Laid-Off WBAI Employees Still Waiting for Severance Six Months Later
It was August when Pacifica Radio's executive director, Summer Reese, took to the airwaves to announce that most of the station's paid staff, including its entire news department, was being laid off. Reese told listeners on the afternoon of August 9 that "we will laying off virtually everyone whose voice you recognize on the air."
At the end of this month, unemployment benefits will run out for the 19 employees who lost their jobs last summer -- and all of them are still waiting for severance checks from Pacifica Radio. At least three of them face becoming homeless, one former employee told the Voice.
See also: WBAI's Death by Democracy
As part of the agreement the employees' union, SAG-AFTRA, brokered with Pacifica, the network must pay its former employees by the end of March or face the possibility of a lawsuit.
The problem, according to WBAI general manager Berthold Reimers, is neither the station nor network has the money to make good on those promises. In a February 14 email to listeners, Reimers wrote:
[W]e are now in much bigger [financial] trouble than we were two weeks ago. As most of you are aware, neither WBAI nor Pacifica has a cash reserve. Pacifica can no longer bail us out when we are short of cash. So we need to raise money fast.
The good news is that with a successful fund-drive, we can definitely break even during the current quarter. Our monthly expenses are down to about $125,000, half what they were a year ago. In fact we nearly broke even during the last three months of 2013 in terms of operating expenses. But we still had debt: for120 Wall Street, moving expenses, and we had to pay back money we had borrowed from WPFW.
We have left only one significant external debt, and that is the severance pay. It is a big problem because even if we dedicate the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant to it, we still need an additional $90,000 to pay the full severance.
Reimers fired WBAI's most recent interim program director, Bob Hennelly, on February 13. Hennelly joined WBAI in December after his predecessor, Andrew Phillips, resigned after a dispute over programming with Pacifica's Reese. Phillips disapproved of WBAI's continued association with health guru Gary Null. Null's products have remained perennial money-makers for the station as WBAI has struggled to raise money in recent years.
Rumors have hung in the air for many years that Pacifica was seeking to sell or lease out WBAI's signal to another station. Those rumors seemed close to materializing in October though, when the network, which owns WBAI's broadcast license as well as the broadcast licenses for KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFA in Berkeley, KPFT in Houston. and WPFW in Washington D.C., officially began soliciting proposals to lease its signal or swap signals with another station.
Earlier this month, Hennelly told supporters if the station did not raise enough funds within a matter of days Pacifica would be forced to lease the signal. Reimers pushed back against that claim in February 14 his email, writing, "That is absolutely not true. In fact, the Pacifica National Board this past weekend voted to put off any consideration of LMAs for 60 days in order to give WBAI time to work out a realistic alternative."
Summer Reese did not respond to a request for comment.
Send story tips to the author, Tessa Stuart
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.