Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mitchel Cohen's Study in Frustration

If you have true concern for the restoration and future of WBAI, the following piece by Mitchel Cohen will outrage you. I greatly respect Mitchel for all his efforts and wonder if there isn't something the rest of us can do to back him up. As anyone who reads the so-called BlueBoard forum, I have spent many posts expressing my concern for what is and what is not being done for WBAI. Foremost among my concerns is the ineptitude and detrimental attitude of many who work there—both in and out of the front office—and at Pacifica. I do not know much about people who currently reign on the Foundation level, except for Arlene Engelhardt, who brought Reimers and Bates to WBAI and whom I have heard speak with alarming lack of understanding and reason. I wish more people would make serious comment on these things. The most vocal ones are inevitably those who feel threatened by positive change. Chris Albertson

Mitchel Cohen writes:

On another list, Susan Lee asked about WBAI's contingency plan.

There've been a large number of suggestions made on how to change the model at WBAI, whole plans presented and developed, etc. But WBAI and Pacifica management refuses to listen to them. 

My estimation is that this fund drive, like the last 2, will indeed meet goal if extended 2 or 3 days. 

One problem is that non-budgeted expenses have increased, so the goals -- which are established on the basis of the actual budget -- are not high enough to meet the added non-budgeted expenses.

Another problem remains the cost of the rent, both on the studio and the antenna. These are now up around $750,000 per year (off the top of my memory). When Harold Chambers first came on as Operations Director, I asked him for a report on alternatives to using the Empire State Building and how much they would cost. I didn't say that we would switch from the current set-up, I just wanted to know what our options may be as circumstances change. He talked with me for a few minutes privately, but never composed an actual report. A few months later he got sick and has not been at the station in many months.

As for the studio rent, there is a significant amount owed. Unlike the previous management, the GM has kept the LSB informed of the situation, and I expect that the backlog will be paid from income from this fund drive.

For years we have been saying that WBAI has to reduce its rent or move if we could not work out a rent reduction with the landlord. I talked with Tony Riddle when he was GM about putting together a team to begin the search for suitable spaces for WBAI to move to 3+ YEARS AGO! He told me that listeners were calling in with possible spaces, and thanks for your offer but no thanks, he was on top of it. (He wasn't, obviously.) The past two years I've called several Executive Sessions of the LSB to get reports on this and to discuss the fact that WBAI's lease runs out at 120 Wall St. on Dec. 31 of this year (2012). I can't go into all the details here, but let's just say that the LSB was very strong and non-factionally united about certain key matters, including issues around negotiations with the current landlord.

Interim GM Muriel Tillinghast had begun to work on putting together a kick-ass NY-savvy team to negotiate with the current landlord or find a new space, but Pacifica, through its attorney, had (unbeknownst to me and to others on the LSB) signed a contract with a milquetoast company that gave them exclusive rights to negotiate with ANY landlord concerning relocation of the studios or changes to the current one. This completely frustrated Muriel, as it did Berthold when he became iGM and learned of it. They were told that they couldn't move on this except via the company that held the exclusive contract! That secret contract termed out almost a year ago. The Pacifica attorney who signed the contract on behalf of Pacifica is no longer with the network. 

(That whole episode seems very strange. I mean, SOMEONE must have authorized him to sign that contract, no? That person should basically be shot (metaphorically speaking). More likely, knowing Pacifica, he or she was rewarded for their stupidity.) 

More recently, the GM and Development director demanded that our offices stay in Manhattan despite the very high rents. They set their hopes on renting a place with an option to buy, and presented their plan to the National Board in public session. They basically stifled any other initiative even though the place they were considering would have cost us some $5 to $6 million, and would have come to even more than we're paying now, although we would own it after 20 years or somesuch -- if we lasted that long. I was amazed that the National Board did not have any serious disagreements or detailed questions over the proposal, in the public session I heard via podcast.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, one person (Marsha) -- a member of the finance committee -- looked at a place in the Bronx that would have been much less costly; it was great that she undertook such initiative on her own. Management did look at it, but rightly or wrongly felt it would not suit our purposes. (I make no judgment here about that, not having seen the place myself.)

I worked with a member of WBAI who is involved in real estate who offered to find suitable places in Brooklyn at no fee. But there was great resistance by management to move WBAI's offices outside of Manhattan, and this attitude simply discouraged those of us from feeling that our work (for which neither I nor Marsha is paid, by the way) would just be a waste of time. WBAI's good at squandering people's efforts.

The broker and I went forward anyway, hoping that things would change. We reviewed a number of places and picked one that we thought might be the most promising. He and I discussed various financial options, and I kept the GM and the ED apprised of this at all times, although I never heard back from the ED at anywhere along the line until the very end (see below).

The real estate fellow and I went to look the place we thought to be promising and decided that it would be worth sending a team from WBAI to take a second look, immediately (a word that doesn't exist in WBAI's vocabulary). We were sure that we'd need to put in at least a letter if not a down payment within a few days or it would be snapped up by someone else, it was that surprisingly good an offer. It would have DOUBLED the amount of usable space available to us, at 1/4 the cost -- AND, we would own it outright after a few years! The down payment alone could be paid-off in 1/2 a year, from money saved in being freed of the current rent!

I immediately contacted (again) Berthold and Arlene. Berthold made tentative plans to take a look at it 2 days later (not quick enough in my book, but at least it was something). But Arlene emailed me, saying NO, STOP, Pacifica could not afford to put down a payment on any property. I was floored. This was the first thing she'd said to me about any part of the lease situation for at least 1/2-a-year. I'd been keeping her apprised, but had received no feedback from her at all until that moment. She apparently didn't understand NY real estate, I thought, and that if WBAI deemed the place suitable this would be a great deal financially. Furthermore, the value was sure to increase given how the neighborhood would be changing, with the introduction of several major film, TV and sound studios.

The real estate guy -- who loves WBAI and was working on this out of the goodness of his heart (seriously! He even came to an LSB meeting to answer questions, but we never got to that point on the agenda) -- then came up with a deal that would cost WBAI NOTHING for a while: He would put up the down payment himself as a no-interest loan! (He said that that was not his preferred option, but he understood the situation WBAI and Pacifica are in.) 

But Pacifica -- it apparently was Arlene's call, though Berthold could have had more say had he fought for it! -- wouldn't say anything more. And Arlene never explained her directive to me. Very very poor judgment. 

It was only inadvertently that I found out why the ED of Pacifica was blocking efforts to find WBAI space in which to move. When I mentioned that I'd been searching for spaces so that WBAI could move, several members of the LSB subjected me to withering denunciation for daring to undermine the negotiations that, they said, Arlene was having from afar with the current landlord! 

What?!!! That was news to me. 

Furthermore, how did THEY know? Why hadn't they told me and the rest of the Board?

The ED simply should not conceal information from Local Station Board members on matters pertaining to their station. 

And so the questions: Has Arlene signed a several-year extension of the current lease with the existing landlord at no reduction? If so, what's the point? If this is true, WBAI is up shit's creek without a paddle -- we're basically screwed -- and the PNB should deal with this extremely poor judgment at once!

—Mitchel Cohen

1 comment:

  1. "Susan Lee asked about WBAI's contingency plan."

    As the French Premier said to Churchill in June of 1940 after a similar question,"...but sir we have 'no' reserves."

    That about sums up our situation at Wbai,...again.