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WBAI: Long Downturn, Urgent Turnaround

Frank LeFever Sep 4, 2013

“Why should people listen to WBAI?” The short answer used to be, you will get information and analyses here you won't get anywhere else. That's obviously still true if one considers only broadcast media (radio or TV); however, with the advent of online media including blogs and “internet radio,” it's not so obvious. My contention is that unless one is ready to surf the internet industriously, one cannot duplicate what is available at WBAI (99.5 FM in or near NYC, worldwide streaming—yes—on the web). And of course if you stick to FM reception, neither Google nor the NSA knows what you’re interested in. 

Founded in 1960, WBAI was one of the pioneers in listener-sponsored, commercial-free radio — a model later picked up and emulated by NPR. WBAI's counter-culture fame and relevance in progressive or leftist public discourse peaked as civil rights struggles and the giddy days of flower-power flowed into the growing grimness of resistance to the U.S. war against Vietnam. 

“Soap Boxes”

Over time the station increasingly became a collection of “soap boxes” serving an aging collection of subgroups, and incredibly there has been no effort to advertise the station to the vast general public that is within range of the 50,000-watt transmitter it has sitting atop the Empire State Building. Predictably, the number of listener sponsors has been declining every year. 

We got by until the Perfect Storm hit last fall. Hurricane Sandy knocked our phones out, hampering fundraising. Both the Empire State Building (antenna) and our landlord at 120 Wall Street (studios & offices) demanded payment “now” on debts we have been playing catch-up with while relocating to temporary office space in Lower Manhattan and temporary studios miles away at City College of New York. 

It was in this context that Pacifica Radio — the national network to which WBAI belongs — cut paid staff to near an FCC-required minimum (management + engineers). Contrary to rumor, we did not lose all of our “familiar voices,” because most WBAI programs are produced by unpaid volunteers. 

Most of the “soap boxes” beloved of long-time listeners remain, but Interim Program Director Andrew Phillips plans to revitalize the schedule, beginning by filling the gaps in prime (“drive-time”) listening hours and making WBAI more a part of Pacifica, connecting NYC with Pacifica stations on the West Coast by broadcasting several of their highly successful programs. I think new listeners and WBAI “regulars” can both learn much from them.

New Programs

Ian Masters' “Background Briefing” regularly features expert guests, policy makers and critics discussing a wide array of topics, from breaking news of major world events such as U.S. moves towards attacking Syria and the restoration of the old order by the Egyptian military to forest policy and fires, attacks on abortion providers, the sacking of a Russian journalist for criticizing ant-gay policies, etc.

Some WBAI “regulars” complain that Ian rarely interviews “leftists,” but this is part of the genius of his production. Mainstream audiences might discount assertions by “leftist activists” that Dick Cheney instead of Bradley Manning should be facing jail time, but cannot so automatically discount them when made by Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson. Similarly, we all can decry Obama's claim that he wants to lower college cost while ignoring the taxpayer-funded for-profit college racket that saddles students with worthless diplomas and heavy debt, but for “naive” new listeners, the complaint has special force when voiced by a former Assistant Secretary of Education.

Margaret Prescod's “Sojourner Truth” is unabashedly “activist.” You can get an idea of this program's thrust by visiting the websites of loosely-collaborating groups, such as:

Global Women's Strike/Huelga Mundial de Mujeres

Haiti Action Committee

Global Justice Ecology Project 

Indigenous Environmental Network

Mitch Jeserich, host of “Letters and Politics,” was the co-founder of the New York City-based Community News Production Institute, a project of People's Production House, which trained members from historically marginalized communities to make their own media news stories. Mitch spent three years as the Washington D.C. Editor of Free Speech Radio News, and had been News Editor for WBAI's “Wake-Up Call” before moving onto KPFA (Berkeley) in 2007. Posted comments on recent programs attest to his ability to generate serious dialogues.

Bonnie Faulkner's offerings on “Guns & Butter” have included an insightful analysis of the geographical, military and demographic logistics of attempts to control Afghanistan (by the USSR and the United States) by a former official in Pakistan's Intelligence Service (ISI), and a very extended airing of “9-11 Truth” allegations and analyses. 

“Against the Grain,” hosted by C. S. Soong, focuses on “meaty theoretical and action-oriented issues that the mainstream media tends to ignore, matters like political economy, the global justice movement, philosophical and cultural ideas, and race and gender relations…”

The loss of our local News Department still needs remedy, but these new programs form a “Public Affairs and News” continuum that includes more familiar programs: Democracy Now!, Counterspin, Law & Disorder, Project Censored, Free Speech Radio News, etc. 

Arts & Culture

However, as Emma Goldman famously said, “If there won't be dancing at the revolution, I'm not coming.” The Pacifica Mission includes “encouraging and providing outlets for” creative writing, drama and music. Bob Fass continues to showcase “upcoming” musicians, much as he did Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and others a generation ago. Andrew plans an unusual “early drive time” scheduling of a special tribute to jazz pianist Marian McPartland that draws from WBAI's rich archives of her WBAI program. The current schedule features classical and preclassical music (presented, with commentary, by knowledgeable producers), “Grateful Dead” nostalgia, hip-hop, jazz, “Latino,” and opera. Our annual “Bloomsday” marathon reading of James Joyce's Ulysses features dozens of nationally known actors, and there are “smaller” offerings of drama and literature (including science fiction) every week.  

Whether you are a former supporter who stopped listening into WBAI or this is your first time hearing about the station, I encourage you to go to 99.5 on the FM dial, listen to the stream online or check out the current programming schedule on the station’s website — but be forewarned: it's subject to change day by day as we open up and renew ourselves. 

Frank LeFever is a retired neuroscientist who first heard Bob Fass on Radio Unnameable in the mid-1960s, coming home from a hard night in the rat lab. After listener-staff governance began a decade ago, he served on every Local Station Board committee and last year was elected to the LSB. 

Editor's Note: The Indypendent welcomes submissions (submissions[at] from other members of the WBAI community who wish to share their vision of how the station can best move forward. 

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