For 59 years, in the center of the FM dial in New York City, WBAI has been a beacon of unabashedly leftist community-based radio.
On Monday, October 7, around 7 am, WBAI-NY essentially went off the air. A small group organized at the direction of the Pacifica Foundation’s interim executive director John Vernile (who had been on the job for only two months) threw the staff out of the WBAI studios in Brooklyn, handed them termination letters, posted a guard at the door, and switched WBAI programming to a feed from Pacifica’s KPFA station in Berkeley, California. In a style that would make a CIA destabilization crew proud, they went through the station, disconnected computers and the sound board, placed them in inner rooms with padlocks, took out the Emergency Alert System (required for all broadcast facilities), and told the landlord that the studio would be unoccupied within 24 hours. She was advised to find a new tenant.
Vernile had given instructions to the facility that housed the station’s antenna, which broadcast at 99.5 FM, to bar any WBAI staff. The WBAI website was redirected to a page that announced that programming would now emanate from Pacifica Across America, presenting the “best” of programming from other Pacifica stations.
By the close of October 7, WBAI’s local station board (Pacifica has a national board and local station boards) had gotten a temporary restraining order barring the takeover, but Pacifica refused to comply. As a contempt-of-court hearing was about to begin, Pacifica’s lawyers moved the case to federal court in Manhattan. Litigation continues.
All of this occurred without a vote of Pacifica’s national board. On the evening of October 10, the 22-member board was scheduled to have a conference call and meeting to consider a motion to ratify what Vernile had done. In court the WBAI representatives called it an unauthorized putsch by a national director gone rogue. Pacifica’s lawyer characterized it as an act of financial necessity, asserting that WBAI had no money to pay its 12-employee staff. The attorney also warned the court that allowing WBAI’s staff to control programming would risk the station’s FCC license, and perhaps even Pacifica’s 501(c)(3) charitable status.
The most recent dispute in a 60-year rocky marriage between WBAI and the Pacifica Foundation arose in rather startling fashion. In late August, Mimi Rosenberg, a lawyer who has been producing shows on WBAI for 40 years, taped a promo for a Labor Day show addressing Donald Trump’s immigration policies. In the promo she used the phrase “We’ve got to stop Trump.” The folks at Pacifica who monitor programs sounded alarms. Vernile immediately called WBAI’s station manager, Berthold Reimers, and demanded that the promo not be aired. He also wanted Rosenberg, who is a volunteer, suspended for a week, and insisted that her shows be pretaped so that they could be reviewed. Reimers acceded to the first two requests but not the third. On September 27, he received a warning letter from Vernile asserting that his stewardship of the station was risking Pacifica’s and WBAI’s tax status and FCC license. Clearly, at that point, Vernile began to plan his station raid.
The Pacifica radio network remains, after 46 years, one of the more fascinating institutions of the postwar counterculture. The first successful experiment in listener-sponsored radio, Berkeley’s KPFA began as an idea of Lewis Hill and his allies in 1946, who envisioned a radio station that would promote pacifist awareness in the face of the looming Cold War.
KPFA, the first of the current five Pacifica stations—in Berkeley, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington—went on the air in April 1948. KPFA’s iconoclastic programming led New York philanthropist Louis Schweitzer to donate the license of his commercial FM station, WBAI, to the Pacifica Foundation in 1959. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the radicalism of Pacifica’s broadcasts was exemplified by its eclectic musical programming and educational and political series on issues rarely dealt with by the mainstream media—such as the Kennedy administration’s subterfuge in pursuing a nuclear arms buildup. While these elements remain vital aspects of broadcasts now, the Vietnam War and the surge of protest against it had an immense impact on the role played by the network’s then-three stations during the ’60s. WBAI’s changing moniker indicates the course of its transformations from the ’60s until today: “Free speech radio” evolved into “free radio,” finally “community radio.”
WBAI’s “free” or “live” radio programs during the 1960s were arguably among the most innovative and explosive mass media ever broadcast in the United States. Yet this remarkable achievement’s blessing and curse was that its creative impulse derived in large measure from its symbiotic relationship with listeners’ expanding opposition to the Vietnam War. In New York City, WBAI played a central role in the ’60s counterculture. Although precise audience figures are unavailable, in the late ’60s some 600,000 people tuned in to 99.5 FM each week for “free radio”: news, agitation, music, and live coverage of rallies, sit-ins, be-ins, happenings, protests, and street theater. WBAI’s long morning and evening news reports of the war were supplemented in 1967 by a new Washington news bureau, as well as by hundreds of special public-affairs programs on all aspects of government policy. Combined with the station’s involvement with the anti-war movement—live coverage of demonstrations, teach-ins, and strikes—and the extensive bulletin board and calendar service that it broadcast daily, the programming around the Vietnam War built a huge audience that habitually listened to WBAI. This vast, passionately devoted community of listeners participated in all aspects of the station: in producing the shows as volunteers, in phoning in to the many call-in shows, and in attending events and demonstrations that the station promoted. By 1971, almost 30,000 people chose to sustain the station by paying $10 to $30 annually as subscribers.
As the ’60s ended and the movement changed, so did WBAI’s programming. Puerto Rican and black nationalists, Asian American activists, feminist spokespeople, gay and lesbian activists, and newly empowered ecologists all began regularly scheduled programs. No single show or personality mattered the most, but the sequence of so many of them, one following another in a broadcast day, gave the station an indelible identity. But over time, listenership began to decline. From 1971 to 1976, the station lost half its subscribers (from 30,000 to 15,000) and was increasingly in debt. The same was true for Pacifica’s other stations. Clearly, the end of the Vietnam War and the movement it spawned hurt. So did the creation of National Public Radio.
By 1975, WBAI was failing financially. There was no consistency to the daily schedule. And there was almost no audience in New York’s vast nonwhite communities. Unevenly, WBAI began to address that, and it is not unusual today to hear WBAI on the radio of livery cab drivers. It was not until the hiring of Berthold Reimers in 2014 that the station began to adopt a strategy of allying itself with the politics of the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, Black Lives Matter, and the modern climate justice movement. Reimers gave time slots to movement activists and created themes for each hour slot on the air. The most recent fund drive, cut short by the station takeover, was producing $10,000 to $13,000 a day. WBAI was running at a deficit (like all the other Pacifica stations), but the monthly deficit was decreasing.
WBAI’s loss was not greeted with a yawn. It has been a major media story, even in the impeachment-dominated news cycles. Whether the station will survive, however, remains unclear.