Board and Business Plan Dysfunction at Storied Public Radio Station WBAI


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February 13, 2014; Capital

On February 12, Capital reporter Nicole Levy suggested that WBAI-FM interim program director Bob Hennelly was running out of time to turn around the station’s dire financial situation by raising $500,000 before the end of the month. A day later, Hennelly was fired by general manager Berthold Reimers—in the midst of a floundering on-air fundraising campaign and an ongoing effort to fill the airwaves with call-in programs produced by volunteers, replacing the more costly, although perhaps more tested and broadly appealing, syndicated programs previously offered through WBAI’s parent organization, the West Coast-based Pacifica Foundation.

Hennelly, who was only hired by WBAI in December, spent the previous decade as a reporter for New York NPR affiliate WNYC. He doesn’t seem to have been given much time—and certainly not much in the way of resources—to have an impact at what Pacifica called its “flagship station” in a February 10 news release announcing that former interim executive director Summer Reese had just been named executive director. That’s the same Summer Reese who last August made “a tearful on-air announcement” that WBAI was laying off 19 of its 29 employees—including the entire news department—“just to cover basic expenses like the rent for its transmitter atop the Empire State Building,” as reported by Ben Sisario in the New York Times.

At that time, Reese pointed to a dysfunctional board structure at Pacifica, saying in an interview, “This is what the board does…it fiddles while Rome burns.” Which is notable, not least because the recent Pacifica news release also indicates Reese served as chair of its board of directors in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Pacifica owns five non-commercial, listener-supported radio stations across the country. Founded in 1946 by a World War II conscientious objector, Pacifica holds an important place in the history of public radio; in fact, the foundation describes itself as “the grandmother of public radio.” Its far-left-leaning stance has placed it front and center on numerous issues and news stories over the years, and the website proudly cites several, including “impounded program tapes for a 1954 on-air discussion of marijuana, broadcasting the Seymour Hersh revelations of the My Lai massacre, bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, going to jail rather than turning over the Patty Hearst tapes to the FBI, and Supreme Court cases including the 1984 decision that noncommercial broadcasters have the constitutional right to editorialize.”

WBAI-FM 99.5 was a leader in the freeform radio movement of the 1960s. Among its claims to fame are an early appearance by Bob Dylan, the on-air premiere of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and an FCC indecency citation (upheld by the Supreme Court) for airing George Carlin’s seven “filthy words.”

It’s clear the flagship was sinking before Hennelly got there, with only about 14,000 contributing members on the rolls and 134,600 listeners in an average week. As noted in the Times article, WBAI has operated in the red each year since 2004, accumulating more than $3 million in net losses.

In an email to his colleagues after learning he’d been fired, Hennelly pointed to “Pacifica’s dysfunctional governance and the troubled WBAI business model,” and he’s not the first to call attention to those weaknesses. Times reporter Sisario noted in August that Pacifica has a cumbersome and resource-intensive board model, with expensive elections held in two out of every three years and $100,000 in legal bills, many relating to board elections. And unlike other public radio stations, the Pacifica network relies exclusively on listener support, eschewing the underwriting support most public broadcasters have long since accepted as critical to their business models.

Hennelly’s farewell email suggests that he had a plan to introduce underwriting support at WBAI—although it’s not certain Pacifica’s national board would have approved it—and that he already had made modest headway in generating interest from local labor unions. But with the changes he had introduced—resulting in what Columbia University journalism professor John Dinges called “checkerboard programming”—it’s not clear that Hennelly’s business plan would have been any more viable than the one he inherited.

It’s also not clear why interim program director Hennelly—and not general manager Reimers—was on the hook for the station’s fundraising shortfall. The Pacifica Foundation website does list a job opening for a Development Director at WBAI, noting that applications are due by October 31, 2011.—Eileen Cunniffe

  • Mitchel Cohen

    WBAI is slowly climbing out of the financial doldrums, having reduced expenses since one year ago by over $1 million per year by finally moving out of its very expensive studios on Wall Street and, very sadly, laying off all but 7 of its staff (down from 33 paid employees 6 years ago). But the antenna/transmitter costs on top of the Empire State Building of $55,000/month and rising are extremely difficult for this non-commercial, listener-sponsored, not-for-profit radio station to meet. (WBAI’s antenna costs are more than the costs for the rest of the Pacifica network combined!)

    Why does the Empire State Building — profiting from the public airwaves — not offer a not-for-profit rate for non-commercial stations like WBAI?

