WBAI, the cash-strapped New York City flagship for the Pacifica Foundation, has abruptly shut down. Positioned as “Free Speech Radio,” the progressive listener-supported station has been a New York FM radio staple for decades. But years of financial strife have taken their toll and WBAI let its local staff go Monday morning and plugged in a network feed.
Pacifica cited “ongoing and continued projections of further financial loses” for shuttering the historic station. In a statement, the California-based nonprofit said, “We realize this news will come as a deep and painful shock but we can no longer jeopardize the survival of the entire network.”
The organization said it plans to relaunch WBAI “once we are able to create a sustainable financial structure for the station.” Until then listeners are hearing a network feed called Pacifica Across America.
Citing a memo from Interim Executive Director John Vernile, Black Star News says the station is two months behind in payroll and rent and couldn’t make employee health insurance payments or keep up with payments to Pacifica Central services.
"Paramount, we have a legal obligation to have the resources available to pay our staff. Our financial condition makes it clear that it will be impossible to sustain this legal obligation without immediate action,” Vernile said in the memo. “The Pacifica handbook is clear that when payroll cannot be made that layoffs must be made immediately," the memo adds. “Our reserves are virtually exhausted.”
It’s unclear what Pacifica’s long-term plans are for the station and its 10,000-watt Class B signal. Some staffers believe Pacifica will sell the station’s license, while others say that’s not an option.
Mimi Rosenberg, the activist and producer at WBAI, wrote in an e-mail message to her colleagues that Pacifica is considering a “bankruptcy, swap, sale or the like” to support the “otherwise flagging resources of the Pacifica stations.”
Recent local shows heard on WBAI included “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, says the New York Post, along with regular broadcasts by Leonard Lopate, who got a second chance at WBAI after he was fired from WNYC over allegations of inappropriate behavior with staffers.
Last year, a not-for-profit lender threw the station a financial lifeline to release the non-commercial radio operator from a $1.8 million judgement for back rent, tower fees and related costs due to Empire State Realty Trust. In October 2017, a judge ruled against the company and awarded ESRT a summary judgement of $1.8 million plus attorney’s fees. ESRT sued Pacifica in February 2016 to recover back rent and tower fees, interest and attorney costs. In the years-long dispute, Pacifica accused ESRT of price gouging and “holding the network hostage” with a contract that required WBAI to pay tower rent that increased about 9% per year.
A voice for the counter culture in the 1960s and 1970s, WBAI made headlines in 1978 with a Supreme Court ruling that said the FCC had the power to reprimand the station for airing George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine, which helped pave the way for the Commission’s current indecency standard.