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WBAI Bounces Back

John Tarleton Jun 5, 2009

NEW TEAM: WBAI-99.5FM’s Acting General Manager Lavarn Williams (center) with Operations Director Shawn Rhodes (left) and Public Affairs Director Kathy Davis. PHOTO: MARK BAILEY

When LaVarn Williams was installed as WBAI-99.5 FM’s acting general manager May 7, she took over a community radio station reeling from more than $1.1 million in debt and seemingly exhausted by years of mismanagement and factional infighting. Four weeks later, Williams was ebullient after the station’s spring fund drive surpassed all expectations.

“This is a renaissance. This is a rebirth but it has to be sustained,” Williams said. “All the naysayers said it wouldn’t happen, but it did.”

The May 4 to May 30 fund drive took in $837,000 in pledges: $292,000 more than the station garnered during another 27-day fund drive in February and $165,000 more than its originally budgeted goal.

The $31,000 per day in pledges marked a 54 percent increase over the left-leaning station’s daily pledge rate during the February drive and a 29 percent increase over the average daily pledge rate during the station’s four major fund drives since the beginning of 2008.

“It’s a prime example that management matters,” said Jamie Ross, a member of WBAI’s listener- and staff-elected Local Station Board (LSB), which oversees the station. Ross was among the majority of LSB members who supported the recent replacement of former General Manager Tony Riddle, as well as longtime Program Director Bernard White.

Williams, who hails from near Berkeley, Calif., was tapped for her current position by WBAI’s parent Pacifica Foundation, which had become increasingly alarmed by WBAI’s financial woes. Pacifica also holds the licenses for high-powered progressive radio stations in Los Angeles, Houston, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. Williams was joined by Tony Bates, the former fund drive supervisor at Pacifica’s Los Angeles station. She credits Bates with helping programmers improve their on-air pitching and developing more attractive premiums.

“Within a week, the staff saw the benefits,” Williams said. “They realized they needed to adopt the pitches and the methods he uses on-air. He was the catalyst in turning things around.” Williams said that Bates will take over as program director June 8.

Williams said her next goal was to make sure premiums promised during the fund drive are mailed out promptly to donors, something WBAI has struggled with in recent years. She’s also looking to shake up the station’s programming.

For starters, Democracy Now!, WBAI’s most popular program, will move up an hour and air live at 8 a.m. Williams is also considering bringing back controversial health guru Gary Null.

WBAI NOTES:

—LSB elections are later this summer. Listeners who donate a minimum of $25 or three hours of volunteer labor are eligible to vote. Deadline for becoming an eligible voter in this year’s elections is June 30.

—Supporters of WBAI’s ousted management are holding a protest at the station June 17 at 5 p.m. For more information, see takebackwbai.org. To check out WBAI, go to 99.5 FM or see wbai.org.

Also by John Tarleton: “WBAI Showdown: Power Struggle Escalates as New General Manager Moves to Remake Troubled Community Radio Station”