    Bob Hennelley placed blame for WBAI’s financial situation on “Pacifica’s dysfunctional governance and the trouble WBAI business model.” But that blame is misplaced, and I am sorry to see Hennelley — who worked hard in contacting trade unions, and who had some good ideas for programming (and some not so good ones) — passing the blame for poor fundraising onto others. The fact is, he did not work well with the General Manager — whom he initially was sent in to replace — in shaping a functional business plan that dealt with the realities of radio today.

    As you point out, WBAI’s audience has shrunk to an estimated 134,000 listeners per week. That’s not exactly insignificant, but it is not sufficient to sustain a $3 million/year radio station. (The debts the above essay points to are mostly internal, and WBAI, with $260,000 owed in severance pay the only external debt, as the station’s financial position has greatly improved — a hard thing to envision, I know, when WBAI is just one failing fund drive away from going under, but that is the case. Where is Bob Dylan now that he can help launch us into the future, as WBAI’s Bob Fass once helped launch Dylan’s career?) The primary goal is to triple the listenership so that it could sustain the station.

    WBAI has the capacity to broadcast to 18 million people. 17,800,000 of those potential listeners never heard of WBAI. What an opportunity, for the right promotional team!

    One cannot simply leap over the process — there were no plans for getting to that point — and in the meantime dispense with offering premiums in exchange for large contributions, as Hennelly had tried to do over the objections of the General Manager. (The Program Director is primarily responsible for the on-air fundraising effort. WBAI doesn’t have the funds to hire the kind of Fundraising Coordinator or even Social Media coordinator that the station needs.) The results of the interim Program Director’s wishful thinking — and he seemed inflexible about this — were that the station as a whole, under Hennelly’s tutelage, raised only $20,000 (if that) over 2 weeks, when it needed to raise ten times that amount just to tread water. “The program is the premium” could only be effective as one of a number of diverse income streams when there are sufficient listeners to those programs able to sustain them in the very expensive New York market.

    The few programs from around the network that the former Program Director, Andrew Phillips, had added to WBAI’s hard-hitting and terrific lineup are powerful ones. They amount to perhaps 7 percent of the schedule and have greatly strengthened the programming, especially with the downright stupid (in my view) layoff of the entire News Department to save a few bucks and sacrifice our soul.

    For the last few months, I have helped the chair of the Community Advisor Board, Jim Dingeman, renew efforts to bring scores of volunteers back to WBAI.

    We have been writing new business plans, mailing out thousands of premiums and reducing the backlog to around 4 percent (and shrinking), and phoning those who made pledges but who have not honored them. We have raised around $30,000-$40,000 for those efforts thus far, and expect to bring in over $100,000 that had been pledged to the station but that have gone unfulfilled. A contingent from WBAI traveled last weekend to the Pacifica National Board meeting on our own dime — neither Bob Hennelly nor any of the others in WBAI’s management attended — in order to ward off proposals to lease out or sell WBAI.

    Why? Because we believe in listener-sponsored radio that rejects corporate advertising.

    With capitalism in crisis everywhere, and with the planet plunged by corporate pollution into global ecological crisis, we believe that the Pacifica network has a tremendous opportunity to investigate the causes of those twin calamities and present information about them, including giving air to what mobilizations are taking place to save the planet.

    We see the need to also strengthen the arts programming within that framework, and restore it to the cutting edge relevance that WBAI has always offered.

    But all of that can only happen if the station survives these next 2 months, as directed by the Pacifica National Board. And Bob Hennelly’s framework, such as it was, was proven to be not capable of taking us there — at least not at this time.

    Volunteers are needed. If you have the skills we need, please contact [email protected].

    Mitchel Cohen

    former Chair, WBAI Local Station Board, 2008-2012

  • Martin W.

    You can’t have a radio station where the people who are on the air believe it belongs to them and act accordingly. The same goes with activist listeners, all of whom think their cause is more important than all other causes and deserves to be heard on WBAI. This sort of anarchy just doesn’t make for a viable business model.

  • Ian Peregrine

    Long ago, WBAI and Pacifica were vital institutions offering a wide range of educational programming devoted to the arts, music, news and public affairs, and even children’s programming. Somewhere around thirty or so years ago the board decided to turn WBAI into a salsa station – possibly, staff suspected, as a prelude to purchase by Inner City Broadcasting – and the staff rebelled and occupied the station. In the aftermath WBAI became highly politicized and came to see its purpose as political propaganda of the cruder sort, with all other programming relegated to marginal support roles. Feelings, understandably, ran strong – one staff member even wrote a piece on the propaganda machine WBAI had become for, of all places, National Review, then still under Bill Buckley’s editorship.

