Tuesday, December 11, 2007

SKULLTHUGGERY AT WBAI RADIO


Pacifica Radio NY Outlet Sinks Amid Controversy

The future of so-called 'Underground Radio' and, 'Alternative Media' in the U.S. may be coming to an end with the near certain demise of the Pacifica Radio Network as 2007 winds down. The network, long considered a respected maverick in the broadcast family and seen, as a kind of edgier version of National Public Radio, now faces massive debt, a disputed election at 3 of its stations, declining and aging audience, and stubborn in-fighting among staff, management and board members.

The current fight at the network's Flagship station in New York, WBAI-FM, offers a peek into the national dispute at the network. It centers on a disputed local election, now tied-up in Civil Court, over who will run the 50 thousand watt non-commercial facility for the foreseeable future. On November 16th, staff and subscribers to the New York outlet were to take part in a vote for the Local Station Board, an advisory panel with wide and sweeping powers but, an odd twist occurred, as at least 2 to five thousand ballots out of 16 thousand mailed to listeners were never delivered.

Some at the station suspected election tampering and, point to the dominant faction over the suspect tally. On that same day, a handful of staff and local board members went before New York State Supreme Court Judge, Richard P. Braun, where they sought, and got, a temporary restraining order that essentially has put the vote in a suspended state. The next court date is set for January 21st. It is a largely under-reported story in America's largest media market.

The dispute over the local station elections represents just the tip of the iceberg of troubles for the Pacifica outlet. WBAI is reeling in debt and faces a $300 thousand dollar shortfall following the most recent Fund Drive. Salary cuts to paid staff, even layoffs by mid-January are being openly discussed. In spite of possessing the strongest signal among the Big Apple's non-commercial radio outlets, WBAI has been hammered in the ratings with 0.3 rating and, an audience level of under 200 thousand, according to Arbitron. The key morning drive program, WAKE-UP CALL, critics argue, is a rudderless ship that is currently running 50th in a 40 station market.

The man at the helm who has had a five year uninterrupted run at the station, say plaintiffs in the civil suit before Justice Braun, is Program Director Bernard White. He is protected by the Justice and Unity Coalition, the dominant faction at the station, whose members numerically dominate the local station board. In a story that changes shape by the day, new developments emerge every 24 hour cycle. What is a stake is more than a New York station slipping into darkness but, the very shape of alternative media in North America. Keep your eyes peeled.

-The Radio Phantom
Dec.11/2007
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