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Is WBAI riding into the sunset?

I hate to go parochial on Stomp Off’s non-New Yorker visitors, but if you live anywhere within listening range of a Pacifica station, you might (although I hope, not) relate to my concern over the current state of WBAI. You can hear the current WBAI streamed at www.WBAI.org, but it is a far cry from that which originally attracted listeners and kept the station going for almost fifty years. An inkling of that past is what you will get from perusing the program guide pages below.

First a bit of history. Lewis Hill came from a well-to-do Kansas City family whose fortune was rooted in the oil industry. No, they didn’t discover the stuff spewing from the back yard, his father was an attorney who was instrumental in J. P. Morgan’s acquisition of an oil company and his uncle was Phillips Petroleum. Lewis Hill would take another route, one that led him to Quakerism and turned him into a staunch pacifist. During WWII, he was a conscientious objector who came to the conclusion that one reason for there being so much strife in the world was that people were not communicating properly. When he listened to radio and heard only inanity, he looked into starting a station of his own, a dream far more readily realized in the immediate post-war years, than it would be today, because FM was new and, basically, untried. Few people had the needed FM tuners, which meant that few people listened, and that, in turn, meant that advertisers were not interested. By 1946, Hill was living in California, where he raised some money and sufficient interest among friends to create the Pacifica Foundation. His idea took tangible form in 1949 when KPFA-FM went on the air. Not surprisingly, the Berkley-based free speech station was embraced by the Bay Area community.

The concept driving Lew Hill and his co-founders was to create an alternative broadcasting outlet, one that would give air time to unpopular as well as accepted ideas and nurture artistic creativity. In other words, an open microphone that welcomed that which commercial stations systematically locked out and was not hampered by strictly adhered to time restrictions—if a program ended at 5:23 PM, the next one started at 5:24. Even more innovative than pliable running time and free speech programming concept was the idea of listener sponsorship: if you liked what you heard and wanted to hear more, it behooved you to chip in.

KPFA got off to a rocky start, but it soon caught the imagination of people in the Bay area. Inevitably, there were internal conflicts within the foundation, leading Hill to resign in 1952, but he returned two years later and helped keep his dream alive, at least until 1957, when failing health and the pressures of Pacifica may have been the underlying causes for his decision to commit suicide. The foundation had taken on a life of its own, so it continued and grew, adding a North Hollywood station, KPFK, in 1959.

Around that time, in New York City, philanthropist Louis Schweitzer was having fun with his new FM station, WBAI. It complemented his keen interests in audio and the arts. A commercial station, it was ideally located in the middle of the dial, between NBC and CBS, and it had its own charm. Schweitzer’s choice of advertising was discriminatory: Steinway pianos were gently peddled in cultured tones while ads for soups and soaps were unacceptable. Perhaps Lou Schweitzer’s interests never came together more satisfactorily than when he decided to feature the Chicago Symphony concerts live and carry them over high frequency telephone lines. It was unheard of to use this costly method for transmission of signal over such a long distance, even more remarkable when the station broadcasting it was a small FM outlet—but Lou, whose family were the world’s largest producers of cigarette and electronics paper, was not in it for the money. Once, when a young man complained that he was not getting good reception of the Chicago broadcasts, Lou sent him two tickets to the concert and airfare to Chicago. At other times, he would spend hours in a Bronx housewife’s kitchen, rigging up an antenna to improve her reception while his Rolls Royce was parked a block away.

When a 1959 newspaper strike suddenly brought WBAI increased commercial traffic, Lou did not like it. He had heard about KPFA and the idea of a listener-sponsored free speech station appealed to him, so he contacted Pacifica and offered to make them a gift of WBAI, not just the frequency, everything—equipment, real estate, the entire package.

I was a disc jockey on WHAT-FM in Philadelphia at that time, and I was told of WBAI by one of my listeners, André Westendorp, a former member of the Dutch Swing College band, who had just returned from a visit to New York. I loved the concept and recall wondering how it could work.

Fifty years later, it’s still working. Or is it? Let’s just say that it’s still on the air and it’s still a Pacifica station. With this post, I have included four pages from 1966 program guides as typical samples of what subscribers could tune into every day. The guides (folios) were sent out each month to listeners who made an annual contribution of $12.50. When I took over the reins, I made sure that jazz was well represented and presented: Dave Lambert and Marian McPartland hosted their own weekly jazz slots, as did, at various times, Martin Williams, A. B. Spellman, Nat Hentoff and Don Heckman. Apropos non-playing hosts, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Don Schlitten and I were on a rotating schedule. On Saturday afternoons, two hours of air time were turned over to musicians, who could use it as they wished. Some brought along guests (George Wettling's was Eddie Condon) others just played music (mostly recorded) and made interesting commentary. The latter included Blue Mitchell, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis (together), Jimmy Rushing, Bobby Timmons, Quentin Jackson, Ted Curson, Toshiko (then Mariano), Zoot Sims, and Bill Dixon. There was much more, including live performances, but I will get into that in part II of this filet mignon to burgers story.

Click on these pages and look at the program listings. I hope the other Pacifica stations (several have been added) have not suffered such adulteration as mars WBAI today. In a follow-up post, I will describe the deterioration, and wonder what the hell happened and how far down the drain the station will go.

This link will take you to Part II of this post.
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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your memories of WBAI. I collect historical documents of the Pacifica Foundation and it's always such a joy to hear from people who helped create programming over the years. I look forward to your next installment. Regards, Nalini Lasiewicz