Thursday, May 8, 2014

As WBAI sinks: If you're not Null, you're void...

The truth is that the station is probably deeper in debt and closer to the edge of an abyss than it ever has been. When he was hired as Interim General Manager, in 2010, Berthold Reimers was given a mandate to work the financial magic his resumé suggests he is equipped to handle. He had barely warmed the seat of his desk chair when he told a reporter that his first task would be to "stabilize the station's finances," and to achieve this, he would "soon unveil a plan to significantly increase listenership during the next 18 months." That was four years ago and the listenership never went up—instead, it has dropped down to the lowest count in WBAI's 54-year history. Reimers also said that he would bring the station into the digital era—listen to the audio quality and you will note that it, too, has never been worse.

He all but disappeared from view for the first two years, but they removed the "i" from his title and he is reportedly paid $100,000 a year for..... well, that's the big question.

When asked what he had done in the first two years, his cronies were quick to say that he had spent that time in the premium room, straightening out the mess he had inherited. When he finally emerged, briefly, Reimers confirmed that and added that the premium situation was almost back to normal. That, of course was not true.

Then, conveniently, Hurricane Sandy hit lower Manhattan, including the building that housed WBAI. The station was already a frightful mess, its economic status, the stagnant programming, and staff morale, but Reimers and his apologists blamed it all on Sandy—it was a first: retroactive hurricane damage.

Not until Summer Reese hit town was it revealed that $150,000 was owed in transmitter room rent—that had been kept a secret, but now there was imminent danger of the plug being pulled by the Empire State Building, so an emergency fund drive was started. The urgency, which was real, barely could be heard above the monotonous din of bad hiphop, racist rhetoric and the WBAI matket's hucksters. Cures were sold in bottles and CD cases, fear was promoted in various forms, and the reduced but now gullible WBAI audience coughed up the money. It was all swell, Reimers texted on his iPhone, but that was another lie. The Empire State Building was paid enough money to keep those wolves away for a spell, but 19 paid staff members were "laid off." That was also a lie, in a way, for they had actually been fired, and that included the entire news department—a station asset.

Things have continued to go downhill since then, WBAI is operating out of a small, inadequate rented studio in Harlem while its offices are in a rented space in Brooklyn. We recently heard from Gary Null that the rent is in serious arrears in both places, and the transmitter room bill is three months behind. The telephone was recently disconnected for non-payment, but a backlog of premiums is being mailed out. Well, that turns out to be Gary Null's products—he threatened to stop pitching unless his products were processed, and so they were.

Unfortunately, the rest of the premiums are gathering dust in Brooklyn, if they are even there. As you will hear a related horror story on the audio clip below. This is but one of many areas where lies are being told and business is not being taken care of. As one of the hosts says on the excerpt from this last night's "Off the Hook" program, This is no way to run a radio station.  

A big note of thanks is due Justine Valinotti for bringing this latest on-air complaint to my attention. 


  1. "Off the Hook" is a fine radio program worthy of national syndication. Eric Cawley AKA Emmanuel Goldstein, pitched the program to me when I was PD back in early 90's and I immediately grabbed it and the rest, as they say, is history.

    This clip Chris provides is more proof of the startling inadequacies of current and past management at WBAI and Pacifica in general. I know the volunteer efforts of Jim Dingeman, chair of the CAB (Community Advisory Board), who spearheaded the attempt to fulfill premiums and call thousands of dissatisfied present and former subscribers, has had some impact. This is something never done before and he deserves a lot of credit. He's been on in for months now. But there are still many outstanding premiums and expecting volunteers to do this long-term is unrealistic. It is purely a holding action and will not save WBAI. It does the right thing however - it fulfills some part of WBAI's obligation to its listeners.

    But a radio station in a major market needs real premium and subscription staff - record keeping etc - to do such work. KPFA has a very experienced full-time person and half time paid assistant plus a few reliable volunteers and a full-time experienced subscription manager and they get the job done very efficiently. In fact, these positions are the backbone of the station - along with a capable business manager - more important than producers - since without them a radio station in the Pacifica model cannot function efficiently - witness WBAI! So for WBAI to reinvent itself this should be the mainstay of the plan before we event think about programming. Second are the technical issues. Programming is easy by comparison.

