|City of license||New York, NY|
|Broadcast area||Metropolitan New York|
|Slogan||Your Peace and Justice Community Radio Station|
|First air date||January 8, 1960|
|ERP||4,300 watts, Stereo|
|Callsign meaning||the former owner, Broadcast Associates Incorporated|
WBAI, a part of the Pacifica Radio Network, is a non-commercial, listener-supported radio station, broadcasting at 99.5 FM in New York City. The station has a transmitter atop the Empire State Building.
Its programming is leftist/progressive, and a mixture of political news and opinion from a leftist perspective, tinged with aspects of its complex and varied history, such as Freeform radio, which WBAI played a role in developing, as well as various music.
The station began as WABF, which first went on the air in 1941 as W75NY, of Metropolitan Television, Inc. (W75NY indicating an eastern station at 47.5 MHz in New York), and moved to the 99.5 frequency in 1948. In 1955, after two years off the air, it was reborn as WBAI (whose calls were named after then-owners Broadcast Associates, Inc.).
WBAI was purchased by eccentric philanthropist Louis Schweitzer, who donated it to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960. The station, which had been a commercial enterprise, became non-commercial and listener-supported under Pacifica ownership.
The history of WBAI is iconoclastic and contentious. Referred to in a New York Times Magazine piece as "an anarchist's circus," one station manager was jailed in protest, and the staff, in protest at sweeping proposed changes of another station manager, seized the studio facilities, then located in a deconsecrated church, as well as the transmitter, located atop the Empire State Building. During the 1960's the station hosted innumerable anti-establishment causes, including the anti-war folks, feminists, kids lib, early firesign theater comedy, and complete-album music overnight. Notable were the continual direct daily coverage of the Vietnam war, including the daily body count, their refusal to stop playing Janice Ian's Society's Child record about interracial relationships (for which their affiliated station in Houston had their tower dynamited), and their live coverage of various bra-burning conventions.
WBAI played a major role in the evolution and development of the counterculture in the 1960s and early 1970s. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" was first broadcast on Radio Unnameable, Bob Fass’ freeform radio program on WBAI, a program which itself in many ways created, explored, and defined the possibilities of the form. The station covered the 1968 seizure of the Columbia University campus live and uninterrupted, as well as innumerable anti-war protests. With its signal reaching nearly 70 miles beyond New York City, its reach and influence, both direct and indirect, were significant. Among the station's weekly commentators in the mid-1960s was author Ayn Rand. The 1964 Political conventions were "covered" satirically on WBAI by Severn Darden, Elaine May, Burns and Schreiber, David Amram, and members of the Second City comedy group. The station, under Music Director Eric Salzman (who served in this capacity through much of the 60s), presented an annual 24-hour nonstop presentation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, held live performances of emerging artists in its studios, and produced and presented interviews with prominent figures in literature and the arts, as well as original highly produced radio dramas.
In 1970, Kathy Dobkin, Milton Hoffman, and Francie Camper produced an unprecedented, critically acclaimed 4½ day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy's War And Peace. The epic novel was read cover to cover by more than 200 people—including a large number of international celebrities from various fields. "Newsweek" called this broadcast "one of the more mind-blowing 'firsts' in the history of the media". The complete reading (over 200 audio tapes) was the first Pacifica program to be selected for inclusion in the permanent collection of the Museum of Broadcasting in NYC.
In 1973, the station broadcast comedian George Carlin's infamous Filthy Words routine uncensored. WBAI's broadcast of Filthy Words became a landmark moment in the history of free speech. In a 1978 milestone in the station's contentious and unruly history, WBAI lost a 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation) that to this day has defined the power of the government over broadcast material it calls indecent.
In 1974 WBAI program director Marnie Mueller asked Charles Ruas to become director of arts programming. Thus the station, already at the forefront of the counterculture and anti-war protest, also became a platform for New York’s avant-garde in theater, music, performance, art, and poetry. When the downtown avant-garde opera A Letter to Queen Victoria by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opened at the Metropolitan Opera, the station was right there to tape excerpts in rehearsals for broadcast.
