WBAI's Death by Democracy

Warring activists cause a legendary public radio station to implode

WBAI's Death by Democracy

It was 6:30 p.m. on August 9, at the end of the evening news. The voice of Jose Santiago, longtime news director at the legendary radical radio station WBAI, drifted out over the airwaves for what would be the last time.

"Over the years, I've knocked out last-minute news copy at breakneck speeds thousands of times, in a whole bunch of different places, and always made the deadline," Santiago told listeners. "But this one, on such short notice, is not flowing so easily."

Earlier that afternoon, Summer Reese, interim executive director of Pacifica Radio, which owns the station's broadcast license, had gathered WBAI's staff together and confirmed rumors that had run rampant for months. Almost all of them were losing their jobs.

Brian Stauffer
News Director Jose Santiago worked at WBAI for 24 years.
Caleb Ferguson
News Director Jose Santiago worked at WBAI for 24 years.

"This is goodbye," Santiago said, his voice growing shaky. "I want to say a million things, but none more than 'thank you.'"

The end was a long time coming.

For years, observers inside and out had been prophesying the death of WBAI, birthplace of the nationally syndicated alternative news program Democracy NOW!. The station has not turned a profit in more than a decade. The last year has been particularly tough.

Millions of dollars in debt, and unable to pay staff or rent, WBAI has devoted a staggering 169 days to pledge drives since October. Quacks and conspiracy theorists solicited donations by dangling gifts like magic water capable of curing cancer and books that claim, matter-of-factly, that the world is secretly ruled by shapeshifting reptilian overlords.

Ask the people who have lived through the slow, sad decline, and they will tell you that the very thing they thought would save the organization—democratizing the network—nearly killed it entirely.

Fans of 99.5 WBAI still wax nostalgic about Election Day 2000, when President Bill Clinton made the mistake of calling the station to get out the vote for Al Gore and the Senate campaign of his wife, Hillary. Instead of the few minutes of small talk he expected, Clinton spent 28 minutes under fire from WBAI's Amy Goodman and Gonzalo Aburto, defending his presidency.

The pair hammered Clinton with tough question after tough question—Would he grant clemency to Native American activist Leonard Peltier? Did he support a moratorium on the death penalty, considering studies that showed it's tilted toward killing black people? Why did he authorize the bombing of the island of Vieques?—before a frustrated Clinton was forced to excuse himself from the call.

It was the stuff of WBAI legend, the stuff listeners lived for—holding privileged feet to the fire, demanding answers to questions the mainstream media wouldn't ask.

Over the decades, WBAI built a reputation as a beacon of free speech. It's where James Baldwin debated Malcolm X over the power of nonviolent protest, and where George Carlin broadcast his famous "Filthy Words" show, the monologue that spawned a debate over indecency and a Supreme Court case to boot.

It wasn't just a radio station; it was a countercultural epicenter. Legendary broadcaster Bob Fass informed listeners of his program, Radio Unnamable, of the best places to purchase acid in the East Village. And when one listener encountered a bad trip, he put a psychiatrist on the air to talk her through it.

In the old days, Bob Dylan used to come in just to do a station break. "He'd just walk in, and we'd hand him the microphone, and we wouldn't say who he was and, you know, most people could figure it out," former general manager Chris Albertson says.

Back then, Albertson says, "you could walk into the hallway and find the janitor—we had a janitor back in those days—deep in conversation with Ayn Rand," who had a weekly commentary show. "Where else could you find that?"

Yoko Ono, a volunteer filing clerk in the music department, pitched in during the station's first fundraising marathon. "You wouldn't believe this, but Yoko Ono was a really humble, quiet person. I mean, the fact that she even came to me, to my office, was amazing. But then she asked if she could go on the air and help out during the marathon," Albertson chuckles. "She said, 'I'd like to sing some Japanese children's songs.' I said, 'Sure,' and so she did it. WBAI attracted people like that."

That first pledge drive stretched over two days and nights without stopping. Contributors received gifts much different than those offered today.

"Artist Elaine de Kooning provided some of her minor Kennedy paintings for auction, and other lesser known artistic lights offered their services as plumbers and carpenters," Susan Brownmiller wrote in 1965, chronicling the drive for the Voice. "Big Joe Williams sang the blues and three teenagers hitchhiked in from Nyack to make sandwiches for the tired and hungry crew."

It only took 55 hours for the station to make enough money to cover its budget for the next few months. That's the way things used to work for WBAI. The station offered programming available nowhere else, and listeners gave generously to support it.

But in recent years, that audience has steadily abandoned the station. Despite WBAI's powerful signal—strong enough to reach 18 million people—the station has so few listeners it barely registers on Arbitron's ratings scale, the standard for measuring radio audiences. Donations have dried up. WBAI—saddled with a large payroll and high rents, ruled by an expensive and immovable bureaucracy—plunged deeper and deeper into debt.

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