WBAI’s Death by Democracy

September 7, 2013

By Tessa Stuart via Village Voice

It was 6:30 p.m. on August 9, at the end of the evening news. The voice of Jose Santiago, longtime news director at the legendary radical radio station WBAI, drifted out over the airwaves for what would be the last time.

“Over the years, I’ve knocked out last-minute news copy at breakneck speeds thousands of times, in a whole bunch of different places, and always made the deadline,” Santiago told listeners. “But this one, on such short notice, is not flowing so easily.”

Earlier that afternoon, Summer Reese, interim executive director of Pacifica Radio, which owns the station’s broadcast license, had gathered WBAI’s staff together and confirmed rumors that had run rampant for months. Almost all of them were losing their jobs.

“This is goodbye,” Santiago said, his voice growing shaky. “I want to say a million things, but none more than ‘thank you.’”

The end was a long time coming.

For years, observers inside and out had been prophesying the death of WBAI, birthplace of the nationally syndicated alternative news program Democracy NOW!. The station has not turned a profit in more than a decade. The last year has been particularly tough.

Millions of dollars in debt, and unable to pay staff or rent, WBAI has devoted a staggering 169 days to pledge drives since October. Quacks and conspiracy theorists solicited donations by dangling gifts like magic water capable of curing cancer and books that claim, matter-of-factly, that the world is secretly ruled by shapeshifting reptilian overlords.

Ask the people who have lived through the slow, sad decline, and they will tell you that the very thing they thought would save the organization—democratizing the network—nearly killed it entirely.

Fans of 99.5 WBAI still wax nostalgic about Election Day 2000, when President Bill Clinton made the mistake of calling the station to get out the vote for Al Gore and the Senate campaign of his wife, Hillary. Instead of the few minutes of small talk he expected, Clinton spent 28 minutes under fire from WBAI’s Amy Goodman and Gonzalo Aburto, defending his presidency.

The pair hammered Clinton with tough question after tough question—Would he grant clemency to Native American activist Leonard Peltier? Did he support a moratorium on the death penalty, considering studies that showed it’s tilted toward killing black people? Why did he authorize the bombing of the island of Vieques?—before a frustrated Clinton was forced to excuse himself from the call.

It was the stuff of WBAI legend, the stuff listeners lived for—holding privileged feet to the fire, demanding answers to questions the mainstream media wouldn’t ask.

Over the decades, WBAI built a reputation as a beacon of free speech. It’s where James Baldwin debated Malcolm X over the power of nonviolent protest, and where George Carlin broadcast his famous “Filthy Words” show, the monologue that spawned a debate over indecency and a Supreme Court case to boot.

It wasn’t just a radio station; it was a countercultural epicenter. Legendary broadcaster Bob Fass informed listeners of his program, Radio Unnamable, of the best places to purchase acid in the East Village. And when one listener encountered a bad trip, he put a psychiatrist on the air to talk her through it.

In the old days, Bob Dylan used to come in just to do a station break. “He’d just walk in, and we’d hand him the microphone, and we wouldn’t say who he was and, you know, most people could figure it out,” former general manager Chris Albertson says.

Back then, Albertson says, “you could walk into the hallway and find the janitor—we had a janitor back in those days—deep in conversation with Ayn Rand,” who had a weekly commentary show. “Where else could you find that?”

Yoko Ono, a volunteer filing clerk in the music department, pitched in during the station’s first fundraising marathon. “You wouldn’t believe this, but Yoko Ono was a really humble, quiet person. I mean, the fact that she even came to me, to my office, was amazing. But then she asked if she could go on the air and help out during the marathon,” Albertson chuckles. “She said, ‘I’d like to sing some Japanese children’s songs.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and so she did it. WBAI attracted people like that.”

That first pledge drive stretched over two days and nights without stopping. Contributors received gifts much different than those offered today.

“Artist Elaine de Kooning provided some of her minor Kennedy paintings for auction, and other lesser known artistic lights offered their services as plumbers and carpenters,” Susan Brownmiller wrote in 1965, chronicling the drive for the Voice. “Big Joe Williams sang the blues and three teenagers hitchhiked in from Nyack to make sandwiches for the tired and hungry crew.”

