September 30, 2022

Democracy May Prove the Doom of WBAI

WBAI likes to call itself “radio for the 99 percent.” But most of the time the station — a listener-supported and proudly scrappy mainstay of the left since 1960 — is lucky to be heard by 0.1 percent of the New York radio audience.

That disparity, and the teetering finances of the station and its owner, the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, became apparent on a Friday afternoon this month with a tearful on-air announcement by Summer Reese, Pacifica’s interim executive director, that the station was laying off 19 of its 29 employees just to cover basic expenses like the rent for its transmitter atop the Empire State Building.

“Most of your familiar hosts,” she told listeners, “will not even have the opportunity to really say goodbye to you.”

The layoffs, which included the entire news department, have put a spotlight on a station that has played a major role in American public broadcasting. WBAI, at 99.5 FM, was one of the leaders of the free-form radio movement in the 1960s, with early appearances by Bob Dylan and the on-air premiere of Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.” In the 1970s the station became a free-speech martyr when the Supreme Court upheld a Federal Communications Commission indecency citation for running George Carlin’s seven “filthy words.”

But huge debt and a dwindling membership have left both WBAI and Pacifica starved for cash. The station, one of five owned by the foundation, has operated in the red each year since 2004, accumulating more than $3 million in net losses, according to Pacifica financial statements. In addition to WBAI, Pacifica has stations in Los Angeles, Washington, Houston and Berkeley, Calif., and feeds content to more than 150 affiliates.

Among Pacifica’s debts are more than $2 million in broadcast fees owed to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!,” the network’s most popular show. To cover Pacifica’s operating costs, the network has drained most of its accounts, hobbling the organization and raising the doomsday scenario in which it would have to sell WBAI’s broadcast license.

Founded in 1946 by conscientious objectors from World War II, Pacifica was the first radio network to eschew commercial sponsorships and maintain itself through listener donations. But critics have long said that its top-heavy governance, with large local boards and frequent, expensive elections, have put the organization in a constant state of gridlock, and that unless Pacifica reforms it will simply govern itself to death.

“This is what the board does,” Ms. Reese said in an interview: “It fiddles while Rome burns.”

Those same problems were on display at a public WBAI board meeting last week in an arts space in Lower Manhattan. Despite the layoffs just days before, the first 25 minutes were devoted to a procedural debate about the night’s agenda, with frequent mentions of Robert’s Rules of Order. Occasional shouts of “fascist!” and “go back to the N.S.A.!” rang out from listeners in attendance.

Berthold Reimers, WBAI’s general manager, reported that the station had $23,000 on hand and was scouring Craigslist and other sites to furnish new, cheaper studios in Brooklyn. An Ikea chair was bought for $40, he said. “That’s the cheapest we could possibly get.”

Former WBAI staff members complain that constant management turnover as the board instituted one “coup” after another made their jobs nearly impossible.

“For the last 10 years working at WBAI has been a nightmare,” said Jose Santiago, the news director for two decades. “I compare it to the nation facing Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Their priority is to stay in power and bash each other in the head, and nothing ever gets done.”

The station has just 14,000 members, who last year contributed $2.5 million, according to a preliminary financial statement from Pacifica.

“Pacifica has fallen below the level of sustainability in the size of its audience,” said John Dinges, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and a former managing editor at NPR News.

“Democracy Now!” is Pacifica’s largest single creditor. Ms. Reese said that Ms. Goodman had been unwilling to restructure the debt, but Ms. Goodman, speaking last week after raising money on the air for two Pacifica stations, said she wanted to negotiate. “We are committed to the future of Pacifica,” she said.

To reform WBAI and Pacifica, Ms. Reese said she wanted to tame the finances, improve programming and rewrite the bylaws “from scratch.” The layoffs will save WBAI $900,000 a year, she said, but Pacifica is still strained. Board elections are held in two out of every three years, and last year the cycle cost $231,000. Pacifica still has $100,000 in legal bills, many from suits originating in the elections.

