Pacifica has laid off the entire news department of WBAI-FM and almost all paid staff effective Monday in an effort to keep the cash-strapped New York outlet solvent.
Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer Reese made the announcement on WBAI’s air Friday afternoon. Reese told listeners that she had arrived at the station by cab directly from negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents WBAI staff.
“We have not been able to fully recover . . . from many years of financial stress at this radio station,” Reese said. “And it’s with great sadness that I have to tell the WBAI listening audience here in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut that many of the voices that you have been listening to for many years will no longer be on the air as of next week.”
Nineteen of 29 jobs will be eliminated, including almost all on-air talent. Reese entered negotiations with SAG-AFTRA seeking a 75 percent reduction; the union had hoped to avert layoffs entirely.
“We are only retaining staff that is critically necessary to operational functions at the station,” she said. She told listeners that shows dropped from the lineup will not air again.
Replacement programs from other Pacifica stations and content that had already been acquired will fill WBAI’s broadcast days for the short term, she said.
During the two-hour broadcast, Reese said she is “100 percent” committed to keeping WBAI on the air and a Pacifica station.
WBAI has been running at a loss for the past decade, and mounting fees that include $50,000 in monthly rent for the station’s transmitter prompted the reduction, Reese said. Layoffs became unavoidable because the station can no longer afford its current payroll.
To pay employees for this week, Reese borrowed money from another Pacifica station; if the station is to meet next week’s payroll, it will deplete WBAI’s emergency transmitter rent fund.
The layoffs won’t be enough to end WBAI’s financial woes, Reese said, and the Pacifica network as a whole is suffering from financial difficulties. As of Aug. 12, four of the network’s seven units lacked payroll funds for the following week, and Reese was looking for $100,000. The network faces litigation losses and other debts, including $2 million in back fees owed to producers of the show Democracy Now!
Andrew Phillips, head of programming at Pacifica’s KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Calif., was named interim p.d. at WBAI Wednesday. The station desperately needs to grow its audience to exit the “death spiral” of continual fund drives, Phillips said, and should bring in new programs.
“If our programming was so great, we’d be getting more money,” Phillips said.
Reese believes WBAI can pull through the crisis and rebuild its service, she said. “We’re going to get through this and continue to have a great station,” she said.
During a July 25 Pacifica board conference call, Reese warned of a coming shortfall at the network’s station in Washington, D.C., describing WPFW as in “a pretty critical financial situation.” Responding to a board member’s question about a WPFW on-air fund drive planned for September, she said: “The concern there is, frankly, that you don’t have enough money to get through until September.”
Like WBAI, WPFW has also fallen into a “perpetual” state of on-air fund drives, Reese said. “It’s not giving listeners much of a break.”
Neither the D.C. station nor WBAI have paid for board election costs from last year, she said. Reese still expects the other Pacifica stations, which are better off financially, to repay the national office for election costs it covered on behalf of stations.
In Los Angeles, Pacifica’s KPFK could face legal action from a company it used for its local elections, said Brenda Medina, a national board member representing the station. The company is awaiting overdue payments.