Tuesday, April 24, 2007

WBAI 'FREE SPEECH RADIO' IN CRISIS


By Eric K. Williams


WBAI, FM 99.5, is a radio outlet in crisis, and has been over the past 20-plus years. What is different now is that the stakes are higher than at any point in the 40-plus year run of the New York Pacifica station. Known as ‘Free Speech radio,’ the crisis this time around could very well mean New Yorkers may lose a valuable and independent voice. The continuing story of WBAI surfaces occasionally in the popular press but, it is largely under-reported and also, largely over-looked by those who write about the media locally. WBAI has been called “the land of a thousand dramas,” both by noted radio critics and those on the local broadcasting scene. It is seen as a battle-ground of opposing views and ideologies that often spill out over-the-air and, has even led to public clashes. For some it sounds like a watered-down version of the old short wave Radio Moscow, whose hosts engage in deadly-boring political discourse, play ancient music, but who occasionally ‘break’ a major news story other stations are afraid to touch. It is also viewed as the station promoting further Balkanization of the Metro scene and viewed as, the so-called ‘sick man’ of the New York broadcast outlets.

What has been a constant at WBAI is the freedom afforded to music and public affairs program hosts, as well as those reporters and producers inside the News Department. With that freedom during the times of Vietnam and Watergate, membership subscriptions and listener donations skyrocketed. Some would say even peaked. But since then, donations and audience numbers have fluctuated but, have largely declined.

WBAI sits between two powerhouse stations, 98.7 WRKS / KISS-FM, and WHTZ, better known as Z-100, with over one million listeners each. Yet, any potential ‘spill over’ of those who cross the radio dial is thwarted by programming some call a Balkanized, scattered, confusing and alienating mix. What’s more, the station faces stiff competition from what is arguably the more stable, and powerful, AM / FM combination of WNYC radio.

The current crisis, as the station sits with an audience level of under 200-thousand, and with a 0.3 Arbitron audience rating, is a fight between two warring factions. The reasons for the crisis are complex. For subscribers and occasional listeners, it is a chore to fully understand what the fuss is all about. Further confusing the picture is what often hits the local papers, magazines, blogs and, web sites of the unique, and troubled outlet. Yet, WBAI’s present-day crisis may be the most severe yet with what is at stake….. the future direction of independent and listener-supported radio in the New York area.

Inside WBAI is an atmosphere where “I feel there’s no ‘us’ anymore, just each group with its own little corner. There are Black nationalists who don’t have much patience for white people. There are young people who don’t want old fogies around. I always thought unity makes a lot more sense than separation. But a lot of people (at WBAI) don’t want to hear that anymore. Bob Fass, former radio commentator, is not alone in that view, as much of the station’s white and liberal audience has drifted away in recent years.

The warring factions inside WBAI include more than a dozen groups across the ethnic and politically left-leaning spectrum. From the various Hispanic groups, Gay and Lesbian activists, numerous Black perspectives, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Hip-Hoppers, old school and old style Rockers and, Caribbean activists, the station does offer an interesting mix of views. Yet, at the same time these very same voices want more air-time from an outlet with limited air space.

Also on the scene is a loose mix of broadcast professionals, some affiliated, some not, with the numerous factions inside WBAI. This grouping is largely independent of the numerous factions. Undaunted, this group continues in working overtime to make the Pacifica station one of New York’s most interesting, diverse and, competitive outlets.

One other and, currently the dominant, group is made up mostly of non-broadcasters. They are largely activists, community organizers and, ideologues, who care neither about ratings from Arbitron, nor so it seems, future audience growth. Preaching to the already converted, they call themselves the Justice and Unity Coalition.

Members of the J-U-C, as they are also known, include noted civil attorneys, peace activists and, some members of the local clergy. The J-U-C also has a strange, but politically potent, alliance with the Brooklyn-based December Fourth Movement. That is the same group which had ties to the late and controversial figure, Khalid Abdul-Muhammad. Expelled from the Nation of Islam in 1994, Muhammad was the main driving force behind the controversial, and some would argue, racist, Million Youth March in Harlem in the late 1990’s.

Along with playing the race card, members of the J-U-C have been accused of operating a political organization inside the Pacifica network, as a kind of government-in-waiting. As of this writing, it is the J-U-C that is in charge, largely, of funding, programming and many of the management decisions inside both WBAI and Pacifica.

However the picture is not all dark. There is hope on the horizon in spite of the numerous obstacles for the station with the infusion of new faces and new ideas. The new General Manager is Robert Scott Adams, who has been on-board since last November. Adams comes with an impressive broadcasting resume that includes, turning the Atlanta-based WCLK-FM into one of that city’s more competitive non-commercial stations. A radio veteran for over 30 years, Adams, who is the fifth WBAI G.M. in seven years, has found his new job formidable in making long-overdue changes to programming and staff. Those obstacles are what some would characterize as ‘a stubborn’ and nearly ‘unshaken-able culture’ that embraces the status quo. Adams, at this moment has the support of most WBAI staff and, Pacifica’s Greg Guma, who serves as a kind of network CEO and ombudsman. So far, it is slow going for both men on the much needed reforms inside the station. At stake, as many stations go under the control of media conglomerates like Clear-Channel, is the future of a truly independent outlet that has served as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ for over four decades. Also at stake, , is just how narrowly stations like WBAI can define its audience without becoming irrelevant. That battle and the outcome will largely define the future of all non-commercial media in the United States. Stay tuned….
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