Sharp staff cuts at Pacifica’s WBAI aim to save station

D.C.'s WPFW also faces 'critical' funding crunch

By Ben Mook and Mike Janssen

Pacifica has laid off the entire news department of WBAI-FM and almost all paid staff effective Monday in an effort to keep the cash-strapped New York outlet solvent.

Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer Reese made the announcement on WBAI’s air Friday afternoon. Reese told listeners that she had arrived at the station by cab directly from negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents WBAI staff.

Reese

Reese

“We have not been able to fully recover  . . .  from many years of financial stress at this radio station,” Reese said. “And it’s with great sadness that I have to tell the WBAI listening audience here in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut that many of the voices that you have been listening to for many years will no longer be on the air as of next week.”

Nineteen of 29 jobs will be eliminated, including almost all on-air talent. Reese entered negotiations with SAG-AFTRA seeking a 75 percent reduction; the union had hoped to avert layoffs entirely.

“We are only retaining staff that is critically necessary to operational functions at the station,” she said. She told listeners that shows dropped from the lineup will not air again.

Replacement programs from other Pacifica stations and content that had already been acquired will fill WBAI’s broadcast days for the short term, she said.

During the two-hour broadcast, Reese said she is “100 percent” committed to keeping WBAI on the air and a Pacifica station.

WBAI has been running at a loss for the past decade, and mounting fees that include $50,000 in monthly rent for the station’s transmitter prompted the reduction, Reese said. Layoffs became unavoidable because the station can no longer afford its current payroll.

To pay employees for this week, Reese borrowed money from another Pacifica station;  if the station is to meet next week’s payroll, it will deplete WBAI’s emergency transmitter rent fund.

The layoffs won’t be enough to end WBAI’s financial woes, Reese said, and the Pacifica network as a whole is suffering from financial difficulties. As of Aug. 12, four of the network’s seven units lacked payroll funds for the following week, and Reese was looking for $100,000. The network faces litigation losses and other debts, including $2 million in back fees owed to producers of the show Democracy Now!

Andrew Phillips, head of programming at Pacifica’s KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Calif., was named interim p.d. at WBAI Wednesday. The station desperately needs to grow its audience to exit the “death spiral” of continual fund drives, Phillips said, and should bring in new programs.

“If our programming was so great, we’d be getting more money,” Phillips said.

Reese believes WBAI can pull through the crisis and rebuild its service, she said. “We’re going to get through this and continue to have a great station,” she said.

During a July 25 Pacifica board conference call, Reese warned of a coming shortfall at the network’s station in Washington, D.C., describing WPFW as in “a pretty critical financial situation.” Responding to a board member’s question about a WPFW on-air fund drive planned for September, she said: “The concern there is, frankly, that you don’t have enough money to get through until September.”

Like WBAI, WPFW has also fallen into a “perpetual” state of on-air fund drives, Reese said. “It’s not giving listeners much of a break.”

Neither the D.C. station nor WBAI have paid for board election costs from last year, she said. Reese still expects the other Pacifica stations, which are better off financially, to repay the national office for election costs it covered on behalf of stations.

In Los Angeles, Pacifica’s KPFK could face legal action from a company it used for its local elections, said Brenda Medina, a national board member representing the station. The company is awaiting overdue payments.

This article was first published in Current, Aug. 12, 2013, and updates an earlier item.
  • pinetree51

    I still believe that WNYC might very well trade 105.9 + cash to Pacifica
    to put WQXR back on a full signal (99.5). WBAI would stay on the
    Empire on 105.9, albeit with a reduced signal in the burbs, but just
    fine in the city. WNYC might even throw in that WQXW 90.3 deal for
    Westchester coverage and/or give WBAI the WQXR/99.5 HD-2 signal as an
    incentive.

    Either that, or Pacifica could arrange a deal to swap their 99.5 FM frequency with a powerful NYC AM (1130, 1560, 1010, etc) plus cash, since the FM is worth more than the AMs and some of those AM stations might jump to move to FM. Most of Pacifica is talk anyway, and these big AMs cover many states at night.