Ruas initiated a year-long series on Marguerite Young’s epic novel Miss McIntosh, My Darling. These readings were transformed into performances by Rob Wynne, who scored them with a complex collage of sound effects, music, and opera. The participants included Anaïs Nin, Marian Seldes, Alice Playten, H. M. Koutoukas, Leo Lerman, Michael Wagger, Novella Nelson, Osceola Archer, Owen Dodson, Wyatt Cooper, Michael Higgins, Anne Fremantle, Peggy Cass, Ruth Ford, Earle Hyman and Daisy Alden.
When William Burroughs returned to the United States from Tangier, Ruas invited him to present a retrospective of all his works. The series consisted of four programs, beginning with Junkie and followed by The Yage Letters, read by Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, and, finally, Naked Lunch. Bill Kortum oversaw this series as well as retrospectives of the works of Jerzy Kosinski and Donald Barthelme, co-produced with Judith Sherman, the station’s music director.
A semester of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry seminar held at the Naropa Institute in Colorado was presented by Ruas, and for many years the station covered the annual New Year’s Eve celebratory poetry marathon at St. Mark’s Church. The day the Vietnam War ended, poet Muriel Rukeyser came to the station to read her poem on peace.
Ruas inaugurated the Audio Experimental Theater, a series presenting the works of avant-garde artists: Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Ed Bowes, Michael Newman, Joan Schwartz, Benjamin Folkman, Vito Acconci, Charles Ludlum, Jacques Levy, Willoughby Sharp, John Cage, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Richard Foreman, and Joan Jonas.
In drama, the station defended Tennessee Williams against his critics during his last years by covering his Memoirs and broadcasting a production of Two-Character Play. Other dramatists whose works were featured included Jean-Claude van Itallie, Richard Scheckner, Andrei Serban, and Elizabeth Swados.
Ruas initiated interview programs featuring nonfiction writers discussing their fields of expertise—Buckminster Fuller, Thor Heyerdahl, Ed Sanders, Jonathan Kozol and Nigel Nicholson.
Each of the arts had weekly coverage. Courtney Callender’s Getting Around covered the cultural scene. Moira Hudson was the dance critic. The visual arts critics were John Perreault, Cindy Nemser, Liza Baer, Joe Giordano, Judith Vivell, Kenneth Koch, and Les Levine.
Susan Howe produced a weekly poetry program presenting the works of John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Maureen Owen, Charles Reznikoff, Rebecca Wright, Ron Padgett, Carter Ratcliff, John Hollander, Anne Waldman, Helen Adam, Audre Lorde, Michael Brownstein, Mary Ferrari, and Muriel Rukeyser. She also produced specials featuring William Carlos Williams, V. R. Lang, Jack Spicer, Louise Bogan, Paul Metcalf, Jonathan Williams, Harry Mathews, and James Laughlin. John Giorno presented his 5-part series Dial-a-Poem Poets.
For a few years WBAI became a cultural force as these programs were disseminated nationally through the Pacifica Network.
With the decline of the arc of history represented by the 1960s and 1970s, the station turned against itself. A new board of directors determined a new agenda, and, against the staff resistance provoked by what was known internally as The Crisis, and manifest in the seizure and occupation of the facilities, a different station emerged, one which attempted to offer an alternative perspective within the mainstream commercial aesthetic rather than from the outside.
In 1998, WBAI moved to the tenth floor at 120 Wall Street in the Financial District.
In January 2013, the station announced it would be moving out of those studios to temporary studios in Harlem.
In June 2013 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting suspended payments to WBAI citing accounting irregularities and a failure by the station to meet its financial obligations. Layoff notices effective July 15 were subsequently issued to the station's staff and management.
On August 9, 2013, Pacifica management announced that due to financial problems, WBAI was laying off about two-thirds of its staff, effective August 12, 2013. The entire news department was laid off. Summer Reese, the interim executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI, said that after talks with SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents broadcasting talent, “we will be laying off virtually everyone whose voice you recognize on the air,” effective Monday. She corrected that and announced the final number was 19 out of the station’s 29 employees, about 66 percent. Andrew Phillips, the former general manager of another of Pacifica’s five stations, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, was appointed WBAI’s interim program director. The New York Times reported that the station owes $2 million in broadcast fees to Democracy Now! alone, while cash on hand was just $23,000. In March 2014 there are assorted rumors that the station will be sold or leased or moved, in whole or in part (one expensive part being their equipment and antenna at the empire state building). after contentions and firings both at WBAI and at Pacifica headquarters.
