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2/10/10

WBAI - Part 3 (Marathon contrasts)



I turned on my radio yesterday and what do you know? WBAI is having another fund-raising marathon. Yes, they are back selling miracle medicine and questionable cures for subscriptions, but they also offer incentives (I think they call them "premiums") that are more in keeping with Pacifica's image. I'm talking about DVDs of vintage radio shows and documentaries, theater tickets, dinner with Amy Goodman—stuff like that.

 As I listened to all this huckstering, I thought back to the summer of 1965, when dire need gave birth to what I have been told was the first broadcast marathon conducted to keep a station on the air. Although WBAI is streamed globally, and thus no longer a local New York station, some of you may wonder why I have been devoting so much space to it. Well, this is a radio station that profoundly affected me in my younger years and with which I have a love-hate relationship of sorts. Basically, I love the station and hate what is often done to it by those who either exploit it or haven't much of a clue as to what has allowed it to survive on listener sponsorship for half a century.

This piece is not a review of the station nor its current fund-raising efforts, but a recollection of how it—the idea of airing annoying pitches for money—all started. I don't think one has to be a New Yorker or a BAI listener to not be bored by the story I have to tell—at least, I hope not. I realize that I have alluded to this in an earlier piece, so I will try not to repeat myself.

First, some background.
In 1964, as always, WBAI's manager, Joseph Binns, took a long summer vacation. Nothing wrong with that, except that the station lived from check to check, and listener support traditionally ebbed in the summer months. The Vacation scenario was etched in stone: Joe returns to find the station in desperate financial straits, acts surprised, and proceeds to lay off the staff, one or two a week. You might pass him in the narrow corridors of our brownstone (at 30 East 39th Street) and he would make a morale-shattering remark, such as: "You'll be glad to know that I am not laying you off this week." Of course the remedy would have been to raise money, but if that ever occurred to Joe Binns, he wasn't telling anyone.

At that time, Hallock Hoffman was the President of the Pacifica Foundation, the California-based non-profit organization that owns WBAI and, at that time, two West Coast stations, KPFA and KPFK. Morale at WBAI had taken a deep plunge when we learned that Hallock was coming to town, so we decided make the most of his rare visit. I forget whose idea it was, but we ended up writing individual letters of resignation, with a common theme: we could no longer work with management whose only reaction to a fiscal problem was to reduce staff.

On the morning of Hallock's arrival, we handed him a rather large manila envelope containing the resignations of all but one staff member, Baird Searles, who chickened out. Perplexed, Hallock took the envelope and disappeared into Joe Binn's office, closing the door behind him. About an hour later, he emerged and called us all together to inform us that he had accepted Joe Binn's resignation and appointed himself interim manager. As such, he was accepting our resignations and—since that essentially left him with an unstaffed radio station—he would be conducting job interviews in the afternoon and we were welcome to sign up for one. We all did—except, of course, for Baird, who made himself scarce.

The interviews gave us each an opportunity to vent our grievances and, prompted by Hallock, say what we thought needed to be done. Direct communication with a board member was something none of us had previously experienced. and here, face to face, was the captain of the mother ship—it was not an opportunity to be missed.

Each Pacifica station had a local board, and ours was headed by Harold Taylor, the former President of Sarah Lawrence College, a job he had handled exceptionally well, I was told. The same could not be said of Harold's association with WBAI. He never visited the station, but was quick to step into the media spotlight whenever a crisis at BAI attracted it. The other board members also stayed away, and none of them ever tuned us in—most of us didn't know their names, much less what they looked like.

I give you this background to explain how it came about that I was appointed WBAI's manager. After the interview, Hallock promoted me from staff announcer to head of production, something the station had not previously had., and a couple of months later he offered me the top job. I told him that I would accept it on two conditions: unanimous staff approval and a guarantee of the Board's help in fund raising. Both conditions were met, so I took over Joe Binns' office.

The next day, I went on the air for the first time as manager, candidly sharing with the listeners what I thought was wrong with the station's offerings, and urging that they stay tuned as we made improvements. Although we sorely needed it, I deliberately did not ask for money, but said that I hoped our future programs would speak better than any plea I could make.

As it turned out, my optimistic report had an immediate positive effect. There as a noticeable increase in subscriptions to our monthly folio—the annual $12.50 fee that kept WBAI running—and staff morale climbed to a more acceptable level. As for help from Hallock and the boards, nothing happened—well, that's not entirely true, Hallock did call me from Santa Barbara to give me "good news," as he put it: "You will be happy to learn that I have finally persuaded my father to make a donation."

I was excited about that, because Paul Hoffman was a multi-millionaire, former President of Studebaker and the Ford Foundation, advisor to President Eisenhower, and Administrator of the Marshall Plan. I had been to dinner at his elegant Sutton Place house and I just knew that this would be a sizable check, so I announced it at a staff meeting, where it produced smiles and applause.