It only took 55 hours for the station to make enough money to cover its budget for the next few months. That’s the way things used to work for WBAI. The station offered programming available nowhere else, and listeners gave generously to support it.

But in recent years, that audience has steadily abandoned the station. Despite WBAI’s powerful signal—strong enough to reach 18 million people—the station has so few listeners it barely registers on Arbitron‘s ratings scale, the standard for measuring radio audiences. Donations have dried up. WBAI—saddled with a large payroll and high rents, ruled by an expensive and immovable bureaucracy—plunged deeper and deeper into debt.

To make ends meet, the station has come to rely on revenue from increasingly bizarre, and in some cases even dangerous, pledge drive gifts. In June, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—the organization that provides about 15 percent of the station’s funding—wrote a pair of reports questioning the ethics of some gifts, including Double Helix water, which purports to cure both cancer and autism.

To trace the decline, you have to go back at least 15 years, to 1998. That was the year the station moved to a fancy new building on Wall Street, where its new neighbors were other progressive-minded nonprofits like the Center for the Urban Future and the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

The decision was handed down from the Pacifica Foundation, which holds the broadcast licenses for WBAI and its sister stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Pacifica was on a kick to professionalize its scrappy stations, and WBAI’s old office on Eighth Avenue was “a rathole by the time the station left there,” as one longtime producer put it.

Listeners like Mitchel Cohen fretted over the move: “We were afraid they were trying to sell the station, or bourgeois-ify the station. Corporatize it, I guess.”

Their fears were not entirely misplaced. By the time WBAI left Wall Street last January, the rent had ballooned to an untenable $40,000 a month. It was just one in a long series of ill-advised steps.

Even as Amy Goodman was grilling Clinton, creating one of the most emblematic moments in the station’s history, WBAI was defending itself from Pacifica‘s increasingly aggressive attempts to tighten its grip on both the station and its biggest star.

Goodman is best known as the host of Democracy NOW!, Pacifica’s iconic news program. In an open letter addressed to Pacifica’s board of directors a few weeks before her Clinton interview, Goodman wrote that executives were urging her to soften the coverage, saying listeners didn’t want to hear the details of police brutality before their morning coffee.

“Instead of congratulations and kudos for our many accomplishments, Pacifica has clamped down and threatens me at every turn with dismissal!” Democracy NOW!, Goodman added, was “being censored for our critical coverage of the Democrats as well as the Republicans.”

The testy exchange with Clinton couldn’t have helped matters. That month, WBAI’s general manager was canned. A few weeks later, over Christmas weekend, a new GM installed by Pacifica snuck into the station at night and changed the locks. The program director and his top producer were fired via courier the next morning.

Security cameras were installed, and guards were stationed at the door with a list of the names of producers and employees who were no longer welcome. A gag order banned those still allowed on air from discussing the station’s issues.

So much for free speech radio.

But the folks at Pacifica would find out quickly that they had overplayed their hand. Listeners and producers revolted. A rally two weeks after the firings drew 500 people to WBAI’s office, where they chanted and held signs reading “Despotism Won’t Fly at WBAI.”

More rallies followed outside both Pacifica’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and the law firm representing the network. Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy NOW!, resigned in protest; Goodman was later suspended.

For almost a year, protests, demonstrations, and rallies rocked the station, before a newly elected board of directors was forced to restore Democracy NOW!, which had been broadcast “in exile” from a fire station in Lower Manhattan during the strife.

The turmoil did have one upside: A collection of Pacifica listeners, activists, and producers joined together to change the way the network operated. Listeners and staff would now be elected to a series of boards that governed the Pacifica Network.

“We’re once again on the road to democratization of our cherished network—the only independent network in the country,” Goodman told the Voice back then.

But those changes, says Patty Heffley, a listener turned board member, led to “the democratic state that has become a nightmare today.”

It seemed a fine concept in theory, allowing listeners to dictate their experience. But in reality it placed the station’s destiny in the hands of people who knew little of radio or management. Worse, committees were piled one atop another, creating a bureaucracy so vast and chaotic that only a Soviet apparatchik would approve.

Today, about 2,200 people are directly involved in the voting process, according to Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. “You basically have an organization that is drowning in governance.”

