"Off The Hook" is off the air - NYC's WBAI effectively shut down
October 10, 2019 4:48 PM   Subscribe

Since October 7, 1988 Emmanuel Goldstein and others associated with 2600.com have broadcast the weekly show "Off The Hook" from WBAI. Monday morning October 7, 2019 the station's parent organization Pacifica Foundation fired and locked out all WBAI employees, took over the WBAI domain which included show archives, and removed microphones and FCC mandated equipment from the broadcast studio. While a TRO was in place by Tuesday night, which should have allowed local programming to continue, on Thursday October 10, most of it was reported vacated.

On Wednesday evening, October 9, the show broadcast over youtube a show dedicated to the situation. Reggie Johnson has been posting video updates. The WBAI twitter feed is still under local control.
posted by Sophont (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, I miss Pacifica Radio drama. There aren't any stations nearby.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:57 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the early oughts, Grandpa Al Lewis of The Munsters fame had a weekly show on WBAI (saturdays around lunchtime if memory serves) where he let his hard left-wing tendencies loose in a very Grandpa Munster sort of way. It was quite entertaining, to me at least, and I've looked but never found any archive of shows available.
Meanwhile 2600 will survive just fine as a podcast, while terrestrial broadcasts become more an more obsolete. I hope Pacifica will preserve and share the archives, because not so long ago, WBAI "Community Barnyard Radio," "Where Rock rents an apartment" was the yellow-dog awesome sauce.
posted by Fupped Duck at 5:00 PM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

You have to respect that Pacifica tried for years to facilitate success at WBAI. The station seemed unable to raise money at any opportunity.
posted by parmanparman at 5:08 PM on October 10, 2019

In San Francisco, we had a great long-time college radio station, KUSF. The university sold it to some bland as wonder bread classical conglomerate that was aggressively taking over college radio stations across the country. The university gave the mostly (if not all) volunteer staff absolutely no notice -- the staff and DJs just showed up one day to find themselves locked out.

I knew some of the people involved in that station and I witnessed the emotional devastation it caused. It was a long-term labor of love for everyone involved as well as a big extended family. They appealed to the FCC but, probably needless to say, lost.

All this to say my heart goes out of the people of WBAI.

And if anyone from USF is reading this, I will never give another fucking penny to your institution because of this. Stop begging for donations for your next pointless campus construction project.
posted by treepour at 5:11 PM on October 10, 2019 [19 favorites]

So digging around for the actual source of the conflict, I found the claim was that WBAI was $4M in debt, but given this was internal debt to Pacifica, it's not clear to me whether they were in fact a notable expense compared to other Pacifica stations or if it was accounting magic to facilitate a takeover.

The Gothamist roundup article suggests a lot of internal issues, and it links to a 2013 NY Observer article, by a former WBAI host, that is a pretty brutal rundown... but of course, that is the Observer, not exactly a neutral source.
posted by tavella at 5:17 PM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

As an occasional listener to the podcast, I'm torn between hoping they somehow win the good fight (if so it truely is), and hoping they jettison the old media and incessant fundraising (something like 1/3rd of their programs were fundraisers).

WBAI might make a fine podcast network.
posted by joeyh at 5:23 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Why did Pacifica do this?

Don't I hear them on random left-leaning PBS stations?

posted by Windopaene at 5:33 PM on October 10, 2019

UPDATE: N.Y. State Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo has granted an injunction against the Pacifica Foundation’s attempt to close WBAI. Regular programming should resume today. Both parties are currently due to appear before Justice Nervo on Friday, Oct. 18 The Independent reports. The closure also stops the NYC DSA show REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE from airing thier interview with public banking advocates.
posted by The Whelk at 6:18 PM on October 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

The Whelk - that injunction was mostly vacated this morning. In anycase, the loss of equiptment would have prevented shows from broadcasting.