I had decided to raise the annual subscription fee to $15, but Mr. Hoffman's check for $12.50 arrived just in time to avoid the increase! Morale took a slight beating that day.

Then there was the call from the secretary to Frank Stanton, who just wanted to verify our address, because "Dr. Stanton wishes to make a substantial contribution to WBAI." Stanton was President of CBS, as well as the Rand Corporation—this was exciting I thought, but this time the staff, having grown somewhat cynical, held back on the smiles and applause. The next day, Dr. Stanton's $100 check was hand delivered.

It was clear that I wasn't going to get any help, so I started thinking of ways in which I could make WBAI more interesting without sacrificing the high principles and ideas upon which it was founded. At the top of my list was improved programming, which began with the reinstatement of Bob Fass' Radio Unnamable, a hippie-oriented free form midnight radio event that entertained as it stroked the social consciousness. 1964 was a perfect time for what Bob did, a period in which our country found itself immersed in an unpopular war in Vietnam and struggling for civil rights at home. Joe Binns had fired Fass, which I thought was a bad idea, so I brought him and his show back. Almost 50 years later, he is still at WBAI, albeit only one night a week and, I fear, somewhat of an anachronism.

Although there was an increase in subscriptions, we were far from solvent as 1964 ended, but changes were already being felt—I was airing more WBAI-produced programs and relying less on material from our sister stations. Here's a piece from the February 12, 1965 issue of the NY Times: 



The debt I inherited was still plaguing us, so in early summer of '65, as subscriptions went into their annual slump, we desperately needed $25,000 and there were some Board members who suggested that the station be sold and the money spent on upkeep for the West Coast outlets. Our home on the dial, 99.5, was a commercial frequency located between CBS and NBC, a choice spot for which there was an offer of a million dollars, but selling it was, to me, unthinkable. This made it all the more important for us to raise that money and quiet the misguided board members. Today, when the station is a million dollars in debt, 25,000 seems a piddling sum, but it was a lot of money in 1965.

On a beautiful July day, with that cloud hanging over us, I went to lunch with Joanne Grant, whom I had just hired as news director. The subject of our pecuniary plight inevitably came up and we started tossing ideas around. Our listeners were obviously motivated to sent us money because they liked what they heard on the air, and because there was no other place on the dial where anything like that could be found. Ergo, we finally reasoned, it might be a good, albeit unkind idea to give the listener the bland taste of nothing at 99.5. To make them experience a WBAI spewing the same inane chatter, pop and pap as dominated the rest of the radio dial. 

By the time we finished our coffee, Joanne and I had decided that I would cut into her six o'clock evening news and tell it like it is, paint the unthinkable scenario, and ask for money. I would announce the end of programming, as we knew it, until we had the needed $25,000 in pledges.

That evening, shortly after Joanne had begun delivering the news, our plan went into action and the marathon was on its way. There were no people manning phones, there was no schedule, no official tally person, no rules—we just jumped into it, feet first. As things turned out, our listeners were right there for us. Not only did they respond, they inadvertently gave the marathon concept its shape.

A few years back, I was visited by a writer who was working on a book about broadcast fund-raising marathons. She had come to me, she said, because I had started it all, I was the "Father of the On-Air Marathon," a dubious distinction. Actually, it had never occurred to me that this might be the case, but when I think back, I realize that she might have been right. We had no precedent upon which to base our approach—it was strictly ad lib and it took delightful (in retrospect) unforeseen twists and turns. I think that was the charm of it, the reason why it was so successful—listeners sensed our genuine urgency and lack of planning.

So much for the introduction—please pardon me for its length. I will return with Part II, in which I describe the marathon in detail, how it ended up, and the aftermath. It happened 45 years ago and it was in many ways beautiful, but it was also the start of something less than that.

Susan Brownmiller, for whose journalistic integrity I would later lose all respect, wrote up the marathon in the Village Voice, giving you but a hint of what you will read as I continue my recollection (Click on the image to enlarge). This recollection continues here.



If you have a serious interest in the past and present goings-on at the station, you might want to check out my WBAI-dedicated blog.

2 comments:

  1. I agree that being "The Father of the On-Air Marathon" might not be the only thing anyone would want to be remembered for, but at least WBAI's had a sense of humor. It might be apocryphal, but the story I heard circa 1968-9 was that someone seeking money for WBAI on-air got it by playing a record of Kate Smith singing GOD BLESS AMERICA over and over again until listeners capitulated and sent in pledges -- just to forestall another playing. Is this true? Thanks for another rewarding story, Chris!
    Faithfully yours, Michael Steinman

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, Michael, we did indeed threaten a long segment of Kate Smith's patriotic perennial (among other such recordings), and it had the desired effect.

    Thanks for visiting my blog.

    ReplyDelete