‘A victory for free speech’: WBAI is back on air
"It's been a bit of a party."
WBAI is back.
One month to the day since operations at the decades-old, listener-supported radio station were suspended by its parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation, 99.5 WBAI FM has regained local control of its airwaves.
Pacifica, which owns a slate of other local radio stations, came under fire on Oct. 7 for abruptly halting WBAI operations, dismantling the station’s Atlantic Avenue studio and replacing its local broadcasting with syndicated content. At the time, the nonprofit organization cited millions of dollars of debt and a new vision for the Brooklyn-based station.
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 upheld a temporary restraining order against the nonprofit, barring Pacifica from impeding on local broadcasting and mandating it continue to pay WBAI staffers until the parties’ next bout in court.
Until Nov. 6, Pacifica had only complied with half of the ruling, keeping WBAI staffers on payroll. But after New York State Supreme Court Judge Melissa Crane ruled in favor of WBAI Wednesday, the Brooklyn-based station finally regained control of its own programming.
“Everybody is excited,” Carolyn McIntyre, chair of WBAI’s Local Station Board, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday. “This is a victory for free speech and it is a victory for all indigenous cultures whose voices found a place and a home at WBAI when they could not find that same home at any other station in New York.”
The board’s vice chair, Michael White, agreed, adding that the station has also reclaimed its website and streaming services.
“It’s been a bit of a party,” he said of the first few sleepless hours back on air. “But at the same time it has been an important time for us to get these explanations out about what had happened because we haven’t been able to do that.”
One of the first programs back on air, White said, was the station’s science fiction talk show, “Hour of the Wolf.” Shortly after the shutdown, the show’s host Jim Freund vowed in an interview with the Eagle that he would dedicate his first show back to fielding questions from listeners about the shutdown.
And that’s exactly what he did, White said. “We have a lot of work to do in dispelling some of the misinformation that’s out there,” he said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Pacifica National Board Chairperson Sabrina Jacobs alleged in an interview with the Eagle that a revival of WBAI without the proper funding could collapse the rest of the network.
McIntyre and White opposed that narrative Thursday, claiming that WBAI — where programs are mostly hosted by volunteers — has roughly 10 paid staffers. “Other stations in the network have about 30 or 40,” McIntyre said.
WBAI’s attorney, Arthur Schwartz, also claimed that Jacobs had been removed from her post as chair via a majority vote by the Pacifica board. After Jacobs denied her removal, Schwartz contended that she and eight other members who boycotted the meeting were citing bylaws about proper meeting notice in order to void the vote.
But Judge Crain’s ruling Wednesday also validated Jacobs’ ousting, according to White. “None of what she’s been saying is true, and now, that’s according to the judge,” he said.
When asked what’s next for WBAI, McIntyre said simply, “to continue to do the good work that we’re doing.”
She and White agreed that the station — which has a new group of board members coming in next month — will also focus on fundraising. “We would like to be in a more stable position going forward,” she said. “We’re not in denial about the need for financial [help]. We recognize those needs but we don’t want to do it in a self-sabotaging, cannibalizing way, which is the way [Pacifica was] going about this.”
McIntyre also hopes that, looking ahead, WBAI and Pacifica can work together to keep all of the network’s stations intact.
“They didn’t work with the station board, or with management, they just came in and shut things down,” she said. “They could have worked with us in a much more collaborative way, to come up with some solution together. Instead, they pitted station against station.”
“The foundation will comply with the court’s order as it considers an appeal of the judge’s decision,” Jacobs told the Eagle Thursday. “Nevertheless, the foundation wishes to point out that neither the judge nor a faction of the Pacifica National Board of Directors has offered a solution to the financial crisis that necessitated the layoffs in New York. We await the written decision of the court before offering any further comment.”
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