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When Radio Things Go Wrong


It is a troubling time for one of New York’s oldest public radio stations.

The last decade has been touch-and-go for WBAI, which became non-commercial and listener-supported when Pacifica bought it in 1960. The station played a pivotal role in 60s counterculture, pioneering “free-style” progressive radio, with a coverage area that blanketed New York City and radiated 70 miles beyond.

Over the last year, nothing has gone right: the station has been in a cash crunch – unable to meet payroll and falling behind on rent for its antenna. Superstorm Sandy dealt a crippling blow to its studios, compounded by the fact that the broadcast staff wasn’t allowed in temporary facilities after 6 p.m. during the days of crisis following the storm, when radio became every city dweller’s lifeline.  There have been fights over programming. WBAI fund drives have been disasters. And the Brooklyn couple who hosted of the station’s self-help positive living program, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” committed suicide in June.

Today, in spite of its mighty signal, the station draws a tiny audience. 

Kellia Ramares-Watson worked for the News and Operations Departments of Pacifica flagship KPFA, in Berkeley, California, from March 1999 to July 2010. She is now an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay area. She says the election of Barack Obama brought a decline in listenership and donations to Pacifica stations.

Ramares-Watson and others cite WBAI's eclectic approach to programming and the onslaught of satellite and internet radio as the reasons it has gone to seed.

Yet the reasons cited for the demise of WBAI are the same reasons a Columbia County radio station is staying alive: newcomer WGXC is based in the arts and has its roots in New York City “pirate” radio. Station manager Lynn Sloneker explains why the “community radio” barn-raising style and  he locally-focused eclectic smörgåsbord approach works.

WGXC does carry a few Pacifica programs, but says it isn’t weighed down by the heavy-handed governing that has eaten resources and dollars across the small network.

Pressure from Pacifica and a severely restricted cash flow has turned WBAI belly up –  a 75 percent reduction in staff is being considered because it would save $900,000 a year. 

WBAI has not returned calls or emails for comment.  Quoting a line posted on the station’s website:  WBAI as it exists right now will not be preserved because it cannot survive under the current financial model. However, WBAI will continue to exist as a local NY metropolitan area radio station.

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