    • Bill Tutuki

      How about getting an LPFM for WBAI can that work? Also isn’t Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now having surpluses in their donor sites??

      • Aaron Read

        Besides the fact that an LPFM would have a signal orders of magnitude smaller than their existing 99.5 signal (or even the 105.9 signal), I am fairly confident there is no room for an LPFM station anywhere near the NYC metro market.

        FWIW, swapping 99.5 for 105.9 would be great for WNYC but terrible for WBAI/Pacifica. The problems with Pacifica are deep-seated, endemic, and thoroughly self-inflicted thanks to nearly two decades of denial about the changing media landscape. A massive change of policy, and almost certainly of personnel, is absolutely required at this point, and all switching to 105.9 would do is allow people to “kick the can down the road”.

        The bottom line is that the programming on WBAI is not good. If it were better, it would attract an audience, and that audience would support it financially. This is not rocket science; public radio…and not just NPR affiliates…has been doing this quite well for over 25 years.

        It is astounding the level of denial entrenched here. Despite having a full Class B FM signal in the nations largest media market, WBAI’s cume (under 30,000 last I heard) is smaller than if their hosts set up a PA speaker in Times Square and just shouted at people. That’s ridiculous.

        And the sad thing is that it’s not like WBAI couldn’t provide alternative programming that could be engaging and powerful. The stories are certainly out there. But as a old coworker of mine once said, just because it’s indie doesn’t mean it has to sound like crap.

        • Bill Tutuki

          How is it that some of their shows such as Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now manage to have more money than Some of the Pacifica O&O’s. I find this interesting.

          • Aaron Read

            That’s because neither FSRN nor DN are part of Pacifica.

            FSRN used to be the Pacifica Network News, until a 26-month long strike in 2000. The striking workers created FSRN to be an independent show and continued to do so after the strike ended.

            DN went independent as “Democracy Now! in Exile” right around September 11th, IIRC, in response to a supposed “coup” of WBAI’s management by the national Pacifica management. The show’s been independent ever since.

            Both shows are closely tied to Pacifica through their branding and due to their histories. And both receive major financial support from Pacifica. Or at the moment, perhaps it should be said that they are contractually owed a lot of financial support that isn’t being paid.

            But legally they are independent of Pacifica proper or of any of the five Pacifica-owned stations.

          • Bill Tutuki

            So DN and FSRN is operated in the same way that PRI (Radio) handles shows like “To the Point” KCRW productions, The World (WGBH inc) and NPR’s Here and Now is Owned by WBUR inc. Or all the PBS shows are not owned by PBS but by the Affiliates of PBS.

          • Aaron Read

            Yeah, at least in principle. I don’t know the actual contractual details, but AFAIK the relationship between DN and Pacifica is just a program provider that is selling content to one of many broadcast outlets. I *think* FSRN is the same but I’m not quite as sure.

          • Bill Tutuki

            I saw the front page for FSRN and it says “Major Funding for Free Speech Radio news come from Pacifica radio and your Radio affiliate”

            http://fsrn.org/

            So it is like PBS NewsHour saying “Major Funding for the PBS Newshour comes from Sponsor’s XYZ and Your PBS station from Viewers like you”

          • Bill Tutuki

            If I’m not mistaken Democracy Now money tends to come from NPR News Talk Station that currently does not have the budget to provide a local talk show such as KQED Forum. and from free speech TV not from Pacifica O&O’s.

    • ChasInNJ

      New York Public Radio just spent $400,000 to add that Westchester County relay for WQXR. Does NYPR have the money to get 99.5 in a frequency swap? Pacifica thought about a frequency swap last year but that went nowhere.

      AM radio is dying a slow death. plus the cost to maintain a transmitter site would quickly use up any money Pacifica would get.

    • suqdisdisqus

      Like I said…….. Probably the best business decision you’ve made in a looooooong time

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