WBAI's Death by Democracy

Warring activists cause a legendary public radio station to implode

Take a recent meeting of WBAI's Finance Committee. Members had no actual numbers to discuss—Pacifica, in the middle of simultaneous audits by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the IRS, failed to provide them. So the committee was left to draft a strongly worded letter requesting the documents yet again.

The meeting then devolved into a multi-hour airing of grievances. At one point, a shouting match broke out between committee member Ed Manfredonia and the station's general manager, Berthold Reimers. Manfredonia wanted to know whether a rival member of the Local Station Board had a financial stake in a call center that was recently awarded a WBAI contract.

When an elderly blind woman urged the two men to calm down, Manfredonia yelled at her to shut up. For dramatic effect, he then called the cops on himself. The session was adjourned while police took statements and escorted Manfredonia from the building.

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

"If you think this is bad, come to a Local Station Board meeting," one committee member scribbled in a note to the reporter seated next to him.

Every two out of three years, 24 representatives are chosen to sit on the local board of each Pacifica station—18 members are voted in by subscribers, and six are elected by staff. Four delegates from each board are then elected to the 23-member national board.

Pacifica has managed to make the elections incredibly expensive. They are estimated to cost $200,000 each—or about $3 million total since they were instituted, more than enough for WBAI to pay off the money it owes.

"Basically, Pacifica is paying these boards to have a big factional fight every two of three years," Lasar says.

Heffley is among the many driven away by the infighting. "I ran away screaming in 2007," she says.

In 2008, Pacifica's then-CEO, Nicole Sawaya, also threw in the towel. Before stepping down, she wrote a letter to Pacifica founder Lew Hill.

"The bylaws of the organization have opened it up to tremendous abuse, creating the opportunity for cronyism, factionalism, and faux democracy, with the result of challenging all yet helping nothing," she wrote. "There are endless meetings of committees and 'task forces'—mostly on the phone—where people just like to hear themselves talk."

Simply put, too much democracy was killing the station that gave birth to Democracy NOW!.

Sitting in WBAI's modest new headquarters in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood a week before the layoffs will take place, Berthold Reimers looks exhausted. He's spent the week moving the station into a building where rent is about one-tenth what it was on Wall Street.

Reimers speaks with the French accent of his native Haiti, where he lived until age 17. He started listening to WBAI in the '80s, captivated by its coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal, and became involved at the station after the Christmas coup in 2000.

He was fascinated by the network's democratic process, he says, "since in Haiti I never voted. There were no elections in Haiti. I was interested in elections, and the democratic standard transferable vote system was amazing to me."

Now, he's disillusioned. He thinks Pacifica's elected boards should be abolished. "The people who get elected are activists that have no knowledge of management."

Take the move to the new office. "We didn't want anyone to know what we were doing, because there is micromanagement" whenever the boards or subcommittees get involved, Reimers says. "We just moved, quietly. We made decisions, and sometimes we didn't even ask permission. We just did it, because otherwise there is always a debate and nothing happens."

Ask Reimers where WBAI really took its turn for the worse, and he will provide an exact month: May 2012. That's when complaints from the board and the producers led to yet another personnel fight. Program Director Tony Bates was ousted.

The fight was emblematic of the personnel battles common at WBAI and across the Pacifica Network. The producers circulated a petition urging the station to replace the program director, in part because they didn't like the pledge gifts he wanted them to pitch.

Problem is, according to Reimers, those items—the cancer-curing Double Helix water, the rightwing conspiracy film Zeitgeist, and the writings of David Icke, which promote the theory that reptilian shapeshifters control our world—were the only things keeping the station afloat.

Sure, the station offered the smart gifts typical of a public radio station, such as books by liberal luminaries like Howard Zinn and Robert Reich. But these weren't bringing in donations.

Instead, Reimers says, 90 percent of WBAI's income is generated by health-oriented and conspiracy theory items.

The fiercely independent station is forced to rely on revenue generated by pledge gifts—no matter how dubious—because it refuses to accept underwriting, sponsorship, or advertising of any kind out of fear that they might influence the station's coverage.

Ironically, that stubborn refusal has left WBAI flat broke, with no choice but to lay off its entire news department.

Since the program director was pushed out, donation rates have plunged to new lows. WBAI has fallen short of its fundraising goals by more than $1 million. It's about $2 million in debt to Pacifica.

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