An immediate WBAI return could mean a collapse of national network, says org
Backers of the decades-old, listener-supported radio station 99.5 WBAI FM are due in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday, where a judge will decide whether or not to uphold a temporary restraining order against its parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation. The decision could restore local control of the airwaves.
But if WBAI were to return to the airwaves before finding funding, it could mean the end for Pacifica’s four other radio stations, Pacifica National Board Chairperson Sabrina Jacobs told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“If we restore WBAI then the foundation would fold,” Jacobs said Tuesday.
Pacifica came under fire in early October for abruptly halting WBAI operations and replacing the station’s local broadcasting with syndicated content. At the time, the non-profit organization cited millions of dollars of debt and a new vision for WBAI.
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. On Oct. 15, just hours after WBAI supporters protested Pacifica’s “rogue” actions on the steps of City Hall, a judge barred the non-profit from impeding on local broadcasting and mandated it continue to pay WBAI staffers until the next hearing.
The parent company has only complied with half of the ruling, continuing to pay staffers. But Jacobs, whose office is based in California, told the Eagle that Pacifica’s affiliates on the East Coast have merely been “finger-pointing.”
“In Brooklyn, we’re dealing with a misinformation campaign built on emotion,” she said. “There is all this talk of a ‘rogue takeover,’ when they are the ones who have employed the operatives to push the narrative of a takeover.”
While Jacobs stressed that “there is no money to keep WBAI open at this time,” she claims there is a plan to relaunch the station’s local programming.
“The bottom line is that we don’t have the money, so we need to find that first,” she said, contending that Pacifica is in the process of siphoning funds from other stations and soliciting monetary support from WBAI proponents. Pacifica’s other stations are in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Houston.
“We’re presently seeking grants, donations and other emergency funding, if you will, from the good people of New York City who love WBAI and who grew up on WBAI. We have faith that they will come through for the organization, but first thing’s first, we’re focusing on correcting the narrative.”
Meanwhile, an online petition created by the station’s local management urging Pacifica to restore its programming is closing in on its goal of 500 signatures. The petition claims that, when the seizure began on Oct. 7, Interim Executive Director of Pacifica John Vernile ordered WBAI staff out, seized their Atlantic Avenue studio and dismantled it.
“Equipment and files were removed. Historic photos were taken down and WBAI’s frequency at 99.5 FM in New York was hijacked,” the petition reads, further noting that the station’s website and archives — “which contained historical recordings made over WBAI’S 60 years” — as well as staff email and bank accounts “were all taken over.”
Since then, WBAI has garnered support from listeners and elected officials across the city.
“Connect the dots. There’s a movement to destroy independent communication across this entire country, and this has become ground zero,” Borough President Eric Adams said at the October rally. “This station must survive.”
WBAI’s attorney, Arthur Schwartz, said Tuesday that, while backers of the beloved Brooklyn station aren’t backing down, they may be willing to negotiate.
“We have two preconditions,” the attorney, who also has his own program on WBAI, told the Eagle. “The first is that WBAI be restored to the air immediately. The second is that John Vernile, who the board has fired, but who maintains control, not be involved.” Shwartz also said Jacobs was removed as chair by a majority vote of the Pacifica board.
Jacobs denied all of Schwartz’s claims, including that she had been removed as chair.
“Everything he is saying is, for lack of a better word, a lie,” she said. “We are pushing for mediation. They are pushing for litigation. They are the ones pushing the foundation into further financial turmoil.”
Still, station supporters stand by her removal.
“At the last meeting of the board — which only 12 board members attended, nine boycotted, including [Jacobs] — they voted her out as chair,” Schwartz told the Eagle. “[Those who boycotted] are saying there wasn’t appropriate notice of the meeting.”
According to Pacifica’s bylaws there must be eight days notice of a board meeting, Schwartz said. In this case, he noted, there were seven. “But, if they’re going to go by those bylaws, then there’s never been an ‘official’ board meeting. There’s rarely ever that much notice,” the attorney contended.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, both sides seemed confident.
“You never know which way a judge is going to lean,” Schwartz told the Eagle, “but I think that the previous judges wouldn’t have allowed WBAI staff to remain on payroll if we weren’t in good shape.”
“We have the facts on our side,” said Jacobs, “and we’re certain those facts are going to come to light.”
WBAI was entrusted to the Pacifica Foundation by philanthropist and former owner Louis Schweitzer in 1960. Made up largely of volunteers, the notably progressive station is often regarded for giving Brooklynites a hands-on opportunity to produce.
Its lineup has long-included a mix of political news, talk shows and opinion, as well as music programming and more eclectic productions like Jim Freund’s science fiction and fantasy talk show “Hour of the Wolf.”
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