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WBAI-FM becoming a “home shopping network”?

wbaiWBAI-FM’s Local Station Board has passed a sweeping resolution calling on the New York City based listener sponsored station to cut down on its fund drives and build up its audience. The resolution, passed on Wednesday, asks WBAI management to produce “concrete plans” to drop on-air fundraising days by 40 percent over the next three years. It also asks the Pacifica Foundation owned signal to include in its report a plan for expanding WBAI’s membership “quickly by 35 percent.”

The resolution says that WBAI should keep a paying subscriber base “of around 23,000 to be sustainable.” Based on that figure and the percentage, ‘BAI presumably has a little more than 17,000 subscribers at present (please post below if you have a different number).

The statement also protests what it sees as an excessive amount of fundraising time, asserting WBAI is planning more than 120 days of on-air fundraising “for this coming year.”

WBAI’s on-air fundraising is based on repetitive recorded half-hour and hour-long pitches for premiums. The LSB is concerned that so much valuable air-time is being spent on pitching premiums, such that the station is in danger of becoming another version of the home shopping network. The WBAI LSB requests that management include in its report at the next meeting a timetable for implementing changes to that way of fundraising, and an articulation of its plans for taking us down a different path.

According to Mitchel Cohen, Chair of WBAI’s LSB, the final vote after amendments was 12 in favor of the resolution, and three opposed.

Four areas

Lots of people have expressed concern for some time about what they view as WBAI’s lengthy marathon periods and excessive reliance on premiums. I briefly tuned in today, and, sure enough, heard a pitch for a pre-recorded documentary being sold as a premium. It’s possible that with the plethora of free or nearly free music and public affairs content available on-line, marathon premiums are a far less effective means of bringing in subscribers than they’ve been in years past.

But weaning ‘BAI out of this practice won’t be easy. I asked Cohen how the Local Station Board plans to help.

“Management is requested to present reports on all four areas (and more) directly answering them, at the next meeting,” he replied in e-mail. “Then they will be open for discussion and debate.”

“We are also moving into selecting a pool  of candidates for Program Director. We have quite a few applications that a committee is reviewing. We might ask each of the candidates in addition to the current iPD to report on how they would address these concerns.”

The following resolution submitted by Mitchel Cohen passed the WBAI LSB on Oct. 12, 2011, as amended:

Motion to Limit On-Air Fundraising Drives on WBAI, increasing membership and improving programming

1) The WBAI Local Station Board is very concerned that WBAI management is now planning 120+ days of on-air fundraising for this coming year, to meet the station’s budget. We do not believe that this expansion in on-air fundraising days is the direction we want to go in. WBAI management is requested to present a report of concrete plans to reduce on-air fundraising days by at least 40 percent over the next three years, broken down year by year.

2) Additionally, WBAI must maintain a paying membership of around 23,000 to be sustainable, given our existing expenses and NOT including moving expenses or payment of outstanding debts. This means that WBAI needs to expand membership quickly by 35 percent in accordance with the Pacifica Mission. The LSB requests that management include in its report at the next meeting concrete plans for increasing membership to achieve this minimum goal.

3) WBAI’s on-air fundraising is based on repetitive recorded half-hour and hour-long pitches for premiums. The LSB is concerned that so much valuable air-time is being spent on pitching premiums, such that the station is in danger of becoming another version of the home shopping network. The WBAI LSB requests that management include in its report at the next meeting a timetable for implementing changes to that way of fundraising, and an articulation of its plans for taking us down a different path.

4) The WBAI LSB also requests of management a report articulating its vision with regard to programming that will lead to increased listenership and make WBAI more relevant politically, culturally, and artistically.

Radio Survivor readers—please be civil in your responses to this post. Comments containing insults, expletives, gratuitous accusations, and threats will not be published. Keep it constructive.

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7 Responses to WBAI-FM becoming a “home shopping network”?

  1. Chris Albertson October 16, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Sad to say, WBAI is fast becoming a place where one can purchase conspiracy allegations and cancer/AIDS “cures” on high-priced DVDs.

    Perhaps, Mr. Lasar, you might wish to replace the unsubstantiated, hearsay-based stories you published about me with a real, factual look into what is going on with today’s WBAI management.

  2. Tracy Rosenberg October 16, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    What Matthew’s blog entry fails to mention is that WBAI, a station with as proud a history in radio innovation as any on the dial, has some pretty intense financial realities that are driving the choices the station is making right now. The resolution is great, and of course it got virtually unanimous support – who is *not* in favor of reducing fundraising pledge time and getting 5,000 more subscribers?

    If only all it took was a resolution ….

