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WBAI at the cliff

6/22/13 – 9:47 PM. Update on this story here: an assessment of the situation from a Pacifica National Board member.

WBAIFull disclosure: trying to verify anything at Pacifica radio these days comes down to citing around 5,000 unofficial spokespersons in the absence of even one of the official variety. But this statement purporting to come from WBAI-FM in New York staffer “Uncle” Sidney Smith on the WBAI Blue Board seems rather ominous (if the Blue Board prompts you, the login is “poster” and the password is “enternow”).

The commentary arrives in response to former ‘BAI general manager Chris Albertson noting a thirty day layoff notice received by staffer Hugh Hamilton.

“It’s the whole staff” that received notices, Smith says.

How they’re going to run the station or ‘if’ there will be a station is not known.
One possibility we’ve thought they may be up to is to go the the Transmitter.
Retreat to the Empire State Building, and transmit programs from the network on computer.
I imagine this would require one part-time engineer.
So ‘Bai would have a staff of one..or one half a person.
‘Might be something else, but we don’t know what.
Anyway we have 30 daze till we leave to work out the details of what will be left of the station.
“…to those that loved her best, and were with her to the end.”
(Song about a sinking ship I once heard.)

There is further conversation about this in a thread titled “The Chop has Come.” Radio-ink is trying to figure out what is going on too. I have called Pacifica (which owns WBAI), WBAI, and the WBAI staff union SAG-AFTRA, but have received no reply. In any event, the Blue Board post follows the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s decision to withhold CPB funding from Pacifica and its five radio stations, at least for now. Current reports that the decision came following “missed deadlines for fixing errors and shortcomings in [Pacifica's] accounting and operations.”

Even prior to this development, the New York station was barely hanging on. At a June 11 Pacifica Finance Committee meeting, WBAI stalwart R. Paul Martin reported the good and the bad news [live audio of all Pacifica meetings here]:

“The good news is that the payroll has been caught up with,” Martin explained. “We missed two payrolls, April 30 and May 15. They’ve been paid. We made payroll on May 30th. So that’s that. Empire state building [antenna] was paid for the June 1st rent. I am not sure if the Silverman [inaudible] rent was paid.”

Then came the bad news:

“We had our fundraiser. It went on for a while. The goal was $850,000. The tally ended up at $467,000 and change. We have collected $343,000. And so we’re short by a lot, and so this is a problem. The WBAI general manager has written to us that we don’t have the money to cover the June 15th payroll.

And the next $20,000 to the proprietors [landlords] of 120 Wall Street [WBAI's previous home], which we are paying off over time, we don’t have that at this time.

The July 1st payroll is also a question mark. And the National Office we’re told, doesn’t have the dough to bail us out at this point in time. So what is happening is that the general manager has basically declared this is a big emergency and programming is being preempted and we are doing four additional days of on air fundraising with the goal of raising a minimum of $100,000.

And so today at 6 o’clock in the morning we started preempting things, and we have a different schedule, and it is all on air fundraising schedule. We’re back in our thon, after being off it for about a day, or two.”

To which new Pacifica CFO Raoul Salvador confirmed that WBAI had met its payroll for various fortnights, but:

“The reality of that is that New York did not make the payment, but we have to manage some of the other radio station’s funds and borrow from the National Office funds to pay for the payroll in New York.

Although we have paid the payroll on time for May 15 and May 31, we have really borrowed money from the other funds to be able to meet those payroll payments. There is still an underlying issue on meeting the obligations in New York.

. . . We really need to take some measures that will rectify the situation on a need basis so that we will be able to justify the existence of WBAI.”

It appears from a subsequent Pacifica special meeting held on the 13th that interim Executive Director and Pacifica National Board Chair Summer Reese thought she had the CPB situation under control.

“They wanted more of a narrative as to what has gone on with the books,” Reese told the meeting. “I attended all of the NFCB [National Federation of Community Broadcasters] conference in San Francisco and met with Bruce Theriault from the CPB after one of the sessions to discuss our particular challenges at as a network at this time. CPB is keenly aware of all of our business and I think it is quite sympathetic as long as we get our act together and continue to address various deficiencies of the past.”

