Mixed Signals


Two weeks ago, word came down from the Pacifica Foundation that WBAI (99.5 FM), one of five stations in the Pacifica radio network, must lay off 14 full-time employees by December—or face the possibility of closing next year. The rationale for the cuts was blunt: WBAI’s latest fundraising drive fell short of its $1.2 million goal, bringing in only $800,000. Cutting payroll is probably the easiest way to recoup the missing $400,000. But some members of the WBAI community have balked at management’s contemporaneous decision to lay off staff and to introduce a novel format that might be called “progressive headline news.”

One of the first questions raised by the financial crisis was, Why should the workers take the hit? Jose Santiago, WBAI’s news director and a shop steward, says, “It doesn’t look good for a progressive organization to leap to the decision to let go of 14 people.” The proposed cuts will come from the station’s paid staff of 34, most of whom are repped by the American Federation of Televisionand Radio Artists (AFTRA).

WBAI station manager Don Rojas called the proposed layoffs “the absolute last resort.” In what sounded like a modified fallback position, he explained, “Over the next few weeks, management, union representatives, and volunteers will be working diligently and collectively to resolve the problem. We’re hoping to forestall layoffs and not have to do them at all, if we can bank up an emergency fundraising drive to get at least $300,000 in cash into BAI by the end of December.” AFTRA has offered to help the station raise money from organized labor and celebrities, in an effort to prevent the layoffs.

Pacifica Foundation executive director Dan Coughlin was circumspect about the layoffs, saying that if the $300,000 is raised, “there won’t be any need for significant staffing reductions,” perhaps only one or two changes. But if the money doesn’t come in, he added, “we’re going to have to look at restructuring the station.”

After working as Pacifica’s national news director in the late 1990s, Coughlin rose to power with a group of “reformers” in January 2002, after a legal settlement dismantled the previous regime. His mission has been to restore solvency to the network, which also includes KPFA in Berkeley, WPFW in Washington, D.C., KPFT in Houston, and KPFK in Los Angeles. According to Coughlin, the network’s deficit has decreased from $4.8 million to $600,000 in less than two years. Asked about layoffs at other stations, he replied, “KPFK had a decline in listener support and so there will also have to be belt-tightening there.”

At WBAI, the operating budget is about $4 million, of which $1.6 million goes to payroll (including consultants’ fees of $80,000). The station generates 85 percent of its revenues from listener donations, plus $350,000 a year from a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant. But Pacifica accepts no commercial advertising or corporate donations, which leaves WBAI overly dependent on listener support. According to Rojas, fundraising drives in early 2003 were successful because of the “war bump” (that is, anti-war sentiment), but now the bump is gone, and the station cannot go on “living from marathon to marathon.”

Hence the imminent “restructuring” of WBAI. According to Rojas, one of his goals is to increase the efficiency of the station’s efforts to collect on listener pledges, which he predicts will “recoup tens of thousands of dollars.” He says another goal is to improve programming quality by introducing “headline news” at the top of each hour and by redesigning the morning slot from 6 to 9. The headline news format is set to debut on December 1, and is said to be modeled on 1010 WINS.

Pacifica executive director Coughlin believes the new format will position WBAI as the “number one source of news information in the tri-state area” and provide valuable content for a syndicated news service. “There is a desperate need for alternative news about what is happening nationally and internationally,” he says, “and we’re ramping up to meet that demand. Who else is going to tell you that the U.S. soldiers are losing in Iraq? You won’t hear about it on NPR.”

Some staffers oppose the introduction of headline news because, as one source put it, “it runs against the grain of what people feel WBAI is supposed to be about, which is comprehensive news.” Asked whether the station’s existing news standards can be maintained if the staff is cut in half, Coughlin replied, “The creativity and energy and professional excellence of the WBAI staff shine in moments of crisis.”

The changes have already begun to roil WBAI, but Rojas refuses to engage in the kind of political battle the community thrives on. “I want to take the high ground and do what’s in the best interest of the station,” he explains, “and I’m not going to have the station continue to be mired in these sectarian fights. It’s time for people to demonstrate their commitment.”

Presumably by tuning in at the top of the hour.

Gravity or Style?

Last week, as gossip focused on potential successors to New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath, another question came up: What exactly does Times culture czar Adam Moss intend to do with the Book Review?

Moss faces a dilemma, according to Atlantic Monthly literary editor Ben Schwarz. He could keep the section as it is—the review of record, the voice of The New York Times, ever conscious of its power and responsibility—or make it a sharper read. Schwarz has long maintained that a serious book review is less about the book than about giving a good writer the chance to make a bold argument with style.

“I understand why the Times wouldn’t want to give up the section’s gravity,” says Schwarz, “but if you wanted to make your mark as the editor of the Times Book Review, the first thing you would do is to make it less influential. That would give you the license to make the reviews livelier and more discriminating.”

Moss has been down this road before. After becoming editor of the Times Magazine in 1998, he transformed the section into a smart and stylish read that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Will he try a similar move with the Book Review? Says Schwarz, “If you put writers with stronger voices in there, it will be more sparkling, but by definition, less authoritative.”