At least the first 15 minutes of the youtube show are worth listening to. EG addresses the viability of continuing as a podcast, since along with the listener call ins, it reaches people who don't use podcasts. The finances were also disputed. One example given was a recent $500k bequest to wbai that was redirected to PF. Also, if finances are an issue, why close it down at the start of an annual pledge month, rather than at the end?
posted by Sophont at 6:37 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

WBAI was in my feed last summer when Jay Smooth (AKA Ill Doctrine) ended his long-running (30 years!) WBAI Hip Hop show "The Underground Railroad," after the station hired Leonard Lopate. Jeannie Hopper from show "Liquid Lounge" also left at the same time. That spread through the community and maybe dried up the last bit of community good will they had.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 6:39 PM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

When they decided to hire Leonard Lopate after he was fired for misconduct, I decided BAI was a dinosaur whose time had come
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:41 PM on October 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

There's a great moment around 1:30:00 where Emmanuel asks Alex if it would be legal for them to hack into WBAI.org, since the court has said they're supposed to have access. Alex's answer is appropriately lawyerly.
posted by joeyh at 6:43 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I actually was on air at KUSF a couple three times... had loads of fun doing it. I feel for people locked out that way. It’s criminal as far as I’n concerned.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:40 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fuck. Again? I thought we'd decisively won this battle 20 years ago. (Based on an I'll informed quick read and not having paid much attention for years. Pacifica politics aren't always what they appear.)
posted by eotvos at 12:02 AM on October 11, 2019

The local station where I live (in the UK) carries Democracy Now! every morning from 10-11. It's... not a great listen, because it's a foreign show, often carries a lot of impenetrable US politics inside-baseball stuff and because of timezones it can be a day or so old.

Anyway, according to the latest Nielsen ratings, WBAI has a 0.2 share of all listening in the New York City market. It's below even some out-of-area stations that overspill into NYC. This type of station is never going to top the ratings, but bouncing around between a 0.1 and 0.2 share is pretty poor - does it matter that alternative local voices are reaching the city's airwaves if no-one is listening? I'd hazard a guess that more people are listening to the podcasts of many WBAI shows - where you can listen at a time of your choosing on your preferred device - than are listening to the linear FM broadcasts. The signal has a lot of potential as a leftist voice in the city but people just aren't listening to what they're pumping out right now, so changes are evidently needed.

Pacifica politics being what it is, I'm not sure how true this is, but I've read stuff elsewhere suggesting that they're deliberately trying to run WBAI into the ground in order to sell it to a commercial broadcaster - an NYC FM signal is worth anywhere north of $30 million, which could then be pumped into the foundation's west coast stations to keep them on the air. WBAI already ran into trouble a few years ago by being unable to pay millions in rent for a transmitter site on the Empire State Building and have now moved elsewhere - but that debt is still payable. I understand that they borrowed the funds from PF to pay the ESB debt.

In any case, the name on the licence is Pacifica Foundation, not WBAI local management, so they're within their power to do whatever they want to the signal as long as it fits with their (let's face it, byzantine) by-laws.
posted by winterhill at 3:47 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

but of course, that is the Observer, not exactly a neutral source.

I trust Doug Henwood who wrote the article.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:23 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

The 2600 guys who do Off The Hook were always adamant about remaining on the radio, even carrying the show on shortwave, so that anybody can listen. If you’re poor or incarcerated, chances are that you’ve got a radio or access to one. As Winterhill points out, this is probably a very tiny segment of the already small radio listening population, but they’ve stuck to this conviction and I’ve always admired that.
posted by dr_dank at 4:26 AM on October 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

they’ve stuck to this conviction and I’ve always admired that.

Was coming in to say the same: the 2600 ethos has always been that old tech matters, especially because of access issues like this. They've always said if it came to this they'd continue as a podcast, but that was always part of a depressing discussion.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:42 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Why did Pacifica do this?

One cynical view is that WBAI's place on the dial (99.5) is a very desirable asset. Not to expand Pacifica's reach: to sell off. It's not all Democracy Now! and crazy local shows about crystal healing over there.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:45 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

the staff and DJs just showed up one day to find themselves locked out.

this is pretty much standard operational procedure in the live media biz. The feeling being (no doubt based on past incidents) that if you give on-air people notice that they're going to be fired-laid-off-let-go, they have a tendency to say what they really think on-air in front of thousands, maybe millions of people.

In other words, if management had been properly cold-heartedly professional, the movie NETWORK could never have happened.
posted by philip-random at 8:13 AM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

I was on Off The Hook for a while between 2009-2011. I quit in part because WBAI was unbelievably poorly managed, and in part because Gary Null, on whose success the station relied, was a dangerous quack. Here were my thoughts at the time. The pressure to keep the station afloat also led Emmanuel to be very unpleasant during the constant fundraising months; he'd basically badger all of us until we got friends and colleagues to donate things as premiums.

