Andrew Philips Resigns From WBAI, Pacifica Soliciting Offers to Lease its Signal

Categories: Radio

For a minute in late summer, it looked like New York's beleaguered Pacifica Radio station WBAI was getting a new lease on life. The station moved into a new office in Brooklyn, and a newly installed interim program director, Andrew Philips, was retooling the lineup.

It didn't last long. Philips resigned last week after a dispute over programming with Pacifica Radio Network's interim executive director, Summer Reese, and on Thursday, Reese took the air to publicly respond to rumors that Pacifica was looking to sell WBAI.

"Are we just selling the station? Has Pacifica decided to unload WBAI?" Reese said she has been asked by employees and programmers. "The answer is no -- unequivocally no."

What Pacifica has done, she went on, is put out a request for proposals seeking a potential partner to either lease the signal from WBAI or swap frequencies with the station. Under the agreement, Pacifica would retain the station's license and provide some programming. The partner would pay the bills, and supply much of its own programming, too.

"We have such an incredibly valuable signal in New York City -- all I can say is 50,000 watts in the No. 1 market," Reese remarked hopefully on Thursday. "It's a huge signal in a huge city."

The Pacifica Network is banking on some savior taking it up on the offer -- the network owes $250,000 in severance to the 19 employees the station laid off in August. Those payments, Reese said Thursday, are "moral, legal, and financial obligations that the organization intends to honor."

See also: WBAI, Pacifica Radio in New York City, Lays Off News Department, and Most On-Air Talent

Andrew Philips' arrival at WBAI coincided with that withering round of layoffs, during which the entire newsroom, and most of the station's paid on-air talent lost their jobs. A veteran of WBAI, Philips was working at the station's Berkeley-based sister, KPFA, when he was tapped to return to WBAI and try to fill the airwaves after station laid off most of its paid producers.

Folks were optimistic that Philips, with his progressive radio bonafides and long history at Pacifica, would be able to right the ship after years of financial trouble and increasingly desperate fundraising gimmickry.

Those hopes deflated when he submitted his resignation last week. According to Philips, the dispute centered around Reese's decision to move controversial health guru Gary Null's program earlier in the morning.

In Philips's eyes, that was a crucial time slot for hard-hitting news and commentary. "We really didn't want to be pitching 'Green Stuff' [Null's signature drink] and different health products. We wanted to be giving content," Philips tells the Voice. "I resigned over that." (Reese said, via email, "Andrew Phillips resigned. His appointed position was a temporary hire.")

See also: WBAI's Death by Democracy

"I think its inappropriate to fill the airwaves with that kind of programming, regardless of its money-making potential. It doesn't really fulfill out mission," Philips adds.

Null's programs have always been major money-makers for WBAI. In an interview earlier this year, General Manager Berthold Reimers told the Voice that Null's products, which are sold during pledge drives, generate a large share of the station's revenue.

"I understand why they are pushing these health premiums. At the same time, it's not the long-term answer. It's not going to save WBAI. We're going to continue to spiral down if we continue this model, and eventually someone will come with big bucks, pay up the debt and take over the signal."

That day may come sooner rather than later if Pacifica's national board finds a compelling response to its call for proposals to lease its signal.

The call included certain stipulations -- Pacifica wants to retain some control over programing, but have another organization cover most of the station's expenses. The organization would have to keep two of WBAI's employees and maintain a studio that is accessible to the public. (Read the full request for proposals at bottom.)

There are rumors that WFVU, Fordham University's radio station, might be interested in the prospect.

In the meantime, Philips says he will continue to volunteer at the station. He is orchestrating a day of programming to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November, and plans to lead workshops in radio production.

"I'm volunteering to help at WBAI in other ways, but I can't and no longer work there in that relationship with Summer Reese -- it's too unclear what's going on. It's not right."

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Bringing back an AIDSphobic and homophobic bigot like Gary Null is why I stopped giving to the station.


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It's even more complicated than that, but it's also simple.

A group of people took over the station in 2008 and began a program to purge progressive, self-motivated producers and managers of color from positions of influence. They came in saying that the station had a financial problem, based not on the exorbitant rent that was being paid to Larry Silverstein for the 15 year lease the station got saddled with ($35,000/MONTH) and to the Empire State Building (was $25,000/month) for the antenna, but on programming, which they said was "too black" and alienated more affluent listeners who would otherwise support the station. They brought back Gary Null, moved a lot of community programming from daytime slots to the evenings or dropped them altogether, and essentially fired a good part of their audience. In the period from 2009 to the present, there was actually a decline in listener support and, according to their own pronouncements, a decline in audience.

They also mismanaged the Pacifica Foundation itself, to the point that they were so far in arrears in rent to the Empire State Building that they nearly got evicted, which would have meant no transmitter. And they allowed the corporate entity Pacifica Foundation to actually lapse into suspension - in other words, out of existence as a legal entity - for their failure to make required filings with the California Department of State. They actually had to change their name from Pacifica Foundation to Pacifica Foundation Radio as a result of this act of gross negligence.

Now they want to hand the operation of the station over to a third party and they say that it's either that, or they lose it altogether.

My money is on the station being handed over to Null and his "Progressive Radio Network" - which, like the so-called Moral Majority - is none of those. Their (the group running the network) MO at Pacifica has been to use whatever progressive beards they can to acquire control, then to drop them once control has been attained. The same will happen with the actual progressives whose programs are carried on this internet outlet, once it's time to shave the beard. Ultimately, INHO, you will be treated to a full spectrum of health programming that is tied into Null's products. Like WBAI does now.

In other words, what was once a progressive, community radio station is now being set up as a vehicle for peddling potions and elixirs, and using white bread, white led syndicated programming for the news and public affairs side. Unless someone in New York stops them, WBAI is dead. And, really, the people of New York - the  majority of whom are working class people of color - cannot afford to let that happen.


Just a bit of history here.  When Andrew was the General Manager and de facto Program Director out here at KPFA, he told us at a staff meeting that he had brought Gary Null to WBAI airwaves years before, where everybody loved him, and that he was considering putting him on the air out here on KPFA/Berkeley-Northern California.  There was a revolt among gay male KPFA staff who claimed that Null was an AIDS denier and Andrew agreed not to put Null on the airwaves.  

This is not to dis Andrew.  He's an extremeley talented and experienced radio producer and program director; I heard both rave reviews and rage about his recent efforts at WBAI from friends associated with the station, and even though Im a remote contributor to the weekly AfrobeatRadio hour, I had little way to make any sense of it. So this is just to say that things are always a little more complicated than they might seem.  I'm sure Andrew was serious about wanting to sustain his public affairs content programming in the morning.  My best guess is that WBAI ran out of time to experiment.  


What can I or anyone do about it all? Hypnosis or whatnot?


If the station is handed over to PRN, whose talent includes former BAI show host Mike Feder and Glen Ford's hosted people of color show Black Agenda Report, and they bring back the likes of Hugh Hamilton and Bob Fass, I'll listen and contribute.

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