The Excruciating Demise of WBAI

Wbai_logoOn August 9, WBAI, the listener-supported radio station, announced that it was laying off most of its paid staff. The only surprise in the announcement was that it took so long.

WBAI, one of five stations in the national Pacifica network, has been failing for years. Some of its problems are the familiar ones of “legacy” media, to use that annoying but fashionable term. But most of its problems were home grown. The programming was mostly unlistenable. Hosts who couldn’t talk very well yammered on about material they didn’t understand. Interviewers knew nothing about their interviewees. Health nuts flogged miracle cures and conspiracists spun elaborate theories. I recall turning on the morning drive time show and listening for 20 minutes to someone the host never identified—and, in all that time, I never got an idea of what the interview was supposed to be about.

It wasn’t always like this. I grew up listening to WBAI as a teenager in the late 1960s. Stranded in the desert of suburban New Jersey, it was thrilling to discover all the rich radical culture and politics happening just 20 miles from where I languished. But it wasn’t just a hippie outpost. There was plenty of high culture—radio plays, classical music festivals—mixed in with live coverage of the 1968 Paris riots and the explosion of Stonewall-era gay politics.

Starting in the 1970s, conflicts grew over the largely white, male, and “elitist” programming, conflicts that became so intense that the station went off the air for a month in 1976. But the station survived, and remained a fixture of the New York countercultural scene. (It makes a cameo appearance in Dean Friedman’s 1977 top 40 hit, “Ariel.”) Its complexion changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, a transformation capped by the appointment of Samori Marksman, a sophisticated and charismatic Caribbean Marxist, as program director in 1994. Marksman had been a producer at the station since the late 1970s, and gave me my first radio break in 1987, interviewing me on his show right after the great stock market crash. He then promoted me to doing regular commentaries on his show, and then in 1995, gave me a weekly show of my own.

But when Marksman died suddenly in 1999, there was no one of any stature to succeed him. There began a decade of civil war within WBAI, with faction fighting faction. Charges of “racism” were lobbed constantly. A succession of managerial mediocrities drove the station into the ground. Excruciating stupidity was embraced in the name of populist programming. For several years in the mid-2000s, the station was run by a cabal of black nationalists of an antique and alienating sort. They were forced out by Pacifica central, only to be replaced by an even less distinguished (though not black nationalist) set of sub-mediocrities.

Through all this internal turmoil and on-air rot, the audience predictably dwindled to the point of becoming nearly immeasurable by the Arbitron surveys. Once a major presence in New York City politics and culture, it became utterly irrelevant. It didn’t even earn a mention in the NYPD’s intelligence files around the 2004 Republican convention, and it was irrelevant to Occupy Wall Street, which occurred blocks from its headquarters.

And since the station gets most of its income from listener contributions, cash flow shriveled. Fundraising marathons, which once took up a week or two every quarter, were lengthened, and featured ever-crazier premiums: 9/11 conspiracy videos, of course, but also things like DNA water, whatever that is. The remaining sane and solvent listeners turned away, making for longer, crazier fundraisers. Staff morale plummeted with all the infighting, crises, and endless fundraising, which eventually took up a third of every year.

I’d somehow managed to survive all the internal hostilities until 2010. I’d teased the interim program director—a fellow named Tony Bates, with no discernible talent other than promoting dubious conspiracy and quackery fundraising premiums on air—about “hawking merchandise,” and it annoyed him so much that he squeezed me out. Fortunately, Pacifica’s Berkeley flagship station, KPFA, had been picking up my show, and I continued doing it for them. I really like doing radio, and it was a relief to be delivered from all the madness that characterized WBAI during its decade-long death spiral.

From a distance, I continued to watch as the station approached the terminal phase. WBAI fell seriously behind on studio and transmitter rents, and earlier this year payroll checks started bouncing. Its studios—oddly located on Wall Street—were hammered by Sandy, which was close to a death blow. Driven out of its home, it’s been essentially couch surfing since.

Pacifica management had no choice but to move in and fire much of the paid staff, which was costing it $25,000 a week that the station didn’t have. The network has appointed Andrew Philips as interim program director at WBAI. Mr. Philips is a refugee from KPFA, where he was interim program director (there are a lot of “interim” managers at Pacifica, because the hiring process is so fraught with controversy), but was suspended for some alleged misconduct about which no one, including Mr. Phillips, has been fully informed, though it’s thought to involve charges of “racism.”

Mr. Philips, a lively and sharp-tongued Australian who was program director at WBAI from 1989 to 1994, has the unenviable task of trying to revive a near-corpse with almost no staff and an empty bank account. He figures he has six weeks to come up with a strategy. A generous beneficiary has offered studio and office space in Brooklyn, but it’s going to take money to build out the new digs.

For now, Mr. Phillips is importing programming from Pacifica’s California stations, most of it far better than anything that WBAI has managed to produce in more than 20 years. (Disclosure: he wants to bring my program back on the air.) Mr. Phillips ambitiously wants to go up against Don Imus and NPR and create vivid, listenable programming instead of the dismal fare the station had been serving. If he’s right, the station might survive. If not, well, the license could be sold for a lot of money. By a historical quirk, WBAI is on a commercial frequency, 99.5, rather than one of the noncommercial ones at the low end of the dial. That means that WBAI is worth more dead than alive, at least in monetary terms. God only knows what Pacifica would do with scores of millions of dollars, though.

Doug Henwood is the editor of Left Business Observer, a newsletter on economics and politics he founded in 1986, and host of “Behind the News,” a weekly radio show broadcast on KPFA, Berkeley. He is the author of Wall Street (Verso, 1997) and After the New Economy (New Press, 2004). He lives in Brooklyn.