The system bred a vicious factionalism that has made it virtually impossible to get anything done for more than a decade. The boards have fractured into splinter groups like the Justice and Unity Caucus, the Independent Party, and Listeners and Staff for Progressive Elections.

Epic power struggles for station control raged for years, while day-to-day operations ground to a halt. A succession of general managers and program directors were installed and quickly deposed. It wasn’t unusual for fistfights to break out at board meetings. Countless lawsuits were filed, then summarily dismissed. All the while, the station floundered. Lasar, who was present when the bylaws were created, now calls the whole exercise “a disastrous experiment in democratization.”

Take a recent meeting of WBAI’s Finance Committee. Members had no actual numbers to discuss—Pacifica, in the middle of simultaneous audits by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the IRS, failed to provide them. So the committee was left to draft a strongly worded letter requesting the documents yet again.

The meeting then devolved into a multi-hour airing of grievances. At one point, a shouting match broke out between committee member Ed Manfredonia and the station’s general manager, Berthold Reimers. Manfredonia wanted to know whether a rival member of the Local Station Board had a financial stake in a call center that was recently awarded a WBAI contract.

When an elderly blind woman urged the two men to calm down, Manfredonia yelled at her to shut up. For dramatic effect, he then called the cops on himself. The session was adjourned while police took statements and escorted Manfredonia from the building.

“If you think this is bad, come to a Local Station Board meeting,” one committee member scribbled in a note to the reporter seated next to him.

Every two out of three years, 24 representatives are chosen to sit on the local board of each Pacifica station—18 members are voted in by subscribers, and six are elected by staff. Four delegates from each board are then elected to the 23-member national board.

Pacifica has managed to make the elections incredibly expensive. They are estimated to cost $200,000 each—or about $3 million total since they were instituted, more than enough for WBAI to pay off the money it owes.

“Basically, Pacifica is paying these boards to have a big factional fight every two of three years,” Lasar says.

Heffley is among the many driven away by the infighting. “I ran away screaming in 2007,” she says.

In 2008, Pacifica’s then-CEO, Nicole Sawaya, also threw in the towel. Before stepping down, she wrote a letter to Pacifica founder Lew Hill.

“The bylaws of the organization have opened it up to tremendous abuse, creating the opportunity for cronyism, factionalism, and faux democracy, with the result of challenging all yet helping nothing,” she wrote. “There are endless meetings of committees and ‘task forces’—mostly on the phone—where people just like to hear themselves talk.”

Simply put, too much democracy was killing the station that gave birth to Democracy NOW!.

Sitting in WBAI’s modest new headquarters in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood a week before the layoffs will take place, Berthold Reimers looks exhausted. He’s spent the week moving the station into a building where rent is about one-tenth what it was on Wall Street.

Reimers speaks with the French accent of his native Haiti, where he lived until age 17. He started listening to WBAI in the ’80s, captivated by its coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal, and became involved at the station after the Christmas coup in 2000.

He was fascinated by the network’s democratic process, he says, “since in Haiti I never voted. There were no elections in Haiti. I was interested in elections, and the democratic standard transferable vote system was amazing to me.”

Now, he’s disillusioned. He thinks Pacifica’s elected boards should be abolished. “The people who get elected are activists that have no knowledge of management.”

Take the move to the new office. “We didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing, because there is micromanagement” whenever the boards or subcommittees get involved, Reimers says. “We just moved, quietly. We made decisions, and sometimes we didn’t even ask permission. We just did it, because otherwise there is always a debate and nothing happens.”

Ask Reimers where WBAI really took its turn for the worse, and he will provide an exact month: May 2012. That’s when complaints from the board and the producers led to yet another personnel fight. Program Director Tony Bates was ousted.

The fight was emblematic of the personnel battles common at WBAI and across the Pacifica Network. The producers circulated a petition urging the station to replace the program director, in part because they didn’t like the pledge gifts he wanted them to pitch.

Problem is, according to Reimers, those items—the cancer-curing Double Helix water, the rightwing conspiracy film Zeitgeist, and the writings of David Icke, which promote the theory that reptilian shapeshifters control our world—were the only things keeping the station afloat.

Sure, the station offered the smart gifts typical of a public radio station, such as books by liberal luminaries like Howard Zinn and Robert Reich. But these weren’t bringing in donations.

