The crisis at WBAI
On Monday, WBAI-FM interim program director Bob Hennelly met two twenty-somethings who wanted to intern at his community radio station. It was the same day he expected to be fired.
“Talk about going two directions at the same time,” said Hennelly, who reported for New York NPR affiliate WNYC for a decade before beginning at WBAI in December. It was a homecoming for Hennelly, 58, who learned the broadcasting trade at WBAI when he couldn’t afford graduate school. But the warm fuzzies quickly wore off.
It’s no secret that WBAI — the wholly listener-supported, left-leaning station at 99.5 FM — and its owner, the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, have long been strapped for cash. As WBAI's debt spiraled up, its membership dwindled down. Last August, WBAI laid off 19 of its 29 employees just to cover basic operating costs like the rent for its transmitter, The New York Times reported.
With a new league of unpaid volunteer producers, Hennelly has embraced a two-pronged strategy: Raise donations from the audience while retooling the programs they listen to.
But he's running out of time to implement it. On Sunday, Hennelly emailed station supporters to tell them he had “just a couple of days to turn this around given the existing circumstances at Pacifica and WBAI.” If not, he said, Pacifica would sell the license for the station or lease its airwaves. Funds from the pledge drive that began on Feb. 3 weren’t meeting the nonprofit’s expectations, trickling in at a rate that would not amount to $500,000 by the end of the month, and he feared he would be booted next: “So far I am scheduled to broadcast tomorrow but that could change.”
As of this morning, Hennelly was still safe, asking for listeners’ support and fielding calls on the morning show, “Haskins and Hennelly Drive Time for the 99 Percent.”
One caller described WBAI as "a lifeline. It's like being plugged into blood when you're bleeding to death."
Hennelly has put his hope for the station's salvation in the phone lines, which opened last week for the first time since August. They’re the only resource WBAI can offer its pledge-making listeners, now that it isn’t distributing “Green Stuff” and other products that alt-medicine expert Gary Null once pitched on the airwaves every day at noon.
Upon learning that the station had fallen far behind in delivering premiums from October’s drive because it couldn’t afford to pay for them, Hennelly pulled Null’s controversial show from the air to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from charging WBAI with fraud.
“When I say the programming is the premium, that’s because that’s what I got,” Hennelly elaborated. “I got no tschotskes.”
What he has instead: five new hours of programming in the weekday 3 to 5 p.m. “drive-time” slot. The original call-in shows showcase local volunteer producers like Howard Johnson, an attorney, professor and activist who addresses issues facing the New York Latino community on Friday afternoons. Hennelly expects his hosts, he said, to “open the mike and talk to any sentient being in the signal area, in respectful conversation.”
Hennelly has also appealed to labor unions for donations. (In a characteristically democratic move, he consulted listeners to his show before doing so.) He has pleaded the station’s case in labor halls and emails, winning sums like $1000 from the Uniformed Fire Officers Association to put toward WBAI’s $2.5 million annual operating budget.
“Typically, we are stingy fucks,” UFOA president Al Hagan said, but “we think [WBAI] is a great venue to hear non-corporate thoughts and who really knows what the truth is? But if you’re only getting one side, you’re certainly not getting the truth.”
Union support amounts to a “partial solution,” said former interim program director Andrew Phillips, who left the station in October. He thought his successor made a mistake taking what Phillips calls “Pacifica’s best public affairs programming from the West Coast” off the airwaves, and dashing WBAI’s chance of steadily building on its small audience —134,600 listeners in an average week, according to Nielsen ratings data from mid-November to early December in 2013. If Phillips were back in the director’s seat, he would broadcast the exact shows that Hennelly referred to as underperforming “placeholders.” Shows, in Phillip's perspective, with national content and successful financial track records.
Pacifica owns five non-commercial, listener-supported radio stations across the country, including KPFA in Berkeley, for which Phillips worked as the interim general manager before coming to New York.
It would take months, but programs like Mitch Jeserich’s “Letters and Politics” could compel some of WNYC’s 100,000 subscribers to join WBAI’s meager ranks of 14,000, Phillips suggested.
“Putting community voices in drive-time is just not going to cut it,” he said.
Nor will the “checkerboard programming” of very different niche programs, said John Dinges, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and a former managing editor at NPR News. “That’s a formula for driving away most of your listeners, because the people at 9 o’clock are not going to be interested in what comes on at 10 o’clock.”
In other words: Airing Tiokasin Ghosthouse’s “First Voice Indigenous Radio” at 9 a.m. might not be the way to hold on to listeners who tune into WBAI’s most popular program, Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” at 8 a.m.
Flouting Pacifica’s heritage and its mandate to eschew commercial sponsorships, Hennelly has also been flirting with the idea of seeking underwriting from a municipal credit union. At WBAI, it’s “a heresy to talk about underwriting, because in the magical thinking that has been around here, they assume they can do this enterprise entirely with listener dollars,” Hennelly said.
Vince Gardino, the executive director of corporate underwriting at WNYC, said that underwriting is a reality at nearly every public radio station.
“It’s just another revenue stream,” in addition to membership dollars, foundation gifts and grants, Gardino said.
In any case, Hennelly would have to get permission from Pacifica’s national board to put his sponsorship plans into action.
“Right now, there’s a tremendous amount of energy focused on the internal battles within Pacifica, and so it spends most of its energy on internal deliberations,” Hennelly said.
Pacifica executive director Summer Reese did not return calls for comment on this story.
When Dinges sizes up Pacifica, he sees its "tremendous" potential: a history of leading the freeform radio movement in the 1960s and defending free speech in the ‘70s; signals across the U.S., at the five stations and at least one hundred affiliates; and a unique progressive voice in an era when conservative programs are taking up most of the bandwidth.
The key to WBAI’s success, Dinges said, is “to provide enough financial support in the short term so they can start growing their listenership again, and then pay their programmers, so they can start doing journalism again, and start building a reputation for professional programming.”
Hennelly has a decidedly more idealistic view of his station’s shaky present and uncertain future. He’s proud that WBAI is training so many young producers and he considers the real stars of its shows not the hosts, but “the people themselves, the listeners.”