    Of course the premium issue at WBAI goes back many years. It has never been done properly. It has always been a problem. It is an example of mismanagement and the lack of understanding of how things really work (or don't) at Pacifica. In fact the on-air premium model is a good one if handled efficiently like at KPFA. And it's not hard to do. But the degree of ineptitude and quality of management over the years and the lack of real knowledge by successions of boards - local and national - has brought WBAI to this. Programming is of course important but without administrative back-up it can't sustain the station. Like cogs in a wheel, things need to work together for the system to move forward. So Dingeman has done yeoman's work but there is no way it can be sustained nor should it, in the long term. And from what "Off the Hook" reports, it is still insufficient.

    Summer Reese knew some of the problems at WBAI but she did little about them. She appeared to be hands-on and made a few appearances but she persisted with current management (which includes the appalling inept of technical staff - the fact the station still has no comrex link, a very simple procedure, inadequate phone lines, terrible over-the-air quality. There are so many inadequacies at WBAI, exacerbated by Summer Reese's permitting the status quo to continue, that the station cannot survive for much longer. It is actually not about the programming at this point - it's too late for that now. Without the other elements in place it doesn't matter how good the programming is. If you are fraudulently using the premium model and exacerbating it with infomercials disconnected to mission driven content and then not fulfilling the dubious content to subscribers you have what you have today. A wonderful idea about to go down the toilet.

    1. "But a radio station in a major market needs real premium and subscription staff . . ."

      No, it doesn't. Sending out some books, CDs or thumb drives 4X/year is not that complicated. You buy the premium, you keep a list of people who are to receive the premium. You mail the premium. You check the name off the list. Not that hard. You don't need an entire dedicated staff to do it and it shouldn't take from September 2013 to May 2014 to buy thumb drives.

      Absolutely bizarre how no one at WBAI can manage this. And to read above that Reimers, the General Manager, spent 2 years working to sort out the "premium issue" is just insane.

      BTW, how did you determine what constitutes a "fine" program? Your gut told you? You certainly didn't use any professional metrics to determine this. You certainly didn't conduct audience and market research. How shows get on the air and how the same few and poorly rated shows stay on the air for decade after decade is the real story behind the demise of WBAI. So congrats! Your inability to manage the programming grid, and your acquiescence to a culture that treats airtime as the personal property of a few dozen privileged hosts have helped bring us to where we are today.

  2. (JustAListener)

    The dysfunction is so deep it's pointless to blame Reese - look at her position now!
    What strikes me about WBAI is it's blessed with so many volunteers that can actually contribute yet it squanders and ignores them even though it lacks the funds for paid staff.
    Yes OTH is a good show AND IT COSTS WBAI NOTHING. On top of that it's producers came up with premiums that raised a significant amount of money for the station, and did a lot of the work needed to prepare the premiums for distribution, but they can't even get the station manager to return their phone calls.
    On top of that after Sandy, the OTH crew begged management to let them set up communications but were ignored.
    Oh, the comrex Mr Phillips mentioned? Recently the OTH crew figured out the station had what was needed to set it up - fortunately this time a station engineer did respond so they had something at least for this week's show.

    And OTH is just one program. Imagine if WBAI had a management that was honest with the listeners and reached out to the people able to help. Hurricane Sandy could have been a hallmark of successful resourcefulness rather than an excuse for lack of resources

    Have to add I do wonder if Mr Phillips and Ms Reese could have contained their tempers and maintained cooperation.
    Reese did have the sense and guts to go through with the layoffs and did try to fire Reimers so she does seem to have an inkling of his incompetence. I thought there was a time at the end of last year when Reimers could have been sidelined and Phillips put de-facto in charge, Yes, another round of Null fundraising would have to be tolerated but the station could have slowly been moved in the right direction. And Jim D and his band of volunteers along with the useful producers could have pitched in to keep things moving until the station could build enough to be self sustaining.

    Oh well, that's not the Pacifica that really exists.