Alumni of the station
Alumni of WBAI include Margot Adler, Abraham Aig, Jan Albert, Chris Albertson, Nancy Allen, Matt Alperin, Archie Altman, Lindsay Audin, Robbie Barish, Deborah Begel, Olenka Bohachevski, Delphine Blue, Peter Bochan, Bunny Bruce, Janice K. Bryant, Doreen Canto, Pepsi Charles, Frank Coffee, Candy Cohen, Janet Coleman, Neal Conan, Pat Conte, John Corigliano, Deloris Costello, Liza Cowan, Larry Cox, Joe Cumo, Ken Davis, Barbara Day, Ife Dancy, Dick Demenus, Paul DeRienzo, Kathy Dobkin, Mike Edl, Barika Taheer Edwards, Matt Edwards, Dick Elman, Bob Fass, Mike Feder, Charlie Finch, Richard Fioravanti, Paul Fischer, John Fisk, Sara Fishko, Joe Frank, Gary Fried, Jim Freund, Paul Gorman, Joanne Grant, Jeff Greenfield, Edward Haber, Doug Henwood, Lex Hixon, Charles Hobson, Milton Hoffman, Mary Houston, Susan Howe, Jimmy Howes, Rob Hunter, [James Irsay], Timothy Jerome, Reggie Johnson, Larry Josephson, Sam Julty, Citizen Kafka, Dred-Scott Keyes, Glo Kirby, Robert Knight, Alen Pol Kobryn, Chris Koch, Robert Kuttner, Richard Lamparski, Andy Lanset, Julius Lester, Al Lewis, Tom Leykis, John Lithgow, Sari Locker, Leonard Lopate, The Mighty G-Man, Ann MacMillan, Marian McPartland, Samori Marksmen, Margaret Mercer, Frank Millspaugh, Dale Minor, Rebecca Myles, Kathy O'Connell, Andrew Phillips, Betty Pilkington, Charles Pitts, Steve Post, Charles Potter, Robert Potts, David Rapkin, Chris Rhoden, Desiree K. Robinson, David Rothenberg, Jay Rothman (Zeke), Charles Ruas, Eric Salzman, Lynn Samuels, Andrea Sears, Bill Schechner, Baird Searles, Judy Sherman, John J. Simon, Anthony J. Sloan , Miles Smith, Peter Cedric Rock Smith (aka: Rocky), Jay Smooth, Bruce Soloway, A. B. Spellman, Gordon Spencer, Dick Sudhalter, Becky Thorn, Tom Tracy, Mickey Waldman, Marjorie Waxman, Manoli Wetherell, Ira Weitzman, Chris Whent, Bernard White, Tom Whitmore, Will K. Wilkins, Ed Woodard, David Wynyard, Peter Zanger.
In the 1960s, Dale Minor and Chris Koch reported on the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. Former Station Manager Chris Albertson returned to the music field, spent 28 years as Contributing Editor to Stereo Review and authored a biography of Bessie Smith. The Apple specialist business Tekserve was originally composed of former WBAI employees David Lerner, Dick Demenus, and Mike Edl. Through the 1970s, David Rapkin, James Irsay and Charles Potter produced some of the finest American radio drama of the post "Golden Age", some is still found in the Pacifica Archive, notable, an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. In the 1980s, new studios at 505 Eighth Avenue were built by Miles Smith who, along with WBAI alumna Jane Pipik, is now working at WGBH in Boston. In 1986 Mary Houston and Alfred Webre produced the first live satellite radio shows between the USSR and USA called THE INSTANT OF COOPERATION. It was a 5 hour live satellite broadcast that included music, poetry and dialogue between the artists, dignitaries and peoples of the USSR and USA. (NYT January 1, 1987) This was followed up by a monthly series called, MOSCOW NEW YORK LIVE. Houston received an international radio award for the programs presented in Moscow About the same time Dennis Coleman, Jim Freund, Sharon Griffiths, Kathy O'Connell, Sharon Mattlin, Sidney Smith, Paul Wunder, Max Schmid and Simon Loekle formed EMRA, the "Early Morning Radio Alliance". Loekle also created the Shakespeare Liberation Front and with Stephen Erickson produced radio dramas, dramatic readings and documentaries – notably, Tale of the Monkey King and the Communist Manifesto. Loekle (As I Please – Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. and Stand-up Academy), Freund (Hour of the Wolf), Smith, and Schmid are still at the station. After retiring as a NYC High School science teacher, Paul Wunder, aka "Doctor Science", became Operations Director, a position he held until his death. Erickson, who became program director in 1984 but was battered by charges of racism (The Village Voice, 1985) when he attempted to change the program schedule, moved to Germany where he produces radio documentaries.
