Do Pacifica’s moves signal plug could be pulled on WBAI?

WBAI radio has been based at 120 Wall St. for one-third of its 50-year history. Photo by Ellen Moynihan

BY PAUL DERIENZO  |  WBAI, the listener-sponsored radio station in New York City famous for airing George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” in the 1970s, is facing possible closure by the end of this year.

Although folks fond of following the never-ending soap opera known as WBAI may claim this is just more smoke in the perennial battles that have defined the station, this time the end may really be near.

WBAI is the home of iconic New York broadcasters like the poetic radical Bob Fass, moderately famous on local airwaves long before the Internet began its assault on traditional media-listening habits and sent media junkies to the likes of Mashable and Facebook.

WBAI was also the starting ground for Amy Goodman, whose “Democracy Now!” show has reinvented activist journalism and turned liberal political reporting into an Internet feeding machine. The station has also been home base to organic foods and health guru Gary Null. All from studios that have been occupying 120 Wall St., where WBAI has been located for a third of its 50-year existence.

But now the Pacifica Foundation, the Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that owns WBAI and four other community stations around the United States, is ready to pull the plug.

During the foundation’s quarterly national meeting held in Berkeley last month, the governing Pacifica National Board refused to back a $1 million emergency cost-cutting move that would have put Pacifica’s meager resources behind the floundering WBAI. But after rounds of cuts already taken that have decimated staff and canceled popular programming at the network’s stations in California, Washington, D.C., and Houston, the board said no more.

The P.N.B. is now on record mandating stations solve their own financial problems without assistance from the network. Pacifica also declined to renew the contract of Arlene Engelhardt, its current national director and the originator of the cost-cutting proposal.

According to P.N.B. member Tracy Rosenberg, a former New Yorker now representing Berkeley radio station KPFA, board members have been considering either temporarily shutting down WBAI at the end of the year when its lease runs out, or swapping the signal for another, weaker one — as the former New York Times-owned WQXR did some years ago — in return for cash, but at the cost of a much weaker signal. The most recent offer for a “signal swap” made public a few years ago included an offer of more than $100 million to Pacifica.

Rosenberg supports Engelhardt, adding that the conflict over WBAI is “a real threat” and “not rhetoric.” She claims her opponents are “supporting a vision of sink or swim,” and that “Pacifica is legally a network and available resources have to be allocated to meet pressing needs.”

Rosenberg is not popular in the Bay Area for her stance and is currently the focus of a recall election instigated by SaveKPFA, a group opposed to Engelhardt. A judge recently halted the recall because of allegations of impropriety in lists of eligible voters.

Unusual for organizations of its kind, the P.N.B. is chosen from among listener members, volunteers and employees in expensive and hard-fought, biannual elections designed to manage years of internecine conflict.

Pacifica’s “toxic” work environment, according to Rosenberg, was illustrated during last month’s board meeting when Engelhardt complained that she has been receiving “screaming messages on my cell phone in the middle of the night calling me a bitch and a whore.” She added that these calls were coming from “your listener representatives.”

No one at the meeting responded directly to Engelhardt’s charges, but P.N.B. member Dan Siegel, a bitter foe of Engelhardt, said at the same meeting that “WBAI’s facilities are not affordable and WBAI is a major threat to the organization.” He added, “I don’t want to get rid of WBAI. I want to see WBAI self-sufficient.”

Siegel, a Bay Area attorney, is a longtime radical activist best known as the mentor to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. When Quan’s police were accused of brutality against Occupy Wall Street protesters last year, Siegel resigned as her adviser and appeared on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” to publicly disavow Quan’s actions. Siegel is a strong partisan in Pacifica politics, backing former WBAI Program Director Bernard White, whose firing under pressure by the station’s local board, Siegel compared to “ethnic cleansing” at WBAI.

White’s opponents have long accused him of improper behavior and mismanagement, basically handing over the station to his cronies.

Siegel has publicly advocated a signal swap for WBAI and has suggested locations in either Brooklyn or Newark, N.J. According to WBAI board members, before he was fired, White had made similar suggestions in reaction to WBAI’s sinking finances.

Rosenberg admits WBAI faces serious hurdles because it has high “long-term, fixed expenses,” including more than half a million dollars annually to rent a transmitter on the Empire State Building, and that the cash injection from a signal swap is tempting. But she added that she envisions a “middle ground that makes sense,” since, in her view, “it’s not the role of WBAI to be sacrificed to endow the network.”

According to Rosenberg, there are alternatives. When pressed on the dwindling returns on generous payments by Pacifica to “Democracy Now!” Rosenberg admitted that even the sacrosanct Amy Goodman may be partially responsible for WBAI’s demise. According to Rosenberg, the 2002 original contract with “Democracy Now!” was “designed to benefit” Goodman’s program and was unopposed by the board; but in 2007 when the same $750,000 annual contract was renewed it was “at a detriment to Pacifica,” she said.

Goodman has refused offers to renegotiate, and her program, which started at WBAI, remains solvent with millions in reserve.

Much of the bitterness at Pacifica is rooted in a decade-long battle between factions that inherited control of the station in 2001. In that year revelations that Pacifica was exploring a signal swap exploded into acrimonious charges that Pacifica wanted to “sell” WBAI.

Now, more than a decade later, the same charges are being met with a whimper, in part because of the enormity of the financial problems and in part because power at the foundation is so widely scattered, the only successful managers are the ones who, according to Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar, realize that “people at Pacifica don’t bow down just because you wave around scary numbers. You got to go with who you’ve got,” he said.

If WBAI does not solve its financial mess by year’s end those words may seem prophetic.

DeRienzo is a former WBAI programmer and currently co-hosts “Let Them Talk” on Tuesday’s at 8 p.m. on Manhattan Neighborhood Network.