WBAI Back Under Local Direction After Destructive Takeover

Radio station WBAI (99.5 FM and wbai.org), which broadcasts Met Council’s weekly radio program, Housing Notebook, on Mondays from 8 to 9 p.m., came within a hair’s breadth of ceasing to exist this fall.

Early in the morning of Monday, October 7, when WBAI’s fall fund drive had barely begun, the Interim Executive Director of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns the station’s license, showed up at its studios, shut it down, and fired nearly all of the management and paid and unpaid staff. He told those on site to leave and notified others, including Housing Notebook’s hosts, via email; changed the locks; and told the studio’s landlord to look for another tenant.

Before the day was out, Arthur Schwartz, a lawyer who also hosts the weekly program Advocating for Justice, was able to get a temporary restraining order reversing Pacifica’s actions, but when staff re-entered the station, they found that equipment had been dismantled, rendering it inoperable. The station’s bank account had been confiscated, and its Website had been reduced to an “explanation” of the takeover—claiming that it was necessitated by WBAI’s dire financial situation. For the next month, WBAI broadcast bland, canned programming provided remotely by Pacifica.

Meanwhile, it became apparent that the shutdown was supported by a rogue faction of the Pacifica National Board, in what appeared to be part of a plan to sell WBAI’s license to benefit the other four Pacifica stations, in Washington, Houston, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, California. That faction was ultimately outvoted by the majority, which supported WBAI’s return to local control and fired the director who had engineered the takeover.

After an odyssey through the court system that took the case through yo-yo decisions, from state court to federal court and back to state court again, State Supreme Court Judge Melissa A. Crane denied Pacifica’s request to overturn the original temporary restraining order. She explicitly ordered the foundation to stay out of WBAI’s operations while instructing both parties’ counsel to discuss “possible mediation.” The station went back on the air under local control at midnight on November 6.

WBAI is far from out of the woods. The takeover interrupted its fundraising at a time when the station’s finances were indeed in dire straits, and there is a well-advanced plan to persuade network members to approve amending the Pacifica Foundation’s bylaws to allow a largely self-selected board. Current WBAI members will be called on to vote yes or no by February on a proposed set of bylaws that would dissolve the newly elected local boards and effectively disenfranchise listeners at all five Pacifica stations.

No other radio station has programming remotely like WBAI’s—and certainly no other radio station would carry Housing Notebook, New York’s only area-wide radio program informing and advocating exclusively for tenants. Please become a member by going to give2wbai.org and making a donation of $25 or more today in the name of Housing Notebook!