Democracy Now! is presently WBAI’s most influential offering. The station also hosts shows such as Golden Age of Radio serials, Weaponry, a show about military history and technology, Free Speech Radio News, and Wakeup Call (WBAI's morning drive time news magazine presented by several hosts including Mario Murillo and Esther Armah). Also included is a regular arts program, The Artsy Fartsy Show with host Barika Taheer Edwards. Others are the weekly science fiction program Hour of the Wolf presented by Jim Freund, and Off The Hook, a program by the 2600 hacker group about the societal implications of communications & security technology and related laws, and The Personal Computer Show with Joe King and Hank Kee. Music programming includes Peter Bochan's All Mixed Up, Music of the Grateful Dead and more on Morning Dew, Free-form music and arts program "In the Moment"  hosted by Ahmad Ali with Will Roberson and Mailon Rivera of Urban Alchemy 360º on Friday Mornings, Jeannie Hopper's Liquid Sound Lounge on Saturdays, "Through The Opera Glass" and Chris Whent's "Hear of a Sunday Morning" on Sunday mornings, Chico Alvarez's New World Gallery on Sunday afternoons and David Kenney's Everything Old Is New Again, a mix of pop and jazz standards, show tunes, cabaret and interviews on Sunday evenings.
WBAI also offers programming and specials targeted primarily toward cultural audience segments that are typically under-served by most commercial media outlets. Radio Tahrir (supported in part by the Islamic Center of Long Island and targeted primarily towards Muslims), Out FM (New York's "only progressive queer radio hour"), Joy of Resistance ("multicultural feminist radio"), First Voices Indigenous Radio (a global look at native/indigenous peoples), Radio drama serial The Aliens (one of the few radio drama series to hit the US airwaves since the Golden Age of Radio) focused on inter-cultural relationships around the world, and Asia Pacific Forum (targeted primarily towards Asian Americans) are examples of such programming.
- Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment. U of Minnesota Press. 1999. p. 116. ISBN 0-8166-3157-3. Retrieved 2012-02-23.
- Collins, Glenn (June 25, 2008). "The Station That Dared to Defend Carlin's '7 Words' Looks Back". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-02-23.
- "Co-hosts of radio show 'The Pursuit of Happiness' committed suicide". NY Daily News. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
- CPB Holds Back Funds From Pacifica As WBAI Is Late On Payroll And Antenna Payments All Access, June 20, 2013
- WBAI Lays Off Entire Staff Lance Venta. Radio Insight, June 20, 2013
- End Times for WBAI in New York City? Matthew Lasar, Radio Survivor, June 21, 2013
- Ben Sisario, "WBAI-FM Lays Off Most of Staff," Aug. 11, 2013, The New York Times, at .
- Ben Sisario, "Democracy May Prove the Doom of WBAI," August 20, 2013, The New York Times, at 
- "WBAI debuts radio drama 'The Aliens'". Radio Business Report. March 16, 2010. Retrieved 2012-02-23.
- "WBAI Program Schedule". WBAI.org. Retrieved 2012-02-23.
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- Query the FCC's FM station database for WBAI
- Radio-Locator information on WBAI
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Related news articles
- WBAI-FM Lays Off Most of Staff, By BEN SISARIO, August 11, 2013, nytimes.com.
- WBAI's Death by Democracy: Warring activists cause a legendary public radio station to implode, By Tessa Stuart Wednesday, Sep 4 2013, villagevoice.com