Its programming is leftist/progressive, and a mixture of political news and opinion from a leftist perspective, tinged with aspects of its complex and varied history, such as Freeform radio, which WBAI played a role in developing, as well as various music.
The former WBAI studios on the 10th floor of 120 Wall Street, Manhattan
The station began as WABF, which first went on the air in 1941 as W75NY, of Metropolitan Television, Inc. (W75NY indicating an eastern station at 47.5 MHz in New York), and moved to the 99.5 frequency in 1948. In 1955, after two years off the air, it was reborn as WBAI (whose calls were named after then-owners Broadcast Associates, Inc.).
WBAI was purchased by eccentric philanthropist Louis Schweitzer, who donated it to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960.The station, which had been a commercial enterprise, became non-commercial and listener-supported under Pacifica ownership.
The history of WBAI is iconoclastic and contentious. Referred to in a New York Times Magazine piece as "an anarchist's circus," one station manager was jailed in protest, and the staff, in protest at sweeping proposed changes of another station manager, seized the studio facilities, then located in a deconsecrated church, as well as the transmitter, located atop the Empire State Building. During the 1960s the station hosted innumerable anti-establishment causes, including the anti-war folks, feminists, kids lib, early firesign theater comedy, and complete-album music overnight. Notable were the continual direct daily coverage of the Vietnam war, including the daily body count, their refusal to stop playing Janice Ian's Society's Child record about interracial relationships (for which their affiliated station in Houston had their tower dynamited), and their live coverage of various bra-burning conventions.
WBAI played a major role in the evolution and development of the counterculture in the 1960s and early 1970s. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" was first broadcast on Radio Unnameable, Bob Fass’ freeform radio program on WBAI, a program which itself in many ways created, explored, and defined the possibilities of the form.The station covered the 1968 seizure of the Columbia University campus live and uninterrupted, as well as innumerable anti-war protests. With its signal reaching nearly 70 miles beyond New York City, its reach and influence, both direct and indirect, were significant. Among the station's weekly commentators in the 1960s were author Ayn Rand, British politician/playwright Sir Stephen King-Hall, and author Dennis Wholley. The 1964 Political conventions were "covered" satirically on WBAI by Severn Darden, Elaine May, Burns and Schreiber, David Amram, Julie Harris, Taylor Meade, and members of the Second City improvisational group. The station, under Music Directors John Corigliano, Ann McMillan and, later Eric Salzman, aired an annual 23-hour nonstop presentation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as recorded at the Bayreuth Festival the year before, and produced live studio performances of emerging artists in its studios. Interviews with prominent figures in literature and the arts, as well as original dramatic productions and radio adaptations were also regular program offerings.
In 1970, Kathy Dobkin, Milton Hoffman, and Francie Camper produced an unprecedented, critically acclaimed 4½ day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy's War And Peace. The epic novel was read cover to cover by more than 200 people - including a large number of international celebrities from various fields. "Newsweek" called this broadcast "one of the more mind-blowing 'firsts' in the history of the media". The complete reading (over 200 audio tapes) was the first Pacifica program to be selected for inclusion in the permanent collection of the Museum of Broadcasting in NYC.
A poster in a WBAI broadcast booth warns radio broadcasters against using the seven dirty words. In 1973, the station broadcast comedian George Carlin's infamous Filthy Words routine uncensored. WBAI's broadcast of Filthy Words became a landmark moment in the history of free speech. In a 1978 milestone in the station's contentious and unruly history, WBAI lost a 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation) that to this day has defined the power of the government over broadcast material it calls indecent.
In 1974 WBAI program director Marnie Mueller asked Charles Ruas to become director of arts programming. Thus the station, already at the forefront of the counterculture and anti-war protest, also became a platform for New York’s avant-garde in theater, music, performance, art, and poetry. When the downtown avant-garde opera A Letter to Queen Victoria by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opened at the Metropolitan Opera, the station was right there to tape excerpts in rehearsals for broadcast.
Ruas initiated a year-long series on Marguerite Young’s epic novel Miss McIntosh, My Darling. These readings were transformed into performances by Rob Wynne, who scored them with a complex collage of sound effects, music, and opera.The participants included Anaïs Nin, Marian Seldes, Alice Playten, H. M. Koutoukas, Leo Lerman, Michael Wagger, Novella Nelson, Osceola Archer, Owen Dodson, Wyatt Cooper, Michael Higgins, Anne Fremantle, Peggy Cass, Ruth Ford, Earle Hyman and Daisy Alden.
When William Burroughs returned to the United States from Tangier, Ruas invited him to present a retrospective of all his works.The series consisted of four programs, beginning with Junkie and followed by The Yage Letters, read by Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, and, finally, Naked Lunch Bill Kortