Last updated: June 14, 2004

WBAI Management/Local Board Crisis Report

June 14, 2004 - by John Riley

Text of Seven-Minute Audio Report aired on June 14, 2004 at the OUT-FM (progressive lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) program on WBAI.

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This is John Riley with a news update on an important current controversy within the Pacifica Foundation, parent organization to WBAI and four other stations.

"Relations between the WBAI LSB and the staff has reached a crisis point. Management and staff feel like they are under siege resulting in plummeting staff morale. Indeed, many talented and committed senior staff throughout this network have resigned in recent months and others, including myself, are seriously contemplating leaving Pacifica soon if the situation does not improve."

That was WBAI General Manager Don Rojas discussing the serious antagonisms between many members of the local station board or LSB, on the one hand, and management and staff, on the other, during the June 4-6 meeting of the Pacifica National Board held in Houston, Texas. Rojas was responding to a report delivered the previous day by Patty Heffley, secretary of the WBAI local Station Board who ran on the self-identified LIST PROG slate in the last election. Heffley criticized management for failing to raise enough funds in the last few fund drives.

"Listeners are repeatedly told to pledge to save the station and to save people's jobs (layoffs have been threatened and rescinded all year long)...We are looking for responsible proposals from management. Mostly what has been proposed so far are more fund drives. One thing that doesn't seem to have been addressed is the programming. It is the view of many members of the LSB that programmatic changes to increase and motivate our listeners need to be considered in addition to the extra fund-raising measures."

Yet Rojas has repeatedly assured listeners and Board members alike that major programming changes are now under development. And over the past two years, since the overturning of the Christmas Coup -- which had led to the removal of nearly 30 WBAI managers and staff members -- reinstated Program Director Bernard White has added over a dozen public affairs programs to the schedule, covering such topics as the environment, youth, women's rights, the Latino community, Haiti, criminal justice issues, and New York City government issues.

But those very changes have been strongly criticized by another Local Board member, Steve Brown, who also ran on the LIST-PROG slate. In a May 11th email sent to many WBAI members, Brown wrote:

"At WBAI, the program director constantly makes false and self-serving statements about the supposed growth of his listenership and the success of the program changes he has made." Criticizing what Brown claims are "the overtly anti-White and anti-Semitic attitude of the new hosts and their program material," he writes: "During this period, according to Arbitron, large numbers of our audience were driven away."

Yet the Arbitron figures announced by Pacifica Executive Director Dan Coughlin at the recent National Board meeting in Houston tell a very different story.

  "According to this arbitron WBAI's listenership up 60% ...this is where BAI is at in 2003 from 1998....Audience figures go up and down every quarter sometimes sharply but what is important is the trends and we're seeing good trends at each of the Pacifica stations averaging about 5-6% a year." By contrast, Coughlin noted, TOTAL radio usage by the population is going down.

"Radio is on the decline but Public radio is going up. Pacifica does match those same industry trends. We are part of the public radio basket very much."

Coughlin also cited figures showing that revenue at WBAI has increased 40% over the same period.

Days after the board meeting, Luanne Pennesi, a Local Station Board member and close associate of WBAI producer Gary Null, took sharp issue with Rojas's public statement: "How dare you talk about unity, recovery, conciliation, cooperation, when NOTHING or less than nothing has been done to honor our most important asset, the audience? The racism is palpable. Examine the background of virtually all the newly hired Blacks and friends of the management. It is time we recognized that you have accepted the station's trajectory into hell." In an earlier open letter, Pennesi had written: "It is now, according to thousands of disenfranchised listeners who left the station because of it, the home of a few self serving, egocentric folk who are using the station to feed their insatiable power needs and to publicly project their uncensored opinions towards anyone who disagrees with them."

Pennesi went on to recommend action steps by listeners, the first of which she has advocated off and on for over a year:

"Just stop supporting the station and find any close substitute on the dial and go on with your life. "

"Create a citizen's action committee to provide the concerned public who want to replace the current management (and much of its staff) with those who are committed to returning the station to its original mission."

At the most recent local board meeting on June 10, board members Michael Warren and Mariana Gaston, who ran on the Justice and Unity slate, announced their intention to introduce motions to disassociate the Board from these and other comments by Pennesi and Brown.

In Rojas's statement to the National Board, he responded to criticisms directed at the station's managers and staff by some vocal board members:

"We need to dialogue with each other in a candid and mutually respectful manner. There's too much suspicion of each other's motives and intentions. ...We are as much stewards of Pacifica as you are. We do not accept the notion that the boards are overlords and the staffs are underlings. We are all equal colleagues performing various functions and playing various roles on behalf of the progressive movement that Pacifica is a part of....

Sisters and brothers, we have an opportunity now to enhance Pacifica's credibility and influence within the movement and across the nation. Let us not squander that opportunity."

This is John Riley reporting.

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Postscript: If you have feedback on this report or want more information, please write to outfmfeedback@wbai.org. The sound file of this 7-minute report can be heard by clicking HERE.

Hear WBAI General Manager (GM) Don Rojas deliver his response to Patty Heffley's report, click HERE. (this is a few minutes into the public comments. Quotes were used from this sound file for the report. You can read his comments by clicking here.

To hear Patty Heffley deliver her report to the PNB, click HERE. (includes questions and answers). Quotes were used from this report. You can read the report by clicking here.

You can listen to the Don Rojas delivering his report to the Pacifica board by clicking HERE. (this will download the file from kpftx.org) This report was not used in the report but is posted for interest.

To listen to the whole 3 day board meeting go to the www.kpftx.org website where many pacifica sound files are stored. To listen to the Houston meeting click this link and you will see several options, one is to stream the files (better for dial up connections) the other to download the whole file (better for DSL and cable and other broad band connections.) \

Steve Brown's Letter: MAKING CHANGES WITH OUR EYES SHUT? (Text quoted)

Tutorial on Arbitrons: A critique of using Arbitrons

Luanne Pennesi's scathing critique of WBAI GM Don Rojas includes passage with "It is time we recognized that you have accepted the station's trajectory into hell." (Text quoted)

Pennesi's call for a boycott of the station.