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BUDGET: A Wake-Up Call to WBAI Listeners

Bennett Baumer Sep 12, 2008

The venerable progressive radio station 99.5FM WBAI has gone into yet another month-long fundraising drive this September as bitter infighting continues on the station’s ruling Listener Station Board (LSB) and the budget deficits mount. The middle-of-the-dial New York City station has been running a roughly half-a-million dollar deficit over the past five fiscal years and owes “six digits” to its parent organization, Pacifica Radio, according to multiple board members at an August meeting.

“We’re in major negotiations with Pacifica over this,” said Mitchel Cohen, WBAI LSB chairperson, who believes WBAI owes at least $300,000. “WBAI has been unfairly billed and we’re asking for a line-by-line accounting.”

The first public radio network in the nation, Pacifica Radio was founded in 1946 by two pacifists and has five member stations, including WBAI. Pacifica Radio does not accept corporate donations and instead relies on listener support to operate and community members to produce programming. WBAI and Pacifica Radio have a troubled recent history, squabbling over money and governance structure.

WBAI’s total budget in fiscal year 2008 was $2.4 million, and the LSB has yet to approve the 2009 budget. The station is weighted down by a heavy rent burden at its 120 Wall Street headquarters, paying $277,969 a year. And it costs a pretty penny, $350,778, to transmit the signal from the Empire State Building.

Further complicating matters, of the $2.1 million projected listener donations in 2009, the station will lose a significant amount to uncollected contributions. Station board member Steve Brown estimated that the station might only collect 68 to 72 percent of pledged donations. Although Brown, a millionaire direct mail marketing executive, wants the station to come up with different fundraising strategies, the station will be rolling out yet another four-week fundraising drive from Sept. 8 to Oct. 4. Even with multiple fundraisers a year, there is discussion on the LSB of layoffs at WBAI.

The listener board has been contested real estate between two rival factions since what is known as the 2000 Christmas Eve weekend “coup,” which lead to the firings or resignations of many progressive radio hosts including Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez.

Listeners should be concerned about the financial fiasco. The most recent Sept. 3 LSB meeting — which drew only 15 members of the public — was delayed half an hour in order to reach quorum, then quickly descended into hour-long bickering over the agenda, Robert’s Rules of Order (which outlines meeting process) and what constituted an excused absence.

Finally, after almost two and a half hours of thinly veiled contempt and bickering, the LSB meeting began addressing the most pressing issue — the budget.

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