WBAI Struggling to Stay on the Air

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WBAI fires employeesDevelopments at three major institutions in New York City deliver a crippling effect on the dissemination of information and community stability both at home and otherwise.

At the moment, subscribers who use Time Warner Cable cannot view CBS; and a rumor is afloat that the staff at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center has been fired.

Well, it’s no rumor at WBAI-FM.  Seventy-five percent of the paid staff at WBAI-FM and the entire news department has been laid-off.

“I knew this is where it was going,” said Jose Santiago, news director, who has been at the station since 1991, and also serves as the shop steward.  “While I feel fortunate and can take an early retirement, there are others who are not, many of them two paychecks from desperation.”

Santiago said the handwriting was on the walls, so to speak, when the station had to relocate from its Wall Street digs following the damage done by Hurricane Sandy, which compounded the impending financial crisis, “much of it brought on by Pacifica it itself with the hiring of incompetent station managers,” he added.

Effective Monday, 75 percent of the paid staff will be pink-slipped, according to Summer Reese, the executive director of Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI and other stations around the nation.  She could not be reached for comment. 

Morning Show producer Sharan Harper is one of the 19 station employees laid-off and while she’s not sure of her future plans at the moment “I can’t imagine the station without a news team,” she lamented.  “We had already been operating a two-hour show with just two people.”

Harper said that the recent fund raising drives were inefficient and unable to bring in the money necessary to maintain the station’s paid personnel.  “And Pacifica does not raise money,” she said, and this point was underscored by Kathy Davis, the station’s public affairs director.

“Other than the on-air funds we are able to raise, there is nothing from the outside,” Davis explained, who has also been laid-off.  “We attempted to raise the money needed to pay the transmitter fees but they were soon doubled from a quarter of million dollars to half a million.” Moreover, she said, blame was placed on the producers for not raising sufficient funds during the pledge drives.

“It is unfair to blame the producers and it’s in poor taste to do so,” Davis continued.  Many of them, she said, were at the mercy of being off the air from 4 to 5 months thereby finding it difficult to keep their numbers up, given the disruptions.

If anyone is to blame for the current financial crisis, though it’s a situation many years in the making, is Pacifica, Santiago charges.  “We have had 10 general managers at the station in eleven years, and hardly any of them had broadcasting experience.  They had no understanding of the inner workings of the station, the language of communication, and along with their mismanagement there was their unprofessional conduct.”

It has been estimated that the lawsuits alone, mostly from the charges brought against the general managers, have robbed the station of some $200,000 in money that could have been used to defray operation expenses.

While Santiago was hesitant to name any of those involved in the lawsuits he did express his concern about losing the mentoring he has done over the years, nurturing hundreds of young aspiring journalists and broadcasters.

“These layoffs will particularly impact our teaching young people of color,” he said.  “Many of them were here as volunteers and while the more privileged of them were able to deal with the irregularities, the poorer ones of color found it difficult to deal with any day to day changes.”

Though the news department has been eviscerated programming, mainly conducted by unpaid staff, interns, and volunteers, continues and the station is on the air.  “How long things will continue as they are will depend on what happens next with the unpaid staff,” Davis observed.  “If they are released, then we know the problem was more than just financial.  In any case, I wish them the best and apparently they’ve figured out a way to keep things going in the meantime.”

There may come a time, Santiago opined, when they will begin importing shows from other stations to fill the void.  “But without local news coverage, which feeds the public affairs shows, WBAI will not be the same.”
    
Stay tuned, though perhaps not at WBAI.