Susan Brownmiller Laments the Money Woes of WBAI

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

July 15, 1965, Vol. X, No. 39

WBAI: Mastering the Art of Eking Out a Living

By Susan Brownmiller

They had a marvelous time, those plucky non-conforming radio kids over at WBAI. They suspended regular programming with the evening news, flipped the switch for the incoming calls, and staged a marathon 55-hour appeal for funds to tide them over what they called their worst crisis in five years of broadcasting.

Syrupy-voiced staff announcer Bob Fass pierced ears for the cause in the window of Conrad's, a Village jeweler. Comic Henry Morgan came up to the station to tape some plugs and actor Tony Randall gave a fast 200 in cash. Artist Elaine deKooning provided some of her minor Kennedy paintings for auction, and other lesser known artistic lights offered their services as plumbers and carpenters. A piano company hauled over a floor model for the critical stretch and jazz pianist Randy Weston fell by to play it. Big Joe Williams sang the blues and three teenagers hitchhiked in from Nyack to make sandwiches for the tired and hungry crew.

It was a gasser, and when they totalled the receipts they found they had garnered over $25,000 -- enough to keep the turntables spinning and the commentators questioning until mid-August. Then they'll be involved in another scramble until the regular subscriptions renewals start coming in September...

Pacifica, the parent company, was founded as an FM radio haven for the disaffected middle class in the late 1940s by Lewis Hill, a moody West Coast poet. For reasons which have never satisfactorily been explored by the psychologists, gentle anarchy and missionary idealism are often fought with internecine strife. The internal history of Pacifica has been stormy. Hill took his own life in 1957 at station KPFA in Berkeley, reportedly after a dispute over music programming...

WBAI, the New York outlet, was born in 1960 thanks to the generosity of Louis Schweitzer, president of the Kimberly-Clark Company, who gave Pacifica his commercially-licensed FM station. Schweitzer still serves as the guardian angel in the wings for WBAI. He pays the rent on the pleasant brick building on East 39th Street, and is currently engaged in a fund-raising effot of his own to move WBAI's antenna to the Empire State Building, which would double the potential audience. WBAI's yearly budget is just slightly over $275,000 -- a figure which matches the lowest estimate CBS gave for the production of its one-hour rock and roll TV spectacular for the Office of Economic Opportunity starring Murray the K...

"Uneven" is the word most often applied to WBAI programming. "A conglomeration of baffling British playlets, esoteric classical music, deadly serious jazz, talkative folksingers, and startling political commentary -- which somehow all works!" said one critic. On a recent Monday morning listeners were treated to huge undigestible gulps from the Soviet press, followed by an earnest attempt to make some sense out of the Boumedienne situation, followed by a gushy lady pandering to Helen Gurley Brown, the specialist in teaching women over 30 how to sharpen their predatory skill in snaring men...

Since the regime of Chris Albertson, the station has tended to concentrate a bit more on folk music and jazz. They talk wistfully of being able to send a reporter to the Dominican Republic but know they must settle for a "Talk Back" program with an ex-member of the Boch cabinet. In the fall, Albertson says, there will be more depth studies of local New York political problems.

The problem remains centered around the subscription list. In 1962, WBAI hit a high of 11,000, then slowly dropped to a low of 9,000 before the marathon. They picked up over 1,000 new subs last week during the fund drive. A roster of 20,000 subscribers would put the station in the black on operating expenses...

Chris Albertson feels, however, that "the station will continue to go forward and must take more risks." It is true, he says, that "a lot of things we did in the old days are now being done commercially. TV is getting better in terms of documentaries, but still long periods of "The Munsters" remain in commercial programming, and that is where we provide a service." He hopes the listeners agree.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]


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