Here Comes the Hammer: Pacifica to Lease Out WBAI

Uh-oh, indeed. Pacifica’s National Board is now soliciting bids to take over the programming and operations of its station in New York City. WBAI is prime real estate, transmitting with 4,300 watts of power from atop the Empire State Building on a choice frequency smack dab in the middle of the FM dial. The station’s worth tens of millions of dollars were it ever to be sold.
This was a long time coming. WBAI, like many of Pacifica’s radio stations, is caught in the jaws of a dilemma as old as community radio itself. Essentially, people can lose sight of the actual goal of running a successful and sustainable community radio station and instead use (and abuse) the station as a battlefield on which to act out some larger sociopolitical struggle. What the station stands for becomes more important than the station itself, and nobody wins. In Pacifica’s case, they stand to lose it all.
The most fiscally advantageous route would be to sell the station, or swap it for a less-desirable signal in NYC plus a hefty infusion of cash. This would go a long way toward pulling Pacifica back from the brink of institutional oblivion while allowing it to maintain a presence in all five of its parent-markets. The next-most lucrative route would be to lease to a commercial broadcaster.
These options are presently off the table. Pacifica is pursuing a lease agreement that restricts WBAI to non-commercial programming, as befits its license. These sorts of agreements also stipulate that the licensee cannot make any more money off the station than what is required to pay for its operating expenses. In this regard, leasing out WBAI simply removes the station from Pacifica’s balance sheets while doing nothing really proactive to stem the red tide there. It also says nothing about any potential rehabilitation and reclamation of WBAI by Pacifica in the long run.
That said, the market certainly isn’t lacking for noncommercial candidates to take over WBAI. Pacifica hopes to find a broadcast-tenant who can relate to its progressive values, and one obvious candidate might be New York Public Radio. It has a classical music station that might benefit from a hefty, Manhattan-centric signal. Such cultural programming was, after all, something Lew Hill—Pacifica’s founder—staunchly believed in.
Some market-watchers have suggested the station plumb its extensive alumni, many who’ve gone on to careers in broadcasting and the creative arts, and see if there’s any new life to be found in old blood.
My personal dream would be for free-form station WFMU to step up from its scrappy 1,250-watt stick in Jersey City, New Jersey to prime-time in Manhattan. WFMU is listener-supported and volunteer-run just like WBAI, but it’s found a sustainable niche (musical eclecticism) and turned it into something downright magical. That’s why it’s one of the most successful community radio stations in the country.
Don’t discount the notion of a religious broadcaster swooping in and making an offer Pacifica can’t refuse, either, especially if all other bidders bail (or none materialize).
Among WBAI’s current ranks, there is (of course) a petition opposing any lease of the station, but no practical ideas to save it.
Potential bidders have until November 6th to submit lease proposals. Here’s holding out for a miracle.