Unplugged microphones and empty chairs are what’s left at WBAI-FM’s radio studios in Brooklyn after the sudden closure of the station this week.
“They sent me an email—they did not have the decency to look me in the face and tell me,” railed General Manager Berthold Reimers. “It raises a lot of questions.”
The New York-based, listener-supported progressive radio station shut down Monday, according to a letter from the station’s owner, the Pacifica Foundation. The letter was initially posted on Twitter by WBAI host Jeff Simmons.
“Due to ongoing and continued projections to further financial loses at WBAI-FM, local operations are being discontinued as of October 7, 2019,” Pacifica said in the letter. “We realize this news will come as a deep and painful shock, but we can no longer jeopardize the survival of the entire network.”
Host Wuyi Jacobs posted a photo of a sign at the station on Facebook that said, “Due to exigent, financial circumstances, the WBAI-FM workstation is closed effective 8:30 a.m., Monday, 10/7/2019.” All doors were locked, and even the access elevator in next door Commons cafe was locked.
It’s a full-out, all hands on deck situation at the broken studios of WBAI.
On Monday when all personnel linked to the Cobble Hill-located progressive radio station were unceremoniously fired by email, news hit the streets quickly, and a call to organize against the Pacifica action was immediate.
The Amsterdam News was the first to report the calamity, as calls were placed immediately to a number of WBAI hosts and associates.
Michael G. Haskins was on air when he was “forcibly” removed from air.
“While we do have a restraining order, Pacifica representatives yesterday destroyed, dismantled and otherwise rendered unusable broadcast equipment,” said veteran host Sally O’Brien on Tuesday. “They closed the bank account, put the payroll on hold, etc.”
According to another host at the station, WBAI informed all staff, management, hosts and producers on Monday that the station had been taken over by Pacifica National.
“Everybody’s been knocked out and lost their positions,” the host said.
This week, Judge Frank P. Nervo of the Supreme Court of the State of New York granted a restraining order to WBAI stopping Pacifica from terminating employees, preventing WBAI from broadcasting its regularly scheduled programming and interfering in the orderly administration of the business and affairs of the station. A court date is set for Oct. 18.
The injunction stay puts the station legally in the hands of station personnel. Management made the announcement on Twitter on Tuesday. Photos of a meeting organized by station personnel were posted on social media. Pacifica had seized control of WBAI’s signal and programming from the organization’s headquarters in California.
Pacifica Radio KPFA host and Pacifica National Board Vice Chair Sabrina Jacobs says the station is $4 million in debt, according to reports.
“It’s against the law to have a paid employee working when you’re not able to pay them. And that’s what we were trying to do,” Jacobs said in one interview. “We were trying to avoid breaking the law because we don’t have the money to pay those employees.”
“If they were really worried about money, they could have least waited until we finished our fund drive,” asserted Reimers. “The fact that they didn’t means that this isn’t about money. They have blocked every means of money coming into bank account. Pacifica National have deliberately done everything to cripple WBAI.”
WBAI-FM first hit the airwaves in 1960 when it was purchased by philanthropist Louis Schweitzer, who donated it to the Pacifica Foundation. The station was known for its counterculture programing that drove the decade.
Through the years the station has moved to several locations in the city, including 505 Eighth Avenue and 120 Wall Street in Manhattan. In 2012, as a result of damage from Hurricane Sandy, operations moved to Harlem at City College at WHCR-FM’s studio. In 2015, WBAI moved to 388 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
The station, which broadcasts commercial-free, has had controversies over the years. In 2011, locks at WBAI’s transmitter were changed because of “complaints about programming that may be threatening the financial and legal health of the Pacifica Foundation.”
In 2013, when the station moved to Harlem, a petition from WBAI employees cited eight demands, including an end to the practice of non-payment or delays in issuing paychecks. Pacifica planned to lay off 20 staffers at the time.
In 2017, Empire State Realty Trust sued WBAI over unpaid tower lease fees of $53,000 per month totaling $2 million.
Reimers said Pacifica Park Avenue lawyers not withstanding, “Right now it is just a matter of getting the station up and running. People are optimistic. We definitely will be back on air. Somewhere in some venue people will be broadcasting their programs.”
