By Maitefa Angaza
A rude, and some say criminal, awakening greeted loyal WBAI-FM radio loyalists on Monday morning, with the news that the beloved, listener-sponsored progressive station had been effectively shut down. Although the signal was still live, the programming in its entirety was being broadcast from KPFK in North Hollywood, California, by Pacifica Foundation Radio. The new format, dubbed Pacifica Across America, is touted in an open letter on the foundation’s website, as one that will, “…provide the best news, talk and music programming gathered from the 4 Pacifica stations, affiliate members and independent producers.
The letter goes on to say, “The program change was necessitated by the serious and persistent financial losses at WBAI.” The network’s claims are being widely echoed by mainstream news outlets, while comparatively little commentary has been solicited from WBAI show hosts, management and other staff. And various theories exist about the origin of this pre-dawn raid of the premises; some feel it’s a rogue faction of membership, others think John Vernile, the new executive director of Pacifica sent the raiders.
The Pacifica Foundation, founded in the late 1940s by former reporter and World War Two conscientious objector, Lewis Hill, debuted with KPFA in Berkley, the first listener-sponsored station in the nation. The Foundation followed with KPFK, WBAI, KPFT in Houston, Texas, and WPFW in Washington, DC. WBAI was founded in 1955 by philanthropist Louis Schweitzer, who founded the Vera Institute of Justice the following year. He gave the station to the Pacifica Network in 1960.
But older WBAI supporters say that neither Schweitzer nor Hill, would recognize what Pacifica has become – that management would resort to a stealth move on the fourth day of a fund drive. Arthur Schwartz, attorney for WBAI, secured a temporary restraining order from state court requiring Pacifica to restore WBAI’s access to the airwaves, bank accounts, etc. He did prevail, but Pacifica has thus far not complied with the court order.
Schwartz, also questioned why, if Pacifica was concerned about financial or other mismanagement of the station, did it not fire the station manager it had put in place? Schwartz thinks that WBAI may be a bit too radical for the Pacifica management.
“It’s because they don’t like the content,” Schwartz told the online publication Gothamist. “It’s ironic that WBAI would get taken off the air by a progressive foundation for saying ‘Stop Trump.’”
Another consideration long spoken about is the value of WBAI’s signal. Operating on prime frequency real estate—worth several million dollars— in the center of the FM dial. The Foundation advocated taking out a multi-million-dollar loan to get the network in the black again, an idea not welcomed warmly at WBAI, which was struggling to keep up with its own bills.
Reggie Johnson, a WBAI staffer, said, “It’s not Pacifica management per se. There are some members from Pacifica national that actually went rogue on this. So, by definition it is kind of a coup of sorts. From the reports that I’m getting from Linda Perry and Arthur Schwartz, who is representing us in federal court, apparently the bank accounts were seized, the email accounts were seized, and all of the things that make WBAI, WBAI is in the hands of a small rogue faction from Pacifica.
“They took a lot of equipment and the mics are gone … some of the computers and most of the files. The Emergency Alert System was taken, and we have to have that in order to broadcast, just to be FCC compliant. They had a locksmith change the locks on our new studio room. Andrea Katz is the person that gave Pacifica access to the building, the website, etc. We had help from Melissa, who owns the building to secure what was left.
Stahimili Mapp, a longtime WBAI listener-supporter, was present at the emergency meeting held in the West Village last Tuesday evening, which she said was well-attended and eye-opening. She gave Our Time Press a report on what happened at the meeting.
“It was a large meeting, about 65 to 70 people, on just a few hours’ notice,” said Mapp. “Linda Perry said when she arrived at the station, the locks had been changed. When she finally did get in, she found out that they removed equipment and literally closed down the studio.
“Berthold said he went to the bank but was not allowed to access the money because Pacifica had frozen the account. The credit accounts are all frozen. They cannot use the email, not even among staff to communicate with one another. Someone let them in. Reggie [Johnson] said it was Andrea Katz.
Pacifica had recently suspended veteran WBAI producer and show host Mimi Rosenberg for violating an FCC rule in writing a CART (promo announcement) for the Labor Day edition of her show, “Building Bridges: Your Community and Labor Report” in which she said, “Dump Trump.” Pacifica claimed she’d jeopardized their license and told Reimers to suspend Rosenberg and have her submit programming for review before airing going forward. Reimers removed Rosenberg from the air for a week but did nothing further, which reportedly irked Pacifica management.
“People should be aware that we may be asking for funds and if they want to contribute, there will be a structure set up to do that. Updates will be presented about the status of order forms for the fund drive. People should contact WBAI personnel through the Twitter account. We no longer have control over the Facebook account. The next meeting will be on Tuesday, the 15th and we’ll announce the location there. The Twitter page is WBAI New York at 99.5 FM.
“The climate right now in the country requires that we have access to media that’s independent and listener-supported and folks need to be part of trying to recapture our station,” said Mapp.