WBAI's Death by Democracy

Warring activists cause a legendary public radio station to implode

The station began to fall seriously behind on its rent beginning in July. At the time, Reimers was still hopeful WBAI could make it up during the fall pledge drive, but when that drive was almost over—and with its fundraising goal only half met—Hurricane Sandy hit.

The storm forced WBAI out of its office and off the air; 99.5 stayed dark for days. The station became a refugee, broadcasting first out of alternative medicine guru (and longtime WBAI producer) Gary Null's personal studio, and then out of City College in Harlem.

The same month, the station received a notice from the Empire State Building, where it was also behind on rent for its transmitter. If it couldn't catch up, the building would have to evict the transmitter, and 99.5 would go dead.

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

"At that point, we realized that we had to focus on paying the Empire State Building, we could not pay the back rent at 120 Wall Street, and the contract was up for renewal in January, so we decided we're going to move out," Reimers says. The station, still broadcasting from City College's studio, set up a small temporary office in Battery Park.

In March, when news that WBAI might be thrown out of the Empire State Building went public, the station raised $500,000 to save its signal. But WBAI was broke again a month later and unable to make its payroll. Employees went two pay periods without receiving checks before someone called the Department of Labor.

That's when layoffs became inevitable. "If you can't pay your staff, you have to let them go," Reimers says.

Instead of paid programmers based here in New York, WBAI will now rely on unpaid volunteers and syndicated shows picked up from other Pacifica stations.

And without original local programming, the task of righting the ship only becomes more difficult.

The last pledge drive, held over several weeks in July and August, had one of the highest goals ever—$1 million, enough to stabilize the station. It was met with some of the lowest donation rates in the station's history. By the time Summer Reese came on the air to announce the layoffs, WBAI had reached barely a quarter of its goal.

"They are fatigued," Reimers says of the listeners. "They are totally fatigued. I am fatigued."

On that fateful Friday in August, the day staff members were told they were losing their jobs, Reese took to the air to deliver the news.

All told, two-thirds of the station's staff was terminated. "Most of the producers whose shows you value will not even have the chance to say goodbye to you, for which I am deeply sorry," Reese said.

Andrea Sears was one of the few who did get a chance to say goodbye, during the final edition of the WBAI evening news. She used the opportunity to reflect on the station's legacy before signing off for the last time.

"News and information from a perspective that is outside the mainstream, a critical perspective that puts the needs of people first, and holds on to the ideals that are, at best, paid lip service to by those with money and power," Sears said, "journalism that speaks truth to power—that to me is the heart and soul of WBAI."

The following Monday, members of the news team listened from home as New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk program—a program that WBAI's news team had won numerous reporting awards for covering over the years—was declared unconstitutional.

It was a bittersweet moment, says former news director Santiago.

"I don't know anyone on the planet that had done more on this issue than our station," he says. "To see something culminate like that one the very first day we're not working—it's tough."

He is proud of the legacy his team left behind, of covering stop-and-frisk and police violence. But more than that, he's proud that the department survived as long as it did, given the circumstances.

"Frankly, I think our biggest accomplishment in the news department has been—despite all the political fighting that's gone on, all the artillery being fired by the different factions at Pacifica and at our local station board over our heads—we've managed to just consistently produce a pretty good newscast.

"To me, just the fact that we've survived, that the station itself has survived as long as it has under this governance structure," Santiago says. "I think that that's really our biggest accomplishment."

Correction: As originally published, this story stated that Matthew Lasar helped craft Pacifica Radio's bylaws. Lasar was present at meetings during which the bylaws were created and read drafts before they were passed, but he did not participate in the process. The above version reflects the corrected text. The Voice regrets the error.

tstuart@villagevoice.com

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