Sunday, July 17, 2011

Here we go again: Another fund-raiser

WBAI's on-air fund-raising efforts used to have one purpose: to keep the station on the air—not this or that ego-stroking program, the station itself. To that end, the pitches were focused on WBAI as a whole, i.e. the concept of free speech and giving a platform to people with something to say who otherwise might not find an outlet for their expressions. A station that edified as it entertained, a station that stimulated creative thought.

The fund-raising marathons offered a golden opportunity to get that message across, to give potential subscribers a reason for contributing, and to remind current subscribers of WBAI's importance. 

Now the station is in the midst of another fund-raising marathon, but one can listen for hours on end and never hear anyone speak of the Pacifica concept or that qualities that separated its stations from all others.

There was Tony Ryan, whose Soul Central Station is a run-of-the-mill disc jockey show aimed at adolescent (in years or intellectual development) women and replete with flirtatious DJ nothings (he could be their grandfather, actually). This is a staffer who showed up at a LSB meeting carrying a sledgehammer, and obviously hasn't a clue as to WBAI's original raison d'etre. Yesterday, he was desperately trying to get the phones to ring, because—as he suggested—it is so important to keep his show on the air. On the rare occasions when he mentioned sustaining WBAI's life, it was for the wrong reason: to keep him and his soul music on the air. There were three hours of this and he finally managed to get the phones to ring by offering discs of slow-dancing music. He used the term, "buy" at one point, further demonstrating how myopic and misinformed he is in re the station. Shades of Jeannie Hopper's river outings.

I found myself wondering why anyone should pay money for such an unremarkable DJ show. Then I heard him "selling" CDs and I had to wonder about copyrights. I am still wondering about both.

The program that followed, Morning Dew, featured the Grateful Dead and was presented more intelligently, but its host, too seems to think that the future of his program hangs in the balance of the incoming pledges. Which may well be so, considering the warped priorities of Bates and the elusive Reimers. The programs I cited are but two out of many examples of this sort of misdirected thinking, which makes me wonder some more: Are instructions not given to program producers prior to a fund-drive? I am talking about instructions as to WBAI's purpose and the listener's incentive. Individual quotas are obviously handed out, so it is perhaps not odd to find that the on-air people place the emphasis on defense of their own turf rather than on the preservation of freedom of speech and artistic expression. Listeners used to gain a wealth of knowledge from WBAI, even from programs whose nature was entertainment, and they could rely on the station to give them honest reports on current events, enough information for them to form their own opinion. Indoctrination was simply not WBAI's job—the dissemination of objective information was. WBAI did not always succeed, but it made honest attempts to expand the knowledge of its listeners in a variety of fields. That has gone by the wayside as management foments internecine competition and producers see themselves as "stars". Some inject their own political notions with feigned authority and have zero tolerance for opposing views. I submit that this all-too-prevalent attitude has the effect of driving away listeners, especially those who came to 99.5 with the preconceived notion that—in terms of integrity—what once was, still is. Nobody is advocating a return to program content as it was when WBAI was a Pacifica station in more than name, but one can keep up with the times without pandering to the mindless. More and more, we see WBAI's intelligent, principled hosts moved out of the way, their air time cut. One has the feeling that they have been sent closer to the exit—as, indeed, has proven to be the case in some instances.

One cannot expect a "listener-sponsored" station to succeed if one only sees the listener as a source of income—WBAI has to go back to rewarding sponsorship with extraordinary programs rather than with bogus "cures" and conspiracy theories. The line between a commercial and what I heard Ryan do last night is very thin. Indeed, today I heard Felipe Luciano refer to a pitching break as a "commercial." He was quickly corrected by someone in the studio, but the slip was telling. 

Current management did not start this ball rolling, but it is giving it a push rather than re-directing it.

Fundamentally, the whole system is wrong and in serious need of reassessment and grounds-up revision. All that empty blather about "community" and "family" is disingenuous counterproductive hype. It does not take a lot of intelligence to see that. Yes, as I have said before, the station still has meaningful programs on its schedule, but the standard is steadily being lowered. 

There is a general manager who shuns communication with listener-sponsors while an "interim" program director plays favorites with the staff, seems bent on splitting the ranks, and shows utter disrespect for the listeners in many ways, not the least of which is by participating with faux enthusiasm in on-the-air scams. Both are unfit for the job unless the goal is to bankrupt WBAI, which some people think might be the case. I won't go that far, but it is a plausible conjecture.

Am I repeating myself? You bet I am, because I know what WBAI used to be and can again become, but I see no real move to cut out the cancer that has been eating away at Lew Hill's remarkable concept for many years. There is no "cure" for that on a DVD, but drastic corrective measures and determined, dedicated people to carry them out might turn things around. If WBAI is to sink into oblivion, at least let us hope that it does so fighting honestly for survival. 

Listen to the current pitches and draw your own conclusions. 

I don't think this is any way to run a true Pacifica radio station, or—for that matter—any station. The incompetence would certainly not be tolerated for long by a commercial company.


  1. WBAI has got to be the worst radio station in New York City! For years the station has been plagued by management problems and when you have idiots like Tony Ryan (a so-called Dj/manager) carrying a sledgehammer to staff members for them to quiet down just take the case of being really stupid! Eventually, lowlifes like Tony Ryan will be on the unemployment line and Wbai will closed its doors for good!

    1. You are absolutely right. Unprincipled, self-serving people who never grasped the extraordinary concept that once separated Pacifica stations from broadcasting, as we knew it. I agree that Tony Ryan is among those without whom WBAI would be better off, although he is not amongst the worst. The infection begins on the Pacifica National Board and spreads to local management and staff/volunteers... A trickle down abuse.