A little while ago there appeared to be a small group of young leftists who aimed to take the station over. I thought this was the best possible outcome; the station as it stood desperately needed bad managers and shady producers weeded out. Better by far than losing the station to the eternally-looming lucrative sell-off of its powerful dial position. Sadly, it looks like that's now off the table.

Progressive institutions ossify and die, and lose unimaginable gains. We can only do what it takes to support the next generation growing up in their ruins.
posted by gusandrews at 8:53 AM on October 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

For those interested in the work of Off The Hook, it's also worth noting that its associated Hackers On Planet Earth conference is also under threat; the hotel where it is usually held wants to charge the conference three times what it previously charged.
posted by gusandrews at 9:07 AM on October 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I trust Doug Henwood who wrote the article.

It definitely sounded like the authentic inside voice, but given the source I wanted to flag it. My impression after reading a few articles (and personal testimonies here) was that a) the station was an absolute trash fire, in ways that were dangerous to both employees (such as hiring a known abuser) and listeners (shilling dangerous quackery), b) but that instead of trying to fix the management and keep a non-corporate voice on the NYC airwaves, Pacifica aims to sell the assets, and c) that it's possible that Pacifica doesn't have the money to rehab it, even if they wanted to (but they probably don't). They are apparently facing the repayment of a multi-million dollar loan.
posted by tavella at 9:19 AM on October 11, 2019

Henwood was doing solid reporting on WBAI back when I wrote my piece, and reached out to me about it.
posted by gusandrews at 10:14 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's amazing that Off the Hook has been on the air for 31 years, since 1988.

It's older than Wired, and Snow Crash, and The Cuckoo's Egg, and the EFF. Older than Windows 3.0, Linux and Super Nintendo. AOL didn't exist under that name until 1989.
posted by smelendez at 10:25 AM on October 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

he'd basically badger all of us until we got friends and colleagues to donate things as premiums.

Which the station would then put in a closet and forget about until enough people who had pledged complained. In my experience, anyway.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:04 AM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yyyyup that jives with my memory of the station. People often contacted us to complain they'd never gotten their premiums.
posted by gusandrews at 11:11 AM on October 11, 2019

I wonder if WFMU could lend some air time
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 3:28 PM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does anyone remember the name of the show that used to come on before Off the Hook in the late 90s?

I believe the host was retired from law enforcement and the theme song was "Putting Up Resistance" by Beres Hammond
posted by smelendez at 3:37 PM on October 11, 2019

The 2600 guys who do Off The Hook were always adamant about remaining on the radio, even carrying the show on shortwave, so that anybody can listen.
The US has a few commercial shortwave stations. They tend to rent out their airtime by the hour to whoever comes along, so much of the programming is devoted to various wack-a-doodle religious ranters - a very unsavoury character calling himself Brother Stair is a staple of US shortwave. Quite a lot of the programming on self-styled "free speech" station WBCQ is far-right politics or fundamentalist religious guff. They recently had a huge donation (millions of dollars) from an Egyptian businessman for a new, powerful transmitter to broadcast flat-earth end-of-the-world nonsense.

I'm not sure who's listening. Radio enthusiasts will tune into the shortwave signal to log that they've heard the station, a bit like a trainspotter checking off a locomotive, but won't stay to listen to the actual programming. It's not like prisoners have got short-wave radios and antennas - the best way to reach people inside is via local FM radio.
posted by winterhill at 2:01 AM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just to sort of end this post, here is an update about a vote held at Pacifica Friday night.

"Tonights @RadioPacifica board meeting was deadlocked 11-11 on approving the shutting down of @WBAI

So they removed the @WBAI
members of the board to ensure an 11-8 victory.

This is how these people operate."
posted by Sophont at 1:32 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ugh, thanks Sophont. They were speculating on the show that that would be the play, and here we are.

If WBAI is still a non-commercial station this time next year (or however long a sale of that dial position legally takes) I'll be amazed.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:23 PM on October 14, 2019

I don't know if anyone's still checking this thread, but the latest seems to be that the Pacifica board voted to restore WBAI programming and this should have taken place yesterday (Tuesday). The WBAI website still shows the Pacifica Across America programming but I'm not able to hear the audio feed from here.
posted by winterhill at 1:25 AM on October 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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