After Half Century of Progressive Broadcasting, WBAI Could Face Closure

WBAI radio has been based at 120 Wall St. for a third of its 50-year history. (Photo by Ellen Moynihan via The Villager)

Budget shortfalls and infighting have brought New York City’s listener-sponsored WBAI radio to the verge of closure, reports The Villager. WBAI has served as staging ground for iconic New York broadcasters such as Bob Fass, Amy Goodman and the organic food and health guru Gary Null. But the future is uncertain for the radio station that has filled New York’s airwaves with progressive politics and radical thought for half a century.

WBAI’s future looks bleak as the Pacifica Foundation, a Berkley, California-based nonprofit that owns WBAI and four other stations across the nation, is likely to pull the plug by the year’s end, or swap the station’s signal for a much weaker one, reported Paul Derienzo, a former WBAI programmer.

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.

P.N.B. member Tracy Rosenberg called the uncertainty over WBAI’s future “a real threat” and “not rhetoric.” She said the board is considering a temporarily shutdown of WBAI at the year’s end when its lease ends, or swapping its current signal for a weaker one in return for cash.

Dan Siegel, a Bay area attorney and a P.N.B. member, has argued that WBAI’s high expenses — including headquarters on Wall Street and the rental of a transmitter on the Empire State Building — make its current setup unsustainable. Siegel has suggested that the station relocate to either Brooklyn or Newark, N.J., The Villager reported.

Some have placed part of the blame for WBAI’s financial predicament on one of the station’s most famous alumni — the broadcaster Amy Goodman. Rosenberg said that Pacifica’s generous payments to Goodman’s nationally broadcast TV show, “Democracy Now!” have put a financial strain on the organization.

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.

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