    Over time the staff, and the Pacifica National Board became increasingly absorbed by bitter factional internecine warfare, and listenership continued to decline. Eventually the point was reached where only the airing of infomercials for thoroughly dubious health products kept the station alive at all, and debts piled up.

    At present, the Pacifica National Board is wrestling with the possibility of an LMA/PSOA, quite probably as prelude to a sale of WBAI’s very valuable frequency (though WBAI and Pacifica are ‘non-profit’ ‘educational’ organizations, WBAI’s frequency of 99.5 is a commercial frequency and could be sold as such) in an attempt to shore up the other four Pacifica stations, all of which are in similar straits, but at less advanced stages of financial and listener implosion.

  • Lee A.

    A sad story indeed. Although there has been some discord also at Pacifica’s true “flagship” station, KPFA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, that station has mostly excellent programming, a loyal listenership and a competent local board. KPFA’s finances have been in the black, and at times, so good that it has subsidized some of the other Pacifica stations.

    For those who are interested in learning more, KPFA’s listeners and staff have been organizing via to dislodge incompetent national board leadership for several years now. Just a few weeks ago, KPFA’s highly respected former board chair Margy Wilkinson was elected, very narrowly, as Pacifica’s national board chair. It will be interesting to see if she and her colleagues can turn things around at this late date. If not, there are worries among KPFA’s listeners that the debts of the other stations could bring the whole 5-station network down, including historic KPFA, which has always been able to support itself.

    There has also been much talk of disbanding the Pacifica network, so that each station owns its own license, is locally controlled and responsible for its own destiny. One advocate of this strategy has been Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar, author of several books on Pacifica Radio, writing on Radio

  • Adrienne L.

    The story at KPFA, as so much at Pacifica, is more complicated than this simple good guys vs bad guys narrative. Pacifica is a 50 year old institution with decades-old philosophical, political and personal battles. These battles divide many good people on all sides of the questions and problems before us. It is our lack of unity and willingness to compromise that is at the heart of the problem.

    I have one clear understanding in the entire mess; there is no honor in disbanding the only national left media outlet in the U.S. It should be considered only as a last resort. It should come after everyone – everyone – puts down their propaganda tools and negotiates peace.

    Even a quick cruise through the posts at should be enough for you to realize that you are reading about KPFA through a particular agenda and a specific set of interests.

    These are the people who called for pickets outside the station when a program they had developed ended due to necessary budget cuts. Who was in charge when those cuts could have been made with less pain? They were. They cried foul and filed grievances over two jobs while 10-12 others took voluntary lay offs to prevent more involuntary layoffs. No one apologized to these good people for the lack of financial planning. No one gave them credit for their sacrifices.

    There’s more. Oh yes. The details are endless. But praising or denigrating one faction over another is fiddling while Pacifica burns.

    Margy Wilkinson, who is a leader of the SaveKPFA faction, is the chair of the board now. The problems she faces, take WBAI as just one example, are huge and the foundation is over a million dollars in debt. I hope she is able to take the necessary steps to take Pacifica down a healthy path. One of the most important tasks for her first month is frank conversations with people in the other faction so that the best solutions with the most consensus can be applied.

    There’s plenty of fault to go around. Maybe we could simply stop playing power games and try to preserve this valuable beloved network.

  • Mitchel Cohen

    Adrienne L. writes:
    “I have one clear understanding in the entire mess; there is no honor in disbanding the only national left media outlet in the U.S. It should be considered only as a last resort.”

    I disagree that there is any situation that should lead to disbanding the network. Fix the problems, don’t even consider selling off any stations. And please try to remember: Grossinger’s is the only “last resort”.

  • Anonymous

    If you needed any better example of what the problems are, look no further than Lee’s post. Quibbling over which station is the “flagship” station. It’s a pretty good indicator of the ego factors killing the place. Fine, Berkeley, you’re the “flagship”. Happy now? It’s like a bunch of 3rd graders in a classroom yelling “my show, my station”, me, me, me!

    KPFA has posted the following operating deficits for the past 5 years: 2009 -$575,000, 2010-$585,000 2011 – $-217,000, 2012 – $237,000 and tentatively for 2013 -$247,000. Does that sound like being in the black to you? It’s a $1.8 million dollar loss in the past five years.

    None of the Pacifica stations are self-sustaining. Essentially the subscriber numbers are too low – and they’re dropping at all the stations and have been for the past 6 years. WBAI may be the loss leader, but that’s because expenses are the highest in NYC.

    Chop one network with 5 failing divisions into parts and you still have 5 failing radio stations.

    Pacifica’s staff has prevented programming and technological improvements for years because they are frightened of and intuitively fight any changes and the loose governance power gives them a great deal of power. It’s an inmates running the asylum scenario.

