The WBAI Move: Step Up Or Pitfall?

In June 1998, radio station WBAI moved its operations from its 20 year home on the 19th and 22nd floors of 505 8th Ave. to premises on the 10th floor at 120 Wall St.

The site at 120 Wall St. was found by the “Space & Technical Committee” of the WBAI Local Advisory Board, headed by Karen Frillman. Unfortunately this committee didn't consult the WBAI Staff much until after the move had already been committed to. But these are not the problems that are most troubling.

120 Wall St.
120 Wall St.

The Numbers

An old adage in journalism is “follow the money” if you want to find out what's really going on. Given the tendency towards secrecy these days in the Pacifica Foundation, the organization which actually owns WBAI, finding out all about the money can be an impossible task. However, we do have a number of statements from various forms of WBAI and Pacifica Management which seem to tell something of a story.

As Management keeps saying, the cost per square foot to rent space at 120 Wall St. is less than the cost per square foot to rent at 505 8th Ave., however WBAI is renting considerably more space at 120 Wall St. This results in an annual rent bill that's $20,000 more than what WBAI was previously paying.

To offset this larger rent bill Valerie Van Isler, WBAI's General Manager, told the Union that she would be firing three workers once the move was completed and everyone was settled in. She never informed the workers of this directly, even though her plans called for them to be layed off on various dates in June and July of 1998. The workers she'd wanted to fire are needed on a daily basis, but WBAI Management was desperate to make up the money it's squandering on the new space. The good news here is that the Union has successfully fought these ill-considered economic layoffs and, after months of negotiations in which WBAI Management even tried to violate labor law by firing the workers and hiring new people in their places, these workers will get some retraining and will keep their jobs.

The official budget for the move itself is now $950,000, up from $900,000. The Pacifica Foundation, in the person of Executive Director Pat Scott, had promised to lend WBAI $300,000 to help with the cost of the move. However, after the lease had been signed this amount was reduced to $200,000.

The architectural firm that designed and built the space at 120 Wall St. was chosen by Pat Scott. It's the same firm that designed the building that serves as headquarters of sister station KPFA in Berkeley, California. Inquiries about the quality of the architecture at KPFA brought a long list of mistakes, design flaws and cut corners that proved costly to KPFA both in terms of money and in terms of the usability of their space.

At WBAI's new quarters there are a number of architectural problems. One of the worst is a sudden step down before one gets to the Wake Up Call office. This architectural defect has already resulted in one injury. Should an injured party sue, this is the type of neglectful design that could result in a large legal settlement . An open question is why would experienced architects design this obviously dangerous feature into the floor plan?

Finally, the Pacifica Foundation has told WBAI that it absolutely must not go over the allotted budget for this move, that if WBAI goes over budget, it will be WBAI's problem and Pacifica will not help out. The architectural firm imposed on WBAI by Pacifica has a reputation for going over budget, and when sister station WPFW in Washington, D.C. moved it went over budget by 100%.

Although WBAI Management insists that the move never went over budget there suddenly appeared at the end of 1998, a “deficit” of $204,000. Management insists that this is not related to the move, but there is widespread skepticism about this claim.

What might this mean?

Given all the financial facts above, there is speculation that Pat Scott and the Pacifica National Board are setting WBAI up to go into a serious financial hole with this move. WBAI has the best income record of any Pacifica station. Scott and the National Board have been kept from tearing WBAI apart as they have other Pacifica stations because “you can't argue with success” when it comes to WBAI's financials. Although the move has supposedly not gone over budget WBAI is still stuck with a six figure deficit. First Pat Scott, and then her successor Lynn Chadwick. and the National Board now have a “financial weakness” at WBAI as an excuse to dismantle, or even sell, the station. In fact, sale of WBAI may already be something that's in the works.

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