Monday, August 12, 2013

WBAI in Crisis: A Brief History of Seminal NYC Radio

Posted By on Mon, Aug 12, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Radio in NYC was a wild place during the 60s and 70s, full of late-night rants, avant-garde arts and other signs of the counterculture. By the 21st century, most of that was gone from the airwaves, but it still lived on 99.5 FM, WBAI, an anarchically programmed (and, by most accounts, run) station on which often unpredictable shows informed by fiercely progressive, community-focused politics were the norm. But is that model proving untenable? The station has laid off two-thirds of its staff, including its entire news division, the Times reports. It's been "operating at a loss" since 2004, is in serious debt for rent on its transmitter, and unable to meet its payroll. (This comes after a few years of contention between staff and new management.) "The Pacifica network"—the non-profit company that owns WBAI and several other stations around the country—"had repeatedly drained its finances to cover WBAI’s expenses," the Times reports; the layoffs are meant to protect the station from having to sell its broadcasting license. But it doesn't bode well for the station's future. As WBAI possibly heads toward its end, let's look back at the contributions it's made to media and the US since getting on the air in 1960.

George Carlin's "Filthy Words"
In 1973, the station broadcast the comedian's classic "Seven Dirty Words" bit (the words are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits); a father who heard the broadcast in a car with his son filed a complaint, and the ado eventually became the landmark Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica, in which the high court ruled five-to-four that the government has a compelling interest in protecting children from potentially offensive material—that is, the court didn't limit "FCC's authority to sanction licensees who engage in obscene, indecent, or profane broadcasting."

Alices Restaurant Arlo Guthrie
Alice's Restaurant
Arlo Guthrie's epic 19-minute Thanksgiving tradition was first performed on WBAI in 1967; it proved so popular that the station would thereafter sometimes use it to raise money (by refusing to play it unless a certain amount was pledged). It has since become common for classic rock stations to play the song in its entirety every last Thursday in November. The song was broadcast on Radio Unnameable, a hugely influential program hosted by Bob Fass; it was recently the subject of a documentary that played at Film Forum.

Amy Goodman WBAI
Amy Goodman
The popular and highly respected broadcast journalist began her career in 1985 at WBAI, where for the next 10 years she produced the evening news. Her program Democracy Now began in 1996 as daily election coverage, but proved so popular it continued after the election ended. It has since become an enormously popular, well-syndicated program on radio, television, and the Internet. If WBAI does go under, she may prove its greatest contribution to the world.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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