Two years ago I reported to the PNB, meeting in Washington DC, that the layoffs being imposed by the PNB on WBAI were misdirected and excessive. Brian Edwards-Tiekart, representing the National Finance Committee at that PNB meeting, argued that WBAI should be directed to lay off 30 percent of its staff in order to balance its budget. The WBAI LSB felt that this was an abuse of authority. All that Brian Edward Tiekart should have been allowed to mandate was that WBAI submit a reasonable and balanced budget. It was not in his or the National Finance Committeeís authority to dictate how to achieve that. How to accomplish that is up to the station management, not the NFC. And if station management doesnít do so? Yes -- management should be held accountable for failing to balance the budget, and if they fail to do so, replace them. As Chair of the WBAI Local Station Board I joined with then-GM Anthony Riddle in opposing those forced layoffs for budgetary reasons, but Tiekart and the PNB gave Riddle no choice in the matter. As a result, WBAIís paid staff was decimated.
It is my contention that while prudent cuts at some stations may be needed for the purpose of rooting out corruption, waste and bloated expenses, wholesale cuts for the purpose of balancing the budget are illusory and counterproductive. They are not anything more than short-term stop gaps in the bleeding, and at some point engender exactly the opposite of what is needed. The WBAI LSB, for instance, requested that the cuts to our News Department -- which is the pride of New York and sets the tone for the entire station -- be rescinded and that at least one additional reporter be hired, as the work of that department has been diminished and severely compromised by the layoffs. That LSB resolution has not been acted upon.
Once again WBAI -- and every station -- is faced with expenses outstripping income, and with no cushion any longer available to the national network to absorb such losses and shift them so that one station could subsidize anotherís losses as had been the case in the past. At WBAI, the new iGM -- Berthold Reimers -- has made significant inroads into improving the delivery of premiums and mailing costs, and systematizing collection of pledges, and -- very important -- has shown a marked improvement in transparency, in making the figures available to all.
As a result, we have seen fulfillment rates improving, somewhat. But a 5 percent increase in fulfillment rate to 72 percent, however crucial, is not enough; we need a 13 percent increase just to break even, a 15 or 18 percent increase to begin repairing the damage, and neither of those is reasonable to expect at this time. So what to do? Here at WBAI -- and indeed, throughout the network -- both the National Board and management must offer plans and leadership for doing the one thing that would get us out of the ravages of the economic crisis upon us, the one thing that is necessary for sustaining this station and this network: Expanding the membership base.
All discussions about finances by the governing bodies and management must start with “How do we increase membership Ö quickly?” WBAI has a powerful 50,000 effective watt delivery from its antenna atop the Empire State Building able to reach, potentially, 18 million people. WBAI has around 170,000 listeners and 16,500 members; these are good figures to build on, but they do not represent a base that is sufficient to sustain the costs of running the radio station in today's circumstances, no matter how many cuts are made and no matter how much we can reasonably expect to improve fulfillment rates (although doing so is very important).
Now that weíre finally getting some proper management control over this yearís pledges, mailings and premiums, I am proposing that the WBAI LSB address “How to expand the membership base” as its fundamental responsibility in the coming year, to improve what is now a financially unsustainable station. As Berthold Reimers has reported, WBAIís membership turns over by 2/3rds every year, while plateauing for the last few years at around 16,500 members. (As an aside, we should be looking at turnover for every 3 years, not 1. I suspect that the turnover would not be quite so dramatic.) Each member contributes around $114 (on the average) to the station. So where there is an anticipated shortfall of $400,000 at WBAI that has to be covered in the budget, just 3,500 new members (in addition to the replenishment of the turnover) are needed to make up that difference.
That is do-able. That is within possibility. Combined with other projects that I outline in my report: “How to Save Pacifica -- Act Now or Lose it Forever” -- we need a 20 percent increase in membership IMMEDIATELY to save the station, and we need to refocus the efforts of the entire network on achieving that do-able goal.
There are a number of ways in combination to address this. We have to generate an air of excitement. We are on a mission, it is well-defined: Get 3,500 new members signed up within the next few months! We must have a culture NOT of money and layoffs, but of increasing MEMBERSHIP, of making new members (and old ones) feel wanted. The staff has a critical role to play here in generating that sense of excitement, of shared purpose, of organizing. Good management -- at the national level as well as at the station -- would both inspire and coordinate those efforts.
