WBA hi! Supreme court ruling allows beloved Brooklyn radio station to return to the air waves

Hosts Reggie Johnson and co-host Shawnee Rice back on the air at WBAI Radio
Hosts Reggie Johnson and co-host Shawnee Rice back on the air at WBAI Radio
Photo by Derrick Watterson

Shuttered Boerum Hill radio station WBAI was allowed to resume broadcasting at 99.5 FM following a weeks-long closure at midnight on Nov. 7, after a state judge ordered the station’s parent company to lay off its attempts to silence the channel.

State Supreme Court Judge Melissa Crane reinstated a restraining order against the Pacifica Foundation — the nonprofit owner of five listener-funded radio stations across the country — that requires the company to hand control of local content back to WBAI.

The station’s return comes a month to the day after Pacifica Executive Director John Vernile ordered the station closed on Oct. 7, claiming the non-for-profit could no longer support WBAI and its multimillion-dollar debt.

But WBAI broadcasters claimed Vernile exaggerated the station’s dues, and that they were being attacked by a rogue faction within the national broadcast company for political reasons stemming from radio host Mimi Rosenberg’s on-air statement, “shut down Trump!” 

And Vernile was soon overruled by the company’s board of directors, which voted on Oct. 20 not to ratify his prior directive closing down the station — and to place him on a mandatory paid leave.

However, Vernile challenged the vote in court, with attorneys arguing the board had failed to provide proper notice, resulting in a legal duel that led to Crane’s decision on Wednesday.

Broadcaster and attorney Arthur Schwartz, who represented WBAI in court, praised the ruling for preserving a decades old New York City institution.

“I was ecstatic,” said Schwartz. “It restored a unique entity which allows literally hundreds of volunteers to produce locally oriented news, political and cultural programming that has been going on for 60 years.”

Alex Steinberg, a Pacifica board member who supported WBAI against Vernile, is concerned about the station’s listenership in the wake of its monthlong hiatus, fearing the broadcasts fans will have fallen out of the habit of tuning in.

“They might think we’re off the air for good,” said Schwartz. “We’re going to have to have a huge publicity campaign to tell people were back on the air.”

However, fellow board member Bill Crosier said he shared Vernile’s funding concerns, saying Pacifica has historically propped up WBAI at the expense of other serious obligations — including paying the company’s accountants.

“We’ve been notified by the company that does our accounting and HR support, they’re going to stop working for us because we owe them so much money, because that money has been pulled to pay WBAI salaries,” said Crosier. “Our audits are past due, and without audits we could lose our tax exemptions, which is entirely serious.”