, Berkeley and Los Angeles?
If this is a victory for the local staff, it may well be a hollow one. And as ever, we’ll be watching to see what happens next as WBAI’s world continues to turn.
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