But the sympathy hath run dry, it seems. The status of Pacifica’s ability to cope with the situation is unclear. Updates to this story as I get them.



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8 Responses to WBAI at the cliff

  1. Kml June 22, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Any idea what the likely outcomes may be? If its possible to meet the budget shortfall? If so, could new leadership be brought in to turn this around or is a sale inevitable? Has Pacifica responded to clarify their position?

  2. Thadeus June 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Do NOT f this up. I’ve been a supporter of BAI since the 60’s, through all kinds of challenges and NYC must continue to have a progressive broadcast voice. You cannot lose this license.

  3. Tracy Rosenberg June 22, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Hi Matthew.

    You know you can call or email me if you have questions about Pacifica stuff. I feel like a I spend an awful lot of time writing long replies to your pieces on Radio Survivor. I’m definitely more reliable than the WBAI Blue Board. (Who isn’t?)

    To start at the beginning: The contract with SAG-AFTRA requires that layoff notices be issued “to each and every staff member” if any layoffs are to ensue. In other words, the notice is an automatic bureaucratic requirement, it has to be sent to everyone if 1 person is going to be laid off or if 20 people are going to be laid off – no difference. So engaging in speculation about what the notice means is counterproductive. It means that at least one individual is going to be laid off.

    If you’re asking me what is going to happen, that’s being figured out collaboratively by the WBAI national board members and the local and national managers and then they’ll have to meet with SAG/AFTRA. Given the scale of the difference between the money there is and the money needed to continue business as usual, it’s probably safe to say that more than one layoff is in the cards. It’s sad because despite losing money for 11 of the past 12 years (the problem is utterly non-factional, BAI has been hobbled with costs it can’t meet through 6 executive directors, 5 or 6 local managers and factional swings in the national board), BAI was doing better in 2011 and the 1st part of 2012, with noticeable upticks in the number of subscribers and the amount of listener support. Things looked hopeful. But the hurricane and subsequent homelessness cost $600,00 in listener support that never came in and by the time the save-the-antenna campaign was launched (successfully) and over $900,00 was raised, the support base was tapped out. The May fundraiser tanked at 400K for a station that needs 300K a month just to pay the bills. You can’t fund-raise 12 hours a day for a month and raise only a month or so worth of expenses. The next month, there’s nothing there. With the other 4 Pacifica stations also running small operational deficits, even if they wanted to help WBAI (and they largely don’t), they have no ability to do so.

    The CPB information isn’t accurate at all. I’m disappointed in Current. There’s no “delay” on the CPB funds. They’re paid out after the annual audit is done and it’s not done. Once it is, the funds will be disbursed. The amount to WBAI is a bit less than 100K which doesn’t change the overall situation. It is long past time to declare that everything is okay in NY if there is enough in the bank to pay bills for the next 10 days. You have to deal with the big picture.

    The CPB audit was for the period from 2008 to 2010. Anyone who has been through a tax audit knows that stuff comes up and in this case, CPB identified a few things that have to be changed:

    1) The cost basis used to report the “cost of sales” for premium gifts was being calculated incorrectly. By two different CFO’s (from different factions) and signed off by two entirely different outside independent auditing firms. This resulted in overpayments to all 5 stations combined of $66,000 for each of two years or about 6.5% of the total $2,000,000 in CPB grant support for the 2-year period. These amounts will be subtracted from the 2014 disbursals.

    2) The second item was on-air announcements of governance meetings (of which Pacifica has a lot). CPB asked three of the stations for proof of recorded announcements of the time and dates of all the governance meetings in 2009 and the stations couldn’t produce them. Might mean they didn’t do them, or might mean they couldn’t produce the sounds files 3+ years later, but either way they got dinged. The national board passed a resolution instructing monthly announcements and archiving for 5 years.

    3) The final item related to segregating CSG expenditures from general expenditures more clearly in the books so the audit trail was easier to follow.

    That’s that.

    On WBAI’s future: On the good news front, the station is being relocated to a building in Brooklyn at the reasonable rent of $4,500 a month, which will eventually result in a savings of over $300,000 a year from the Wall Street studio that flooded in Hurricane Sandy and cost $30,000 a month. Much saner.

