Boerum Hill

After court battle, radio station WBAI remains off the air

October 10, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

The fight as 99.5 WBAI FM tries to regain control of the airwaves from their parent nonprofit is at a standstill, and the Brooklyn broadcaster’s local programming is off-air until further notice.

WBAI staffers appeared in Appellate Court on Thursday, hoping for a return to their normal programming after the Pacifica Foundationwhich owns a slate of other independently operated radio stations, abruptly shut down their operations on Monday. The verdict worked out half in their favor: A judge barred Pacifica from terminating any WBAI employees, but allowed them to continue airing syndicated content on the station instead of resuming WBAI’s own programming. That decision stands until Oct. 18, when both parties must return to court.

“At least until the 18th, I have a job,” WBAI engineer Reggie Johnson said on social media shortly after court let out.

The nonprofit shuttered the radio station’s Atlantic Avenue workspace on Monday night, citing millions of dollars of debt. By Tuesday morning, the staff, which consists largely of unpaid volunteers, was granted a temporary restraining order by the Manhattan Supreme Court, prohibiting Pacifica from impeding on its local programming in any way until the next court date. 

But days later, local programming is still being kept off the air.

“Local programming will not resume until at least the next court hearing,” Arthur Schwartz, the station’s attorney, told the Brooklyn Eagle after the hearing.

Johnson, who hosts two shows on the station, has been live-streaming updates for WBAI staff and supporters. “As of right now, WBAI does not have control of the transmitter because WBAI is under the Pacifica Foundation and they do have control of the license. That is the bottom line,” he said.

The Thursday hearing came after staff showed up at their Boerum Hill studio Tuesday morning with the intent of picking up programming as usual, only to find the locks changed. They broke in to find the studio trashed, with no wireless signal. Schwartz on Tuesday charged that Pacifica was acting in contempt of the law.

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“Pacifica is still in control of our bank accounts, email accounts and a large piece of equipment that is critical, legally to WBAI’s broadcasting,” Jim Freund, host of the science fiction-fantasy show “Hour of the Wolf,” told the Eagle Wednesday.

Both Freund and Schwartz — who also hosts a show on the station — have speculated that the move is political.

“It’s because they don’t like the content,” Schwartz told Gothamist Tuesday, 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 pretaped and reviewed for content.

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’s board passed a resolution Wednesday night denouncing the station takeover, which has since been shared on Twitter, since the local broadcast does not have access to its website.

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