WBAI radio staffers, still barred from air, ramp up fight
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”
“It ain’t over,” radio host Jim Freund told the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday.
Freund, 65, hosts a science fiction and fantasy talk show called “Hour of the Wolf” on 99.5 WBAI FM — the decades-old, listener-sponsored radio station currently taking its parent nonprofit, the Pacifica Foundation, to court.
On Monday, Pacifica — which owns a slate of other independently operated radio stations — abruptly shut down local programming at WBAI and shuttered its Atlantic Avenue workspace, citing millions of dollars of debt and the desire to rebuild the station around national, syndicated content.
By Tuesday morning, the staff — which consists largely of unpaid volunteers — was granted a temporary restraining order by the Manhattan Supreme Court, barring Pacifica from terminating any WBAI employees or impeding on its local programming in any way until Oct. 18, when both parties must appear in court.
But as of Wednesday, producers said local programming was still being kept off the air.
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” said Freund, who has hosted “Hour of the Wolf” on WBAI for nearly half a century. “In 1977, there was an incident so huge that Pacifica took us off the air for three months. There was static.”
Then in 2000, Freund told the Eagle, the nonprofit came in with the purpose of firing higher-ups. “They did not lock us out or take us off the air then, but they did replace management with people of their own,” he said.
The Queens native joined the station as a 13-year-old volunteer answering phone calls. In 1974, he began playing co-host to Margot Adler, the author and radio journalist who created the show. When Adler stepped down as host, Freund took her place.
Today, he averages 3,000 on-air listeners on Wednesday evenings. On the Wednesday following the shutdown, he plans on fielding caller questions about what is happening at WBAI — if he can manage to get on the air.
Not so fast
An attorney for WBAI told Gothamist Tuesday that — despite the injunction issued Monday — Pacifica is still controlling the network’s Times Square tower and the station’s website, on which a four-hour music mix is currently listed for Freund’s usual time slot.
Program Director Linda Perry tweeted Wednesday that, as of 7 a.m., local programming was still not up and running.
.@WBAI is not back on the air as some have commented. We are not programming our own frequency despite a TRO, temporary restraining order, by the court which orders local control reinstated.
— Linda Perry (@lindaperrybarr) October 9, 2019
Freund, though grateful for the legal action, said he’s not sure the problems with Pacifica will ever go away.
“If we do survive, I don’t know if it’ll be the last time,” he said.
According to court documents, WBAI is claiming that Pacifica violated its rights — not only under common and not-for-profit law, but also under its own bylaws, as well as the station’s free speech rights. Meanwhile, Pacifica has defended its actions in an open letter on the station’s website, and in a press release — both of which fault the beloved local broadcaster for “ballooning debt.”
“WBAI has had to repeatedly call on other Pacifica stations to help fund its payroll and other operating expenses,” Jan Goodman, a Pacifica board member, said in a statement. “We can no longer keep taking money for essential services from our [other stations] to cover WBAI’s continued shortfalls. This practice is endangering the entire Foundation.”
But, Freund said, he’s unsure how ending local broadcasting could help the organization financially. “There’s six and a half people on staff,” he joked. “How much money do they save by terminating people?”
“My guess is that it’s simply political,” Freund told the Eagle, further noting there are a “ton of other conspiracy theories” floating around — among them, that Pacifica’s main purpose is to sell the station, and that they’re using the New York station as a scapegoat for monetary woes.
Arthur Schwartz, a producer at WBAI also serving as the station’s attorney, echoed Freund in an interview with Gothamist.
“It’s because they don’t like the content,” he said, referring specifically to a recent promotional piece, in which longtime producer Mimi Rosenberg says the words “Stop Trump.” According to Schwartz, Pacifica executives cautioned station leaders, threatened WBAI’s Federal Communications Commission license and demanded Rosenberg’s show be pre-taped and reviewed for content.
After WBAI station manager Berthold Reimers refused, Schwartz told Gothamist, Pacifica put the station on notice. Then on Tuesday, staff reportedly broke the locks to the studio — which management had changed — to find it trashed, with no wireless signal. According to Patch, Schwartz has threatened to have the non-profit held in contempt of the court if the signal isn’t restored. (He has not responded to the Eagle‘s requests for comment.)
Carolyn McIntyre, the chairperson of WBAI’s board, has since compared the situation to a “9/11 style attack” in a press release.
McIntyre alleges the shutdown came from a “rogue” higher up “who couldn’t get board approval,” but acted anyway.
The closure, she argued, “is happening at a time when the station numbers were improving and the fall fund drive was off to a strong start.”
Freund wondered about the station’s fundraising efforts when speaking with the Eagle. “The big question that I have is, if people send money right now to the radio station — is it going to the people who shut us down?”
The next step, Pacifica has said, will be to “relaunch WBAI” as the Pacifica Across America Network, which will consist of a curated collection of original content produced by stations in the Pacifica Network.
But McIntyre still has hope. “This decision can be reversed,” she said.
“In my dreams, a philanthropist would come in, keep us a listener-sponsored station and move us away from Pacifica,” Freund told the Eagle. “But they would have to jump a lot of hurdles for that to happen, and who knows if such an angel exists.”
The station’s board will meet Wednesday night at its Boerum Hill studio. A press release sent Tuesday by community group The Movement to Protect People included McIntyre’s statement and urged supporters of WBAI to attend.
Pacifica did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.