    WBAI is in a difficult situation. It pays an inordinate amount of money, both for studio rental and for a transmitter location on the Empire State building. This level of rental expense would basically cripple most radio stations of this size. For example, Pacifica’s other 2 large California-based station, KPFA and KPFK, with budgets of about 3.5 million a year, would have to drop as much 1/3 of their existing staff to absorb these amounts. It’s crazy.

    So we’re not talking about a choice, we’re talking about what they have to do to financially survive until they can find a sustainable location and operating model – which may take another year or two to negotiate. It’s been very stressful for everyone, but a solution needs to be found to help get WBAI self-sufficient. Blog readers in New York who want to help … should. It is no small project.


    Tracy Rosenberg

    Pacifica Foundation Board

    KPFA-FM Listener Rep

  3. Mitchel Cohen October 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I appreciate Tracey’s comments. Yes, WBAI is in an excruciating financial vise that was not helped by a declining membership and a backlog of 7,000 paid-for premiums that were not sent out until the new management was put into place (the GM just 1 year ago, and the interim Program Director a year before that). Our first priority was to staunch the financial bleeding, which we have done.

    We still are in serious financial straits. Readers can see my analyses of this over the last 2 years at

    But now we turn to improving programming and increasing listenership, which is a related undertaking but one that requires substantially different skills. The LSB resolution asks management to share with the Board its actual plans to implement the improvements we’re seeking. That’s not a pie-in-the-sky request. We’re doing our job.

    The main problem as I see it is Management’s inability or failure to implement any number of very good proposals that I and others have made for improving programming and increasing listenership, and thus changing the model for fundraising.

    Instead of defensively re-trenching, Management should see this resolution as an opportunity to answer, very specifically, the four points the resolution raises. They need to say, “(a) Here’s what we’re doing to increase membership, (b) here’s the time frame for doing it, and (c) here are the goals to judge us by such-and-such date.” If they do that acceptably, they will come out as having the skill-sets we need. Again, this is an OPPORTUNITY for management at WBAI to shine. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

    Mitchel Cohen

    Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

  4. Beev October 23, 2011 at 3:41 am #

    WPFW in Washington DC has a similar problem — constant fundraising.

    Anyway, WBAI could certainly increase listener support by bringing back Techie Time.

  5. Matthew Lasar October 23, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    I loved Techie Time. Anybody know where you can find clips?

  6. chris stehlik October 23, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    WBAI has some very tough choices to make. It is the station in the largest market in the country and should be a flagship, but my understanding is that it has not been supporting itself for the last few years. Pacifica should examine some big moves for the station. If the rent is a problem, perhaps they should move the offices and keep the transmitter there, or move both. WBAI has a frequency that was grandfathered in as a public radio frequency. Perhaps a frequency swap could be done to gain a different frequency and a bunch of cash.

    If WBAI wants to gain more members with less fundraising and keep the budget about the same, they will need to be very creative. There are consultants out there that will help. A few of them were at Community Radio convention in Oakland this year.

  7. Matthew Lasar October 28, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    Such is the level of bitterness and partisanship at Pacifica radio that I cannot write a neutral account of a WBAI resolution without ruffling feathers. My story offered no criticism about the WBAI Local Station Board decision. I noted that folks have been complaining about the length of marathons and the overuse of premiums at the station for quite some time. I mentioned the vote tally. I asked Board Chair Mitchel Cohen how the board planned to help WBAI carry out this mandate, and I printed his reply without comment.

    But Pacifica board member Tracy Rosenberg says that I “failed” to mention that this resolution addresses WBAI’s “pretty intense financial realities.” If that’s the case, so does the resolution, which I posted in its entirety. The language makes a one sentence reference to ‘BAI expenses and debts, and the need to boost its subscriber base to be sustainable. I quoted that last portion at the top of the post. If the passage isn’t intense enough for Rosenberg, it’s the resolution’s shortfall, not mine.

    I do agree with Rosenberg that the vote in favor of the resolution was “virtually unanimous,” but only if you use the philosophical definition of “virtual”—”that which is not real.” If you apply a real definition of unanimous, it wasn’t. 12 out of 15 yeas represents only 80 percent of those who voted, and only 50 percent of WBAI’s total board, which has 24 members.

    Former 1960s WBAI Manager Chris Albertson says that I have written about him based on heresay. Mr. Albertson’s name appears in neither of my two books on the history of Pacifica radio. But that omission is something that I regret, because as I’ve subsequently learned, he has a very different perspective on events that took place at the station during his time there than appears in my second tome, Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War. If Albertson wants to send Radio Survivor a post outlining his disagreements and perspective on those years, I’d be happy to publish that here. I wish I’d sought it out in the first place.

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