Instead, Reimers says, 90 percent of WBAI’s income is generated by health-oriented and conspiracy theory items.

The fiercely independent station is forced to rely on revenue generated by pledge gifts—no matter how dubious—because it refuses to accept underwriting, sponsorship, or advertising of any kind out of fear that they might influence the station’s coverage.

Ironically, that stubborn refusal has left WBAI flat broke, with no choice but to lay off its entire news department.

Since the program director was pushed out, donation rates have plunged to new lows. WBAI has fallen short of its fundraising goals by more than $1 million. It’s about $2 million in debt to Pacifica.

The station began to fall seriously behind on its rent beginning in July. At the time, Reimers was still hopeful WBAI could make it up during the fall pledge drive, but when that drive was almost over—and with its fundraising goal only half met—Hurricane Sandy hit.

The storm forced WBAI out of its office and off the air; 99.5 stayed dark for days. The station became a refugee, broadcasting first out of alternative medicine guru (and longtime WBAI producer) Gary Null‘s personal studio, and then out of City College in Harlem.

The same month, the station received a notice from the Empire State Building, where it was also behind on rent for its transmitter. If it couldn’t catch up, the building would have to evict the transmitter, and 99.5 would go dead.

“At that point, we realized that we had to focus on paying the Empire State Building, we could not pay the back rent at 120 Wall Street, and the contract was up for renewal in January, so we decided we’re going to move out,” Reimers says. The station, still broadcasting from City College’s studio, set up a small temporary office in Battery Park.

In March, when news that WBAI might be thrown out of the Empire State Building went public, the station raised $500,000 to save its signal. But WBAI was broke again a month later and unable to make its payroll. Employees went two pay periods without receiving checks before someone called the Department of Labor.

That’s when layoffs became inevitable. “If you can’t pay your staff, you have to let them go,” Reimers says.

Instead of paid programmers based here in New York, WBAI will now rely on unpaid volunteers and syndicated shows picked up from other Pacifica stations.

And without original local programming, the task of righting the ship only becomes more difficult.

The last pledge drive, held over several weeks in July and August, had one of the highest goals ever—$1 million, enough to stabilize the station. It was met with some of the lowest donation rates in the station’s history. By the time Summer Reese came on the air to announce the layoffs, WBAI had reached barely a quarter of its goal.

“They are fatigued,” Reimers says of the listeners. “They are totally fatigued. I am fatigued.”

On that fateful Friday in August, the day staff members were told they were losing their jobs, Reese took to the air to deliver the news.

All told, two-thirds of the station’s staff was terminated. “Most of the producers whose shows you value will not even have the chance to say goodbye to you, for which I am deeply sorry,” Reese said.

Andrea Sears was one of the few who did get a chance to say goodbye, during the final edition of the WBAI evening news. She used the opportunity to reflect on the station’s legacy before signing off for the last time.

“News and information from a perspective that is outside the mainstream, a critical perspective that puts the needs of people first, and holds on to the ideals that are, at best, paid lip service to by those with money and power,” Sears said, “journalism that speaks truth to power—that to me is the heart and soul of WBAI.”

The following Monday, members of the news team listened from home as New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program—a program that WBAI’s news team had won numerous reporting awards for covering over the years—was declared unconstitutional.

It was a bittersweet moment, says former news director Santiago.

“I don’t know anyone on the planet that had done more on this issue than our station,” he says. “To see something culminate like that one the very first day we’re not working—it’s tough.”

He is proud of the legacy his team left behind, of covering stop-and-frisk and police violence. But more than that, he’s proud that the department survived as long as it did, given the circumstances.

“Frankly, I think our biggest accomplishment in the news department has been—despite all the political fighting that’s gone on, all the artillery being fired by the different factions at Pacifica and at our local station board over our heads—we’ve managed to just consistently produce a pretty good newscast.

“To me, just the fact that we’ve survived, that the station itself has survived as long as it has under this governance structure,” Santiago says. “I think that that’s really our biggest accomplishment.”

Correction: As originally published, this story stated that Matthew Lasar helped craft Pacifica Radio’s bylaws. Lasar was present at meetings during which the bylaws were created and read drafts before they were passed, but he did not participate in the process. The above version reflects the corrected text. The Voice regrets the error.

Image: Macalin