    The priority is being placed on paying rent and the transmitter. If the station can cover much-reduced monthly expenses, then it may re-stabilize and be able to gradually add more staff back on. If it can’t, then we’ll have to see, but everyone wants to maintain the antenna if we can. It’s an important asset for progressive media.

    Tracy Rosenberg
    KPFA Listener Representative
    Pacifica National Board

  4. Matthew Lasar June 22, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    Tracy: I have posted your response to my Friday piece as a news item. Thanks for it. I did not know that I could call or email you. The last time I did, you may recall, you declined to comment unless I sent you a draft of my post. You wrote: "feel free to send me a draft of your posting before you post it and I will send you my comments for inclusion into the posting." When I declined to do this, you responded that "I do not make blind statements in response to opinion pieces I haven’t seen."

    In my many years of soliciting quotes from sources, many of whom knew of my subjective biases, you are the only person to make such a request. Again, I don’t send preliminary versions of my posts to quote sources. I don’t know of anyone who does.

    So I’m delighted that you’ve reopened the lines of communication here and we are about to make a fresh start. Not only will I contact you next time something Pacifica related comes up, but I extend this invitation: I hope that you will write an op-ed piece for Radio Survivor on the past, present, and future of the network (or your assessment of your experiences at Pacifica, or whatever). It can be in a format similar to former Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt’s op-ed on RS if you like.

    Send it to me here Tracy: html, Word file, whatever (plus a photo). Operators are standing by.

    By the way, it would truly be grand if Pacifica management people responded to my inquiries. I know that I’m Dr. Evil to lots of folks around the network, but, ignoring me is counterproductive. Responding (promptly) to my inquiries is a courtesy. I always return the favor by simply publishing the response in its entirety. No talkback. No snark. That’s what I’ve done when WBAI board guy Mitch Cohen was kind enough to answer my questions. Try it yourself and see!

  5. Greetings Matthew. Thank you for your efforts at clearing the fog of war around what’s to become of WBAI. My hope is that this is the massive Spring Cleaning we’ve needed for over a decade. A kind of internal Chapter 11 where adults come in clean off the barnacles, and put the institution back on a rational, and steady footing.

    A return to the Pacifica Mission Statement would be a good start. That, and abandoning our addiction to health, and medical quackery during our fund raising. Again my thanks for you good efforts on our behalf.

  6. Old White Jewish Intellectual August 11, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    I’ve been a BAI listener since 1965 and have been through the glory years and the long decline and fall.

    IMO, the decline has been due to the shift of personalities and audience from white, male intellectuals, mostly Jewish, to an unorganized collection of feminists, Hispanics, LGTMs, health quacks and other groups who have dug into tinier and tinier niches. This was inevitable as white, male, Jewish hegemony crumbled. The worst blows to the existing culture were the end of the Vietnam War (which had papered over existing fault lines), recognition that Israel was not sacred, but was oppressing Palestinians, and legitimate demands of women and then other interests to have their share.

    IMO, the time has come to sell the station’s only asset, its center-of-the-dial 99.5 frequency, and move to the end of the dial, as WQXR was forced to do. FM frequencies are not as valuable as they used to be, and the infighting and fragmentation of the audience mean, I think, that even the sale of the frequency will stave off the end for only a short while.

    So long WBAI. It’s been good to know ya. Like the Roman Empire, you’ll be gone but not forgotten.

  7. Zeke August 14, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Why is it that no one is addressing the Elephant in the room… Your problem is the G_d dam Antenna that cost more than you can afford. But like Junkies, you do whatever you can to try to afford your addiction, at the public’s expense…Wake up, slap yourself hard a few times. Unless your leadership addresses this, you are going to bring the station to an end. The stations’ leadership up to this point, has been to come up with, “Save-the-Antenna” campaign. That is like a Junkie having a “Save-the-Habit” campaign! The cost of the Antenna is more weight than the boat of support can bare. You sinking and throwing some staff overboard, might be seen as positive by some, but will not save-the-station or pay-the-habit! Remember the classic definition of ‘insanity’, hopefully it is not to late to go to re-hab. Your addiction to the Antenna is killing us…

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