To a certain type of lefty, WBAI represents many of the virtues of American progressivism. But recent reports paint an increasingly gloomy picture of an embattled radio station that's having trouble surviving — and staying relevant — in the 21st century.
Since the 1960s, WBAI (99.5 FM) has been a mainstay of American culture, having hosted the likes of Bob Dylan in 1966, Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" in 1966 and, perhaps most famously, comedian George Carlin, whose "seven dirty words" segment became the subject of a famous 1978 Supreme Court ruling on indecency. Today, the network — which is owned by the Pacifica Foundation — plays host to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!," its most popular show.
But the station does not seem to have adapted to the times or attracted the kind of savvy, young, well-heeled base that can help it sustain operations. Earlier this month, WBAI announced major personnel cuts in its news department, "laying off virtually everyone whose voice you recognize on the air," according to a statement by station executives that was quoted in The Village Voice. The New York Times reported at the time that 19 of the station's 29 employees were laid off, in a move that is supposed to save the station some $900,000 per year.
That same week, The New York Observer ran a feature titled "The Excruciating Demise of WBAI," which painted a grim portrait of the embattled station, as painted by liberal journalist Doug Henwood:
WBAI, one of five stations in the national Pacifica network, has been failing for years. Some of its problems are the familiar ones of “legacy” media, to use that annoying but fashionable term. But most of its problems were home grown. The programming was mostly unlistenable. Hosts who couldn’t talk very well yammered on about material they didn’t understand. Interviewers knew nothing about their interviewees. Health nuts flogged miracle cures and conspiracists spun elaborate theories. I recall turning on the morning drive time show and listening for 20 minutes to someone the host never identified—and, in all that time, I never got an idea of what the interview was supposed to be about
Today's Times brings further news of the once-august station's protracted demise, with a lengthy report on its financial troubles, with Pacifica having accumulated "more than $3 million in net losses" since 2004 and the station only boasting 14,000 members. Not only that, but it owes $2 million to Goodman for her popular program. This all adds up to a perfect storm of penury:
Berthold Reimers, WBAI’s general manager, reported that the station had $23,000 on hand and was scouring Craigslist and other sites to furnish new, cheaper studios in Brooklyn. An Ikea chair was bought for $40, he said. “That’s the cheapest we could possibly get.”
Should WBAI actually end programming, it would be a sad ending indeed — and yet another sign that liberal radio simply has a harder time getting traction than its conservative counterpart. And the right has been unsurprisingly gleeful as WBAI takes what may be its last breaths:
It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of WBAI. http://t.co/VIhYUHKThE— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 21, 2013
When progressive radio station Air America went off air in 2010, Markos Moulitsas of the liberal Daily Kos blog bitingly wondered, “Air America was still really on the air?” The same question may soon be asked of WBAI.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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