By John Tarleton
R. Paul Martin paced anxiously back-and-forth with a finger on one ear and a cellphone in the other. An hour after WBAI's Listener Station Board (LSB) passed a budget that would force the station to lay off about 25 percent of its workforce, he was waiting to find out if WBAI's overseers at the Pacifica Foundation would allow several amendments that the board had passed to soften the blows of the budget cuts.
“2 for, 4 against and 1 abstained”, Martin called out in his folksy twang to the handful of people who had not gone home. “We're going back to Version 8.1 of the budget. Cuts will start immediately.”
Wednesday night's LSB meeting featured the usual bickering between the station's warring factions, a rare moment of unity as well as the spectral presence of WBAI's embattled program director. All of this was overshadowed by the fiscal crisis that has brought the station and the Pacifica network to the brink of financial ruin.
Pacifica, a left-leaning, listener-sponsored radio network with high-powered stations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Bay area has been in turmoil for more than a decade. Declining revenues in the past couple of years (caused in part by WBAI's poor performance) and a series of costly lawsuits have forced the network to take out a line of credit from a bank to meet its operating expenses. WBAI's budget process, in turn, has come under intense scrutiny.
Held at the Broadway Housing Communities building at 135thh and Riverside Drive in West Harlem, Wednesday's meeting saw the LSB faced with a 9:30 p.m. deadline to submit a budget for Fiscal Year 2009 to Pacifica's national finance committee. After starting the meeting 45 minutes late and sparring for 20 minutes about amendments to the agenda, the Board settled into a discussion about reducing the annual budget by more than 20 percent from $3.99 million to $3.17 million with several hundred thousand dollars being cut from staff salaries and benefits.
“It's reality time,” said Martin who serves as the Board's treasurer.
“We all know there has to be cuts in staff,” said Board member Bob Lederer. “It's a terrible reality.”
Hoping to save at least some staff jobs of the 6.5 full-time equivalents that were facing the ax, the Board unanimously agreed to add three amendments to the budget which would have lowered the station's required year-end reserves by $40,000 and allowed the station to project $74,500 in additional net revenues from a direct mail appeal to supporters and a fund appeal in The Nation.
The budget as a whole passed by a vote of 10-6 and Martin disappeared into conference call with the national finance committee officials only to learn by night's end that the LSB's effort had been rejected as insufficiently austere.
The Pacifica National Board is meeting in Washington, DC this weekend and is expected to impose a final budget on WBAI before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
During Wednesday's meeting, LSB members debated the causes of WBAI's fiscal crisis. Carolyn Birden blamed poor program content at WBAI for driving away listeners while Alex Steinberg cited poor leadership throughout the network.
“WBAI is bearing the brunt of poor decisions made by both local and national management,” Steinberg said.
However, Lisa Davis emphasized that a poor economy was taking its toll on WBAI as well.
“There's a financial crisis all over the country right now,” she said. “I talk to people on fixed incomes who say they want to support the station but times are tough and they can't do it.”
Vajra Kilgour said Board members need to become more active in raising money for the cash-strapped station starting with helping answer phones during fund drive.
“There's no reason members of this Board can't be in there taking calls,” she said.
Before the meeting, reports had circulated that opponents of WBAI program director Bernard White would use the budget crisis to abolish his position. White's supporters on the Board and in the overflow crowd of more than 60 people kept waiting for a last-minute maneuver from his opponents but nothing happened.
Afterwards, Board Chair Mitchel Cohen said there had never been a specific plan to eliminate White's position but that he had hoped to see White and the station's general manager Anthony Riddle share equally in the financial sacrifices of the staff.
“They are firing workers and nothing happens to them. It's like Lehman Brothers,” Cohen said. “We are saying the management line should have the same amount taken out of it as with the staff.”
White's supporters were having nothing of it.
“It would have been outrageous to cut the position of program director,” said board member Ray LaForest. “There clearly would have been a backlash.”
“I think they looked out at the crowd and were scared shitless,” added board member Sara Flounders. “... This is a group of white liberals who don't want Black management at WBAI.”
White himself sat through the meeting quietly listening from the back of the room and was surrounded afterwards by well-wishers. Asked about the attacks on his leadership, he attributed WBAI's woes to the overall media environment.
“Listener-supported media is in trouble because people have other alternatives now,” he said. “They can go on the Internet and get what they need.”
As for facing the same pay cuts as staff, White said he had already made sacrifices. “I haven't had a pay raise in six years,” he said. “So I have been taking cuts all along.”