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BY PAUL DeRIENZO | WBAI, where George Carlin’s famously indecent “Seven Words” were spoken, where Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and countless others began their artistic careers, and where the infamous radical Weather Underground called in their bombing communiqués during a different type of war without end, has laid off 19 of 29 employees and has removed most of its locally produced programming. The station is still broadcasting on 99.5 FM, but for the time being, most programs will be imported from WBAI’s sister radio stations in California.
The Pacifica Foundation, the Berkley-based, nonprofit outfit that owns WBAI and four other noncommercial stations sent in Executive Director Summer Reese, who broke the news in a tearful morning report from the radio airwaves on Aug. 9. Reese sobbed as she told listeners she had arrived directly from meetings with SAG-AFTRA, the union representing WBAI staff, adding that “with great sadness…many of the voices that you have been listening to for many years will no longer be on the air as of next week.”
According to a WBAI producers’ group WBAI’s signature programs “Wake-Up Call,” “Talkback!” “Five O’Clock Shadow,” “The Jordan Journal” and “The Caldwell Chronicle,” as well as the entire WBAI news department, would be eliminated.
During the broadcast, Reese said that she is “100 percent committed to keeping WBAI on the air as a Pacifica station.” Last summer at a contentious meeting of Pacifica’s national board of directors, Pacifica withdrew its support of WBAI, which has been suffering financially for most of the past decade. At least one board member brought up the possibility of selling WBAI. To stem the bleeding, Reese brought in Andrew Phillips, a former WBAI producer and program director, to make drastic changes at the 55-year old progressive institution.
In an exclusive interview with The Villager, Phillips, who charms with his Australian accent and had been offered the position at WBAI only a few days earlier, was excited about the opportunity to rebuild the station. Phillips said he’ll focus on the most important and potentially lucrative drive-time slots, starting in the morning, surrounding the successful “Democracy Now!” produced by WBAI alumni Amy Goodman. Phillips said he’ll rebroadcast Goodman’s show “at least twice a day,” replacing the popular “Talkback!” hosted for more than a decade by Caribbean broadcaster and journalist Hugh Hamilton.
A radio documentary producer who once worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Phillips said WBAI has to improve its sound “to be as good as National Public Radio.” These statements scare some listeners as meaning WBAI will move away from its leftist political mission. He claims he’ll continue to keep WBAI’s content “left of center, and grassroots,” running stories like “the NSA scandal, more like Amy Goodman’s type of political content.” Phillips envisions programs that “can direct listeners to the more radical programs” broadcast at other times of the day.
Phillips still has to deal with a huge hole left at 6 p.m. by Pacifica’s decision to lay off WBAI’s news department. WBAI was one of few local broadcasters on air during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. News reporters, led by longtime News Director Jose Santiago, covered the disaster based at studios several blocks away from Ground Zero. More recently, WBAI provided live coverage of Occupy Wall Street protest actions. Phillips told The Villager that he’s “trying to deal with” not having a news department by “bringing in Free Speech Radio News,” an Oregon-based supplier of progressive radio news stories.
Phillips said he’s “committed to bringing back local news as soon as we get money.” But he added that WBAI will have no local news “for a while,” unless a “strictly volunteer” news broadcast can be arranged.
Phillips said he wouldn’t be messing with WBAI’s iconic after-midnight shows, including veteran broadcaster Bob Fass. Phillips said, “I can’t imagine changing Bob Fass, or [classical music host] Chris Whent or any programmer who has a devoted following.”
But Phillips added that he plans to institute “thirteen-week contracts” for future programmers, and to “require producers to submit proposals” before a new show is aired. Until the recent actions, programmers on WBAI and other Pacifica stations had wielded a great deal of power over a management that was clearly reluctant to take on producers.
Past attempts by Pacifica to manage WBAI were derisively labeled “Christmas coups” and other epithets by angry listener groups allied with programmers. But this time, the financial burden has spread to the entire network. Reese, appearing on WBAI, warned that Pacifica was unable to meet its payroll for the next pay period and that the national office was $100,000 in the red. Pacifica also owes $2 million in fees to “Democracy Now!” These network-wide financial problems made dealing with WBAI an immediate concern.
Producer Gary Null, whose noon program is arguably the most popular locally produced WBAI program, has been feuding with some past WBAI managers. Null blames WBAI for poorly managed fundraising drives where expensive membership premiums are sometimes never delivered. Recently, Null expressed support for the changes at WBAI, and said he hoped current management would “honor the audience first with inexpensive premiums.” Null also pledged to write WBAI a check for $13,000.
Despite what he called the “sadness” of the layoffs, Phillips claimed there is hope and “excitement” for WBAI’s future. He added that WBAI is renting a new space at 388 Atlantic Ave. in Boreum Hill that is “ten times cheaper” than its former studios on Wall St. It was on Wall St., right at the East River, where Superstorm Sandy came ashore, causing massive damage and finally pushing WBAI into its tailspin. Currently, WBAI is broadcasting from the City College studios of WHCR because Phillips said that there is “still no money for installing a new studio” at the Boreum Hill location. But he predicted WBAI would get a studio running in Brooklyn “in about three weeks.”
Pacifica’s moves at WBAI are not without opposition and critics. An organization called Justice and Unity has been fighting Pacifica management for years over control of the station. The group is planning to bring their objections to WBAI’s Local Station Board, which has been stalemated by factional infighting for years. The L.S.B., as it’s called, is a compromise institution with elected members formed after that last bout of devastating infighting at Pacifica a decade ago.
Now, Reese, who began as an elected board member at the Los Angeles station, is reportedly considering new bylaws that would end the experiment in “listener democracy” that many say has turned into an expensive failure.
Phillips minced few words in describing his opposition. Speaking of Justice and Unity organizers, he said, “They have a 10-year proven record of failure,” adding that the former managers at WBAI had “done nothing to deal with a six-figure deficit.”
Phillips stressed that WBAI “needs to raise and maintain an audience.” He pointed to published reports that WBAI is nearly dead last in audience share, with less than one-tenth of one percent of the available audience, and only about 14,000 subscribing members.
“I want the best for the station,” he said.
Meanwhile, opponents of the changes are organizing a “take back” movement and planning a political fight. Whether this half-century-old, progressive institution can weather the changes ahead speaks as much for the maturity of American leftists as it does the managers of Pacifica.
DeRienzo has hosted several programs at WBAI, and also produced the “Gary Null Show.” DeRienzo and Joan Moossy co-host “Let Them Talk” on Manhattan Neighborhood Network TV every Tuesday at 8 p.m.