For a minute in late summer, it looked like New York’s beleaguered Pacifica Radio station WBAI was getting a new lease on life. The station moved into a new office in Brooklyn, and a newly installed interim program director, Andrew Philips, was retooling the lineup.
It didn’t last long. Philips resigned last week after a dispute over programming with Pacifica Radio Network’s interim executive director, Summer Reese, and on Thursday, Reese took the air to publicly respond to rumors that Pacifica was looking to sell WBAI.
“Are we just selling the station? Has Pacifica decided to unload WBAI?” Reese said she has been asked by employees and programmers. “The answer is no — unequivocally no.”
What Pacifica has done, she went on, is put out a request for proposals seeking a potential partner to either lease the signal from WBAI or swap frequencies with the station. Under the agreement, Pacifica would retain the station’s license and provide some programming. The partner would pay the bills, and supply much of its own programming, too.
“We have such an incredibly valuable signal in New York City — all I can say is 50,000 watts in the No. 1 market,” Reese remarked hopefully on Thursday. “It’s a huge signal in a huge city.”
The Pacifica Network is banking on some savior taking it up on the offer — the network owes $250,000 in severance to the 19 employees the station laid off in August. Those payments, Reese said Thursday, are “moral, legal, and financial obligations that the organization intends to honor.”
Andrew Philips’ arrival at WBAI coincided with that withering round of layoffs, during which the entire newsroom, and most of the station’s paid on-air talent lost their jobs. A veteran of WBAI, Philips was working at the station’s Berkeley-based sister, KPFA, when he was tapped to return to WBAI and try to fill the airwaves after station laid off most of its paid producers.
Folks were optimistic that Philips, with his progressive radio bonafides and long history at Pacifica, would be able to right the ship after years of financial trouble and increasingly desperate fundraising gimmickry.
Those hopes deflated when he submitted his resignation last week. According to Philips, the dispute centered around Reese’s decision to move controversial health guru Gary Null’s program earlier in the morning.
In Philips’s eyes, that was a crucial time slot for hard-hitting news and commentary. “We really didn’t want to be pitching ‘Green Stuff’ [Null’s signature drink] and different health products. We wanted to be giving content,” Philips tells the Voice. “I resigned over that.” (Reese said, via email, “Andrew Phillips resigned. His appointed position was a temporary hire.”)
See also: WBAI’s Death by Democracy
“I think its inappropriate to fill the airwaves with that kind of programming, regardless of its money-making potential. It doesn’t really fulfill out mission,” Philips adds.
Null’s programs have always been major money-makers for WBAI. In an interview earlier this year, General Manager Berthold Reimers told the Voice that Null’s products, which are sold during pledge drives, generate a large share of the station’s revenue.
“I understand why they are pushing these health premiums. At the same time, it’s not the long-term answer. It’s not going to save WBAI. We’re going to continue to spiral down if we continue this model, and eventually someone will come with big bucks, pay up the debt and take over the signal.”
That day may come sooner rather than later if Pacifica’s national board finds a compelling response to its call for proposals to lease its signal.
The call included certain stipulations — Pacifica wants to retain some control over programing, but have another organization cover most of the station’s expenses. The organization would have to keep two of WBAI’s employees and maintain a studio that is accessible to the public. (Read the full request for proposals at bottom.)
There are rumors that WFVU, Fordham University’s radio station, might be interested in the prospect.
In the meantime, Philips says he will continue to volunteer at the station. He is orchestrating a day of programming to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November, and plans to lead workshops in radio production.
“I’m volunteering to help at WBAI in other ways, but I can’t and no longer work there in that relationship with Summer Reese — it’s too unclear what’s going on. It’s not right.”