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CPB on WBAI: the good news is that we are talking, but . . .

Corporation for Public BroadcastingCorporation for Public Broadcasting Ombudsman Joel Kaplan’s anticipated second commentary on Pacifica station WBAI in New York City is out, and Kaplan says he’s gotten some responses to his original request for comment on gripes about “questionable fundraising ethics” at the station. They come from ‘BAI Public Affairs director Kathy Davis and interim Development Director Andrea Katz.

The complaints centered around seemingly endless marathons and dubious premiums, such as a “Double Helix” water nostrum for cancer.

“We’re in crisis, so we’re fundraising almost constantly,” Davis is quoted as saying in Kaplan’s post. Listeners “can donate $10 or $20 once per month or take the premiums. We’re not tying people into any one specific method of support and we’re not violating our mission.”

As for the Double Helix water: “It was being offered, the board objected, and it was pulled. People voiced their objection and it’s never been offered again.”

WBAI is certainly in crisis. Kudos to Current, which managed to get an official response from Pacifica Executive Director Summer Reese about how many WBAI staff members are about to get laid off. Reese told Mike Janssen that 75 percent of the staff could go “in an effort,” as Current puts it, to place “the foundering station on steady financial footing” (read a WBAI staffer commentary on the situation). The cuts could save Pacifica, which owns WBAI, around $900k a year. A less expensive HQ in Brooklyn is also in the works.

But Katz’s response to Kaplan suggests that even more station personnel could be affected.

“We are in dire straits and are in the process of possibly curveballing 90 percent of our staff,” she said. “We haven’t made a profit in over 10 years.” (It should be noted that the term “curveballing” is ambiguous, although I am sure that I wouldn’t want to be “curveballed” at my job).

Why is WBAI in such trouble? Hurricane Sandy dealt the station a body blow. The seawater on the station’s former Wall Street area digs rose to the second floor of the building. This made getting in touch with the operation challenging, WBAI board member Frank LeFever told Kaplan: “Communications within WBAI have been very difficult since Hurricane Sandy wiped out our usual phone lines and continue to be difficult in our temporary make-shift emergency quarters at World Financial Center 4.”

But Reese told Current that programming at the station needs to change as well: “We wouldn’t be in this state if the programming were reaching a wider audience.”

Kaplan’s post acknowledges that recent CPB decisions on Pacifica funding hurt WBAI too.

The signal’s “difficulties” have been “exacerbated by the decision of CPB to withhold Community Service Grant funding because of the failure of its Pacifica parent to provide requested financial documentation,” Kaplan writes. “CPB also plans to recover excess CSG money previously awarded to the Pacifica stations.” (NB: One Pacifica national board member denies that CPB funds have been delayed).

Correction (7/12/2013): the “curveballing” comment in this article was incorrectly attributed to Kathy Davis instead of Andrea Katz.


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