To that end, I want to propose the following: 3-month trial memberships for $1 with the goal of adding 50,000 such trial memberships to WBAI next year. What progressive-thinking person would turn down a $1 trial membership? (There is no election coming up for a couple of years, so we can avoid entirely the question of whether trial members would be able to vote in elections.) The point: We'd gain the contact info for 50,000 people, they would listen to the station, we'd send them a gift and renewal letter, and 8 percent would hopefully renew their memberships at the end of 3 months. The short time span would allow us to quickly promote renewal at full price. Remember, each member averages $114 per year in contributions. An 8 percent renewal of the $1 trial memberships would add 4,000 members, more than enough to offset the deficits and enable WBAI to begin paying off its $1.2 million debt to Pacifica to boot. This is do-able. We can make this happen. But we need to do this properly!
Trial memberships can be most quickly and effectively solicited on air, specifically because we will not have to “sell” these people on WBAI -- they know us, are already listeners, and aware of our programming. The on-air pitch would be 30-seconds long with the sole purpose of referring listeners to the website where the full pitch would be made and the gift illustrated and extolled. The $1 would then be captured via PayPal.
Additionally, the stations would organize listeners and staff to incite and invite people to become part of a “crusade” for the station. Teams of staff and listener volunteers would set up tables at events and communities throughout the listening area. All staff would have to “get out there” and organize, create a buzz -- to save their own shows and the station. We could put a “thermometer” onto the website, and use the air to let people know where the teams would be the next day. Again, create a buzz by using the airwaves for this mission. Can we generate the kind of excitement among listeners as well as staff to embark on that year-long venture to save WBAI? THAT is what is needed to create a sustainable WBAI and Pacifica. EXPAND THE MEMBERSHIP BASE BY 20 PERCENT IN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS!
The WBAI Local Station Board also held a long discussion about Programming, with the interim Program Director Tony Bates. The LSB unanimously opposed certain kinds of programming used during fund drives especially that, in our view, betray the Pacifica Mission and exploit the desperation of listeners. We named several such premiums and pitching styles that I will not name here, but that -- I stress -- the LSB -- all factions -- were united upon.
Programming is the essence of what WBAI is about. The finances are there to get the programs onto the air. The kind of programs we broadcast are a reflection of how we see ourselves, our mission, our purpose, what we put out there to the world. Do we want to use the same tactics as commercial stations, just to make a buck? Shouldnít there be some process for how programming decisions are made?
To that end, the Programming Committee of the LSB submitted a proposal to the PNB to re-invigorate the Program Council (which hasnít met in years) and this time to enable listeners to have some sort of formal input into the kinds of Programs that get on the air. Some members feared that the proposal infringed on the producersí authority and the LSB voted not to place that proposal onto the agenda. I expect that a new form of that proposal, perhaps pared down and voted on as a concept, will be coming back before the LSB within the next few months.
The WBAI LSB also unanimously initiated the proposal -- later passed by the PNB -- to ask producers to set aside April 24 -- Mumia Abu-Jamalís birthday -- to do programming related to Mumiaís case, and a few representatives from different stations worked together to provide resource material and publicity to this national project. And the LSB added our name as an endorser of the Center for Constitutional Rights demand to the antiwar movement to close Guantanamo now. (Iíll hand out the text when I finish speaking.)
The LSB also has a functioning Management Search Committee -- thank you Carolyn Birden for skillfully chairing this committee -- that has submitted its recommendations that will be reviewed and forwarded to the Executive Director following the next LSB meeting on October 13 -- around two weeks from now.
The WBAI LSB Finance Committee has assiduously reviewed the proposed budget and other financial matters; it generally passes all motions unanimously. Iíd like to second a motion made by Finance Committee member Geoff Stern that the Finance Committee be authorized to meet in Executive Session with all committee members invited, including those members who are not delegates to the LSB, upon signing a declaration of confidentiality.
Finally, I have had a number of discussions with the San Francisco Mime Troupe which will be on tour across the country in March 2011. This tour will be funded by trade unions, and will include numerous performances. Iíve asked Pacifica and WBAI to co-sponsor this tour -- it will cost us nothing, moneywise. The stations would provide reports and promotion, and the Mime Troupe would do some benefits for WBAI and perhaps other stations. While the details still need to be worked out, I will ask the LSB to play a role here with management. I saw the play they are performing while I was in Oakland CA last month, and it is fantastic, absolutely outstanding on every level -- writing, acting, message, humor, artistic integrity, politics -- everything. I am asking Pacifica management and governance to give the go ahead to co-sponsor this national tour, which we could then also offer as a benefit to the affiliates for sticking with Pacifica through the thick and thin of the crisis we are going through.
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