Shutdown of beloved Brooklyn radio station WBAI sparks legal battle

WBAI staffers say that the station’s parent company changed the station’s locks and tore apart their office on Monday.
Photo by Rose Adams

A non-profit media company abruptly shut down a beloved Brooklyn-based radio station on Monday morning, firing most of the station’s staff and changing the locks on its Boerum Hill offices — setting off a messy legal battle for the future of the decades-old radio station.

“They dismantled the entire station,” said WBAI on-air personality Arthur Schwartz, who also works as the station’s lawyer. “They told the landlord that they’re out of there.”

WBAI had hosted progressive talk shows about politics and local activism since 1960, but listenership has dwindled in recent years — leading parent company Pacifica Foundation to cut the cord on the station as it racked up $4 million in debt.

“WBAI has had to repeatedly call on other Pacifica stations to help fund its payroll and other operating expenses,” the company said in a statement. “We can no longer keep taking money for essential services from our stations in LA, SF Bay, Houston and DC communities to cover WBAI’s continued shortfalls. This practice is endangering the entire Foundation.”

The cost-saving measure came to an abrupt halt, however, when WBAI staffers filed an injunction against Pacifica, accusing the media conglomerate of violating its own bylaws by shutting down the station and changing its programming without board approval, according to Schwartz.

The hail-mary legal challenge worked — at least temporarily — as a Manhattan Supreme Court judge signed a temporary restraining order against Pacifica on Monday night, and ordered it to give the keys back to WBAI until its court hearing on Oct. 18, according to Gothamist.

But the power struggle continued when Pacifica’s legal eagles hit back — refusing to comply with the judge’s stay-of-execution by claiming the court lacked proper authority to sign to restraining order.

On Tuesday, WBAI staffers entered the offices on Atlantic Avenue between Bond and Hoyt streets and discovered a disheveled office with disconnected wires, scattered computers, and no signal, according to Schwartz.

Schwartz said he plans to fight Pacifica’s noncompliance with another legal attack.

“I’m just about to file a motion for contempt,” he said on Tuesday evening.

Making the matter more dramatic, Schwartz also alleges that Pacifica’s choice to shut down the station was primarily rooted in political disagreements, not in WBAI’s debts.

“This is about content. It’s not about finances,” he said.

According to Shwartz, higher-ups at the parent company became angry with their radio-hosting employees on Labor Day, when longtime host Mimi Rosenburg said “Stop Trump” during a promotion during her show.

Pacifica executives claimed the anti-Trump message threatened the company’s Federal Communications Commission status and urged the station’s executives to suspend Rosenburg, according to Schwartz.

The parent company denies that the ordeal has anything to do with the station’s shutdown, saying the sudden closure is a strictly financial decision that came after months of deliberation.

“We were necessitated to act in the most responsible way we saw in order to stabilize and secure the future of 99.5fm WBAI and the network,” Pacifica wrote on WBAI’s website. “While this decision was abrupt it was after careful examination of all possibilities.”

Both parties will appear before a judge in Manhattan Supreme Court Oct. 18.

The Pacifica Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

Reach reporter Rose Adams at radams@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–8306. Follow her on Twitter @rose_n_adams

More from Around New York

>