  • AnneG

    The “anonymous” person above is Tracy Rosenberg, who is responsible for more damage to Pacifica than anyone. She’s overseen the network’s decline from a once healthy news and culture oasis to a group of station’s that are laying off staff left and right, and pitting listeners against each other. You can find the history at Luckily, she’s off the board as of this month, which may portend some positive changes.

  • DrTCH

    Look, I’m not fond of criticizing an institution that has meant a lot to me through the years, but I’ve been involved with the West Coast Pacifica outlet—KPFK-fm—for about four decades, and I must say that there has long been a lot of mystery and frustration over this station’s operation (despite occasional cutting-edge programming), and Pacifica policies and practices in general. Many of us have been insisting on much more transparency and accountability, but this never gets any more of an answer than empty promises and general baloney. It pretends to be OUR local station, but it has steadfastly refused to answer our many complaints…and when the Community Advisory Board, of which I was a member, got a bit strident in demanding a real voice (and real changes) some two years ago, the General Manager decided to summarily dismantle the Board, and refused to reimburse us for meeting expenses of a couple of hundred dollars, which we considered a rude slap in the face, and an indication of just how little respect Management actually has for its subscribers and signal area listeners…despite a lot of rhetoric about just and egalitarian management of the station.

    The accounting has always been seriously problematic, and there have been signs that significant funds have disappeared, including probably much that has gone to prop up WBAI, which some time back foolishly acquired its high-end Manhattan studios (finally abandoned recently!) and a costly transmitting tower arrangement (on the Empire State Building), though–unlike KPFK—the NYC station seems unable to raise funds to maintain any reasonable level of sustainability. I do know that we have had some very successful fund-drives here in recent years…. yet…BAM!!…and funds seem to have been siphoned away somewhere and, only a couple of months later, we are stuck with yet another drive (and with plenty of objectionable “snake-oil peddling” programming—featuring guests oftimes lacking medical or scientific credentials), when not so long ago, these events were held only two times per year, and didn’t have such low-grade program content.

    I will add that many of us have been pushing for more relevant, more properly politically and socially activist programming, instead of very vapid, bland, offerings that cover much of the broadcast day. Once in awhile our programming is top-notch, such as Ralph Nader’s hour which just premiered today, talks by Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky, but much of it is “middle of the road,” “Liberal” silliness, including stalwart support for the present and—corrupt–policies of the Obama administration (identical with those of the prior administration), supporting Wall Street and perpetual wars, which surely reflect psychopathology and the worrisome imperialistic agenda. I’m also not terribly happy with Brad Friedman and Michael Slate who provide a steady diet of hysterical, dogmatic rant every week. And, yes, people like Ian masters (for five days a week, for crying out loud!!) and Roy Ofari Hutchison (sporting an irritating syrupy, florid style) are solid Obama apologists, which very quickly becomes tiresome. C’mon, give it a rest.

    These are no doubt key reasons why our listenership has dwindled to something like a third of what we sported ten or twenty years ago (less than ideal programming, a refusal to build better ties to the community, and never-ending pledge-drives)…along with the general lack of transparency. One notable aspect of our warped accounting history is that not only are the “powers that be” adamant about blocking any but the most basic “financials,” but when we occasionally get a peek at same, there are missing figures, and the those which are provided never seem to make any sense. I was at a recent Finance Committee meeting, and I was appalled at the oddities and inexplicable remarks, such as “(We’ll call him Joe) has made a mistake here.” Or “He has omitted this value. I’ll have to get back to you on this.” Apparently the entire operation is very “Mickey Mouse.” So much in the way of irregularities, that we recently were denied our usual CPB support–on this basis–to the tune of $1 million, system-wide, which is not a small matter. I will end by mentioning that we had a Local Station Board election a year ago last December, and it was handled so poorly—by the Local Election Supervisor (and Management)–that we never reached a quorum. And, the performance during that election cycle featured all kinds of kooky incidents like the disappearance of something like 70% of the candidates’ recorded forty-five minute spots, and the two evenings of “multilingual” candidate Town Hall on-air events—in which I participated as a candidate–lacked a translator. Absolutely scandalous. The following LSB meeting left me totally mystified and angry, as no member raised any protest about the late election fiasco, but carried on…just business as usual. This from a board that is generally a “do-nothing” institution obviously intent on accomplishing nothing more than maintaining the status quo (and which represents an excellent remedy for insomnia). Attending these funeral-like events is literally painful for many of us.

  • Dusty Ayres

    More Obama Derangement Syndrome? When are you emoprogressives going to learn about life and reality instead of fantasy and bullshit?