He continued, “WBAI has been such a fixture in the history of New York City that the abrupt decision to sever local programming was completely astounding.”
Jeff Simmons stated, “The staff, producers and hosts, many of them volunteers, have been extremely committed to making WBAI a distinct and exceptional station. I’m hopeful that the court action will allow the station to continue to provide some of the most progressive and insightful programming to continue.”
The ousted staffers contend that while half the national board were aware, the others were not, but the action had been planned for some time.
In a note addressed to WBAI producers and staff, Reimers announced early Monday, “The interim Executive Director terminates all of WBAI’s employee as of this morning. They cited financial problems. As of now WBAI is controlled by Mr. Vernile and the National Office. There is a show on the air now that I do not recognize. This means your shows are no longer on WBAI per this action by Mr. Vernile.”
The Amsterdam News obtained “a confidential memo” of the people “who came in closed and locked the station ordering everyone out…it was they who dismantled and removed [equipment].”
The memo names John Vernile, interim executive director of Pacifica; Bill Crosier, member and secretary of Pacifica National Board; Adrienne Laviolette, NSB member KPFT; and Moe Thomas, chief engineer of WPFW and Pacifica’s recently appointed chief engineer for the Eastern division.
Ousted WBAI staffers said that actions against them included the termination of WBAI employees and removing the Emergency Alert System required by FCC regulations. Penalties for broadcasting without it could incur thousands in fines daily for Pacifica. This is an action to take over WBAI’s access to its transmitter at 4 Times Square. Other actions against them included removing Station Manager Reimers’ files, as well as WBAI’s corporate checks and listener mail; removing the local donation site which prevents listeners from making donations; and preventing WBAI from broadcasting its regularly scheduled local programming and running a feeder station instead, calling it “Pacifica Across America.” The AmNews reached out to Sabrina Jacobs for comment on the allegations and the plans moving forward. While there was no response by press time, on Monday she called the paper to assure that the measures taken were“necessary but temporary,” and that the station which had been “financially draining” would return “revamped” with some of the old shows and hosts, and some new ones.
The Amsterdam News obtained a memo purportedly from Interim Executive Director John Vernile, and it reads in part:
“Immediate action must be taken to address a dire financial crisis that seriously threatens the viability of the Pacifica Foundation. As a result of the ongoing financial shortfalls and poor payroll planning at WBAI, the Foundation lacks the financial reserves to pay: (all of our) or (national and PRA) staff salaries, health care, needed legal and engineering services, required insurance for our loan and legally required audit 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. The Pacifica handbook is clear that when payroll cannot be made that layoffs must be made immediately…
“Pacifica will undertake the task of rebuilding WBAI, advancing the service at the other four Pacifica stations, strengthening our services to affiliates, redirecting badly needed resources to the Archives and completing a long overdue list of organizational projects that all directly impact Pacifica’s viability.”
O’Brien and Reimers are among the WBAI faithful who dispute Vernile’s charge that “WBAI studio rent is currently behind by two months…WBAI is currently subjecting its listeners to over 140 days of on-air fundraising, rarely reaching its modest goals, despite being in the largest metro area in the U.S.”
Arthur Schwartz, who is also a producer member of the Pacifica Foundation and WBAI and an attorney, petitioned the court, “At around 6 a.m. on the morning of October 7, 2019, the Pacifica Foundation, which is the parent organization of radio station WBAI, without notice or warning, or approval of either its National Board of Directors or the Local Station Board of Directors, fired all of WBAI’s employees, including its General Manager, Berthold Reimers, took over WBAI’s broadcasting antenna, took over its website, dismantled all of its computers and broadcasting equipment, removed the Emergency Alert System from its office (a device required to be operating if a station is going to broadcast), eliminated the WBAI General Manager’s ability to access the WBAI bank accounts, and disconnected the WBAI credit card processing accounts. WBAI’s programming was totally off the air and Respondent substituted programs from another Pacifica Station in California.” This is an emergency, Schwartz stated, “since the right of free expression is involved.”
Reimers went further: “They are doing a Donald thing like going against a subpoena. We got a temporary restraining order to give us access to our bank accounts, our website and back on air as of 10 a.m. on Monday. What they are doing is illegal.
“I think they want to sell WBAI to revive the network. It’s all about political nonsense.”