Brooklyn Boro

‘We need WBAI’: Station’s supporters vow to keep fighting for local programming

October 15, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

Staff and supporters of 99.5 WBAI FM — the decades-old, listener-supported radio station recently barred from broadcasting local programming by its parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation — took to the steps of City Hall Tuesday to denounce what they have deemed “a rouge takeover.”

Hours later, a judge barred Pacifica from impeding on local broadcasting — for the second time — until its next court date.

Pacifica, which owns a slate of other independently operated radio stations, abruptly stopped WBAI operations on Oct. 7, citing millions of dollars of debt. The sudden shutdown prompted back-and-forths in court, as advocates claimed that Pacifica violated its own bylaws by not first bringing the decision to its board for a vote.

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The parent company has since kept local programming off the air, replacing it with syndicated content.

Following the rally, the station’s attorney Arthur Schwartz told the Brooklyn Eagle that a judge had reactivated the temporary restraining order that had been issued the day after the shutdown, which Pacifica had previously ignored. The order was partially reversed a few days later. The reactivation prohibits Pacifica from keeping local broadcasting off-air, at least until Oct. 21, when the two parties will meet again in court.

Philanthropist and former owner Louis Schweitzer entrusted the station to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960, longtime producer Mimi Rosenberg told the crowd outside of City Hall.

Rosenberg, who some have speculated influenced the shutdown with an anti-Trump segment, went on to condemn John Vernile, the interim executive director of Pacifica, who, she alleged, was brought on board by the foundation to steal and sell the station.


“[Vernile] fired the entire staff — the paid, unionized staff, in complete disdain for the union contract — and the unpaid staff — the voices of the very community and issues that Lou Schweitzer championed,” she said. She accused the executive of turning WBAI into “a repeater station that receives canned information.”

Dozens of WBAI supporters at the rally credited the station for giving people from all backgrounds a platform to report, the families of those incarcerated the chance to speak out, and new political groups the space to emerge — all without fear of censorship.

“Connect the dots. There’s a movement to destroy independent communication across this entire country, and this has become ground zero,” said Borough President Eric Adams who, alongside Councilmember Laurie Cumbo and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, vowed to support the station. “This station must survive.”

Johanna Fernandez, a history professor at Baruch College, stressed that if there has ever been a crucial time for WBAI to remain on air, that time is now.

“We are in a crisis of epic proportion in the world,” she said. “This is really the moment for WBAI to exist. We need WBAI more than any other moment.”

Both parties will appear in federal court next week, Schwartz said. In the meantime, a meeting has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night at 320 West 37th St. in Manhattan where, supporters say, they hope to “broaden the fight for full restoration of local control.”

Pacifica did not respond to a request for comment.


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