The financial situation raises the specter of selling WBAI’s broadcast license, its greatest asset. George R. Reed, a broker for television and radio stations, said that based on its reach, WBAI’s signal is worth about $45 million. But given the New York market, the price could easily be higher. Last year, for example, CBS paid $75 million for the 101.9 FM frequency.

Ms. Reese said she believed that Pacifica can turn itself around.

“This is not an irretrievable situation,” she said. “It’s a very politicized organization, and that sometimes interferes with making intelligent decisions. But by taking a look at programming, we can improve listener hours and our financial situation.”

Changing WBAI’s programming risks alienating the station’s core audience. Ms. Reese and the interim program director, Andrew Phillips, want more general-interest programming in the key “drive-time” hours of the morning and late afternoon. This strategy has been conventional wisdom in radio for decades, but not at WBAI, whose morning lineup includes shows like “First Voices Indigenous Radio.”

At the board meeting, Mr. Phillips told those in attendance that morning shows would no longer be directed “to the niche,” but that they would attract a wider audience that would help sustain the station. That proposition has terrified many of the station’s devotees.

Beverly Abisogun, 73, reflected the anger of many in attendance when she responded, saying, “We are not a niche; we are it.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 20, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Amy Goodman as a creditor of Pacifica with “Democracy Now.” The money is owed to the program, of which she is host and executive producer.

Article source:

Advertising: PBS Plans Promotional Breaks Within Programs

But those leisurely stretches of break-free programs could be going away.

PBS officials told member stations at its recent annual meeting in Orlando that beginning this fall, the Wednesday science series “Nature” and “Nova” would contain corporate and foundation sponsor spots, promotional messages and branding within four breaks inside the shows, instead of at the very beginning and end.

The longest period of uninterrupted programming, according to a plan shown to the programmers, would be just under 15 minutes, compared with the current 50 minutes or more. Based on what PBS learns in the fall, the new format would continue to be introduced night by night through the year, officials said.

Even before the plan became public last week, it was being intensely debated among PBS station executives and program producers. While many support testing the new model, others are worried about how viewers and the financial supporters will react, and if PBS can recover should they react badly.

The great unknowns are whether PBS viewers will welcome receiving programming in shorter bites, or rebel against a move they see as more commercial, and if foundation supporters will see the change as an abdication of mission.

“One of the biggest things they have to sell is that they are noncommercial,” said David D. Oxenford, a partner with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, who represents some public broadcasters.

“My first reaction is that in any kind of marketing opportunity, if you give up something that is desirable and differentiates you from your competition, it’s too bad, and that’s what this is,” said Alberto Ibargüen, a former PBS board chairman and president and chief executive of the Knight Foundation, which finances some public broadcasting initiatives. But, he added, “the people of PBS would not do this lightly.”

The change is meant to address a serious problem. Currently, the messages that a PBS station broadcasts are packed into a block at the end of each show, which, for hourlong programs, sometimes stretches to nearly eight minutes. Not surprisingly, viewers routinely flee.

“It’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits,” John F. Wilson, the chief programming executive for PBS, told attendees to the annual meeting, while exhibiting a Nielsen ratings chart showing a steep cliff where the audience disappeared between shows. (PBS executives declined to quantify the falloff depicted.)

Such an exodus makes it harder for PBS to build up an audience for the show that follows, Mr. Wilson said.

Under the new plan, there would be no break between shows, a transition known as a “hot switch” used by many cable networks. To accomplish this, the sponsor messages, PBS “Be more” branding spots, and show promotions would run inside programs, in short pods of under two minutes.

Mr. Wilson, in an interview, said viewers would never be more than one minute and 40 seconds away from actual program content. And, he noted, PBS shows would still be “the longest hour in television in terms of content,” with as much as 54 minutes of programming, compared with about 40 minutes for commercial networks.

All shows may not end up being candidates for breaks. “I’d look really carefully at a ‘Masterpiece’ drama, at how we’d do that or how often we’d do that,” he said. But many producers, who now have the luxury of structuring their shows without worrying about where the breaks will come, are likely to have to adapt. PBS is meeting with some concerned producers this week.

Jon Abbott, the president and chief executive of WGBH in Boston, which produces “Nova,” “Masterpiece” and “Frontline,” among others, called it a “missed opportunity” if viewers don’t see the work. He added, however, that “we have a lot of people who care about the work and care about our way of presenting work; that trust, the values that people place in public media are things that we are very attentive to and respectful of.”

The plan is “a fundamental change” likely to elicit viewer complaints, John Boland, the president and chief executive of KQED in San Francisco, said via e-mail. However, in the end, he wrote, “this is not a test of what people say but rather what they do. Do they spend more time or less time watching PBS stations with embedded breaks and a hot switch? There is ample evidence that this strategy has worked for commercial TV, and there is ample evidence that our viewers may be concerned about change but won’t desert us if we provide a reasonable explanation and continue to provide quality programming that simply is not available anywhere else (and certainly not available without interruption).”

PBS told station executives that they should check with their lawyers to make sure that they weren’t violating Federal Communications Commission policy governing noncommercial stations, but Mr. Wilson said he was confident the new policy wa legal. F.C.C. guidelines, he said, allow stations to acknowledge sponsors at “natural breaks,” and shows like “Nova” and “Antiques Roadshow” can be divided into chapters, just as noncommercial NPR programs already do.

“It’s not like this is untested, uncharted territory in some respect,” he said.

Mr. Oxenford said that under F.C.C. rules, announcements and acknowledgements may not interrupt regular programming. But sponsor messages are allowed at the beginning and end of shows, between identifiable segments of longer programs, or during station breaks, “such that the flow of programming is not unduly interrupted.”

Programs like “Antiques Roadshow,” which PBS said was scheduled to move to the new model starting in January, might indeed have identifiable breaks, “between looking at Grandma’s sofa and the 1850s flintlock someone had in their basement,” he said.

Article source:

Media Decoder: Florida Governor Vetoes PBS Funding

Just as a deal came together late last week to keep PBS programming on the air in Orlando, Florida’s public broadcasters suffered a financial blow when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the state’s nearly $4.8 million appropriation for public broadcasting.

That figure had already been reduced by 30 percent from the amount broadcasters received last year. With the cuts, each of 13 public radio stations will lose $87,287 in state funds compared with last year, and each of the 13 public television stations will lose a subsidy of $434,837. Stations receive the same subsidy, regardless of size.

“For me, it is critical; for a small station it might be catastrophic,” said Rick Schneider, president and chief executive of Miami’s WPBT-TV. He said there was “no doubt that people are going to have to look at layoffs” and that he would not be surprised if some stations were shut down. The broadcasters will work to get the funds reinstated, he said.

Orlando’s WMFE-TV had already decided to leave public broadcasting, citing financial strain in its decision to sell itself to a religious broadcaster, which would have left the city without PBS programming on July 1.

But, on Thursday, the University of Central Florida in Orlando said it reached a partnership deal with WBCC, at Brevard Community College in nearby Cocoa. U.C.F. will invest up to $1 million in the college station, which had been the market’s secondary PBS station (and already offered some U.C.F. programming on a digital subchannel) and will now become the primary station, pending PBS approval. It will be renamed WUCF.

Grant J. Heston, the university’s assistant vice president who is in charge of overseeing UCFTV, said that as the university with the nation’s second-largest enrollment, U.C.F. believed it had a base that “will help us generate that community support” needed to operate the station. He said officials had set conservative initial fund-raising goals and would operate “as lean and efficient as possible.”

Article source:

BBC, Under Criticism, Struggles to Tighten Its Belt

DAVID CAMERON, the British prime minister, was in Brussels meeting the press last October when he took a few moments to make fun of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

“Good to see that costs are being controlled everywhere,” Mr. Cameron said as he directed a mocking glance at three BBC correspondents, each from a different BBC program, covering his news conference.

The implication: Considering that the BBC has agreed to freeze most of its public funding for six years, effectively sentencing itself to a 16 percent budget cut through 2017, it surely could have looked harder at its staffing needs for the event.

“We’re all in this together,” Mr. Cameron said sarcastically, reciting his government’s favorite austerity slogan, and then added, “including, deliciously, the BBC.”

Why would the British premier celebrate the financial woes of the BBC? The corporation is the biggest, oldest and most revered public broadcasting company in the world, a centerpiece of the British brand, as essential to Britain’s view of itself as the National Health Service or the royal family. 

The BBC’s news broadcasts, whether on the radio or on television, exude authority and command respect around the globe. The corporation has also made extraordinary cultural contributions to Britain over the decades, through nurturing  talent, sponsoring major musical events and broadcasting television shows like “I, Claudius,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers.” Britons call it, affectionately, the Beeb, and sometimes “Auntie,” for its traditional role as the last word on everything.

But despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the BBC seems at times to be an all-purpose whipping boy, an easy target for casual joking and at times naked derision from the country’s political establishment.

As Mr. Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government embarks on a grueling austerity program, it has accused the BBC of “extraordinary and outrageous waste.” Media companies — especially those of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, the BBC’s chief competitor — have been quick to join the critical chorus.

Much of the criticism has to do with the license fee of £145.50 (about $240) that is levied annually on every British household with a television set. The fee brings in £3.6 billion a year, about 80 percent of the BBC’s total income.

The mandatory charge makes Britons feel, rightly, that they own the BBC, and emboldens them to complain loudly and often — as thousands did recently about a storyline in the soap opera “EastEnders.” In the show, a character whose baby dies of sudden infant death syndrome secretly swaps the body with her neighbor’s live baby. The writers rewrote the script so that she finally gives the baby back.

Just as Republicans in the United States have complained that National Public Radio has a left-wing bias, so do conservatives in Britain complain about the BBC’s political leanings. (A threat to remove NPR’s federal funding has remained only that so far.)

Members of Parliament are outraged at BBC executives’ high salaries, like the 2010 compensation package of £838,000, or about $1.4 million, for the director general, Mark Thompson; that total is set to drop to £619,000 this year. Its employees — it had more than 21,300 at the end of 2010 — are worried for their jobs, angry about a plan to relocate many of them from London to a suburb of Manchester, and unhappy about cuts in their pension plans.

The BBC’s many detractors, led by Mr. Murdoch’s corporation, say the licensing fee has allowed it “to get too big, too smug, too unanswerable,” as The Sun, a tabloid owned by Mr. Murdoch, declared in an editorial last year.

The BBC is not permitted to accept advertising for its broadcasting activities or Web sites within Britain, but it does accept ads and generates revenue through some of its international arms. Rivals complain that it behaves increasingly like a profit-making company, despite its public subsidy.

THE licensing fee is an anachronism, put in place in 1922, when the BBC was founded as a monopoly. Such was its reverence for the seriousness of its own mission, to “inform, educate and entertain,” that its news anchors habitually wore dinner jackets during radio broadcasts. It got its first television competitor, ITV, in the 1950s.

Today’s media landscape, with scores of television and radio channels available via satellite, cable or over the air, is unrecognizable from the one envisioned all those years ago. As those channels fight for audiences and advertising, the BBC’s guaranteed income is, more than ever, a source of envy.

“If you look at the dynamic marketplace that exists in this country, and someone came along and said, ‘This is a market that needs three and a half billion pounds’ worth of public intervention,’ they would be laughed out of court,” said Michael Grade, a former chairman of both the BBC and of ITV, the biggest commercial TV company in Britain. Like many Britons, both friends and foes of the BBC, Mr. Grade believes that the corporation has been allowed to grow too big and too unwieldy, offering too much to too many people.

Every week, more than 97 percent of the British population watches, reads or listens to something produced by the BBC, which operates 10 TV channels and 16 radio stations domestically. Through its World Service radio network, it has a weekly global audience of 180 million.

Article source: