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‘A Complete Shock:’ Long-Running Freeform Radio Station WBAI Abruptly Shut Down


WBAI, a pioneering left-leaning radio station based in Brooklyn, has ceased operations, more than six decades after first hitting the airwaves. The news was announced on Monday by the Pacifica Foundation, a Berkley-based nonprofit that has owned the station since 1960.

“Due to ongoing and continue projections of further financial losses at WBAI, local station operations are being discontinued as of October 7, 2019,” the company said in a statement. “We realize this news will come as a deep and painful shock, but we can no longer jeopardize the survival of the entire network.”

The statement left open the possibility of WBAI returning to air “once we are able to create a sustainable financial structure for the station.” Pacifica’s network includes four other listener-supported stations across the country.

The station’s small staff and larger pool of volunteers were notified of the abrupt closure on Monday morning. “It’s a complete shock,” said Jeff Simmons, who hosts the WBAI shows Driving Forces and City Watch. “I was at the studio last night live on my show and no one seemed to have an inkling. It was a complete surprise.”

Simmons added that the company was in the process of building a new studio, and had kicked off a fundraising drive less than a week ago that he said raised tens of thousands of dollars.

Others were less shocked, pointing to WBAI’s ongoing financial problems, which had led to the termination of most staff members back in 2013.

The station’s current programming includes Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, as well as a mix of cultural and news shows such as Max & Murphy, Black Seinfeld, and Bike Snob. “It’s a sad day for New York City given WBAI’s place in the civic discourse and news world for many years,” said Ben Max, the co-host of Max & Murphy, who also runs Gotham Gazette. He said Max & Murphy would return in its original format as a podcast.

A trailblazer in experimental FM radio, WBAI’s hosts were once central voices of the city’s countercultural movement, anchored in large part by Bob Fass and his enduring free-form program “Radio Unnameable.” The progressive-minded show developed a cult following in the 1960s, and featured frequent appearances by Bob Dylan and the first-ever performance of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”

In recent years, the station has been marked by management turnover, internecine fighting over its governance structure, and a shrinking audience. Back in 2013, WBAI’s interim director announced that it was laying off 19 of 29 employees, including the entire news department, in order to cover basic expenses. The company also lost a court case in 2017 regarding backpay owned to keep its transmitter in the Empire State Building

Last year, WBAI found itself the subject of controversy after hiring Leonard Lopate, the longtime WNYC host who was fired for “inappropriate conduct.” While other WBAI hosts and producers were unpaid, both Lopate and his producers were reportedly compensated. Jay Smooth, who hosted the long running hip-hop show The Underground Railroad, resigned in protest.

In a statement on Monday, New York Attorney General Tish James said the station’s shuttering was “a huge loss for New York City and local news coverage we all depend on.”

“This is deeply disappointing and I hope this station is relaunched,” she added.

Inquiries to both Pacifica Foundation and WBAI’s management were not returned. We’ll update if we hear back.

Additional reporting by Lydia McMullen-Laird.

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