The Pacifica Foundation will lay off 75 percent of the staff at WBAI, its station in New York, in an effort to put the foundering station on steady financial footing.
Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer Reese is travelling to New York this week to begin negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists chapter representing WBAI employees. The talks will determine which employees in particular will be let go. If carried out as planned, the job cuts will reduce WBAI’s full-time workforce from 28 staff to seven.
In recent months the station has struggled with cash flow, falling behind on payments to its employees and for rent on its antenna. Its difficulties in meeting payroll go back years, according to Reese. Pacifica’s national office no longer has funds to cover the station’s shortfalls, she said.
“We have stripped every resource available [at the national office] rather than deal with the situation,” Reese said.
The cuts to WBAI’s staff are expected to save $900,000 a year. WBAI’s payroll and benefits expenses total more than $1 million annually, accounting for half of the station’s total expenses. Pacifica may reduce salaries of the station’s management as well.
The job reductions were triggered by a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor over WBAI’s inability to pay its workers. A department representative contacted Pacifica’s national office, prompting Reese and board members to create a working group to develop a restructuring plan for the station.
If Pacifica lays off any paid hosts or producers, it may have to determine how to fill airtime left vacant by the departures. “We have to evaluate all the programming,” Reese said. “We wouldn’t be in this state if the programming were reaching a wider audience.”
WBAI boasts historical significance and iconic name recognition — its hosts in the ’60s pioneered a new style of freeform radio, with countercultural icons such as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg featured as guests. The station also fought the FCC in the famous “seven dirty words” indecency case.
But today the station draws only a small audience despite a signal that blankets the city. “There are large communities of interest in New York that we’re not reaching and not resonating with,” Reese says. “We can reach those populations. We need to reinvent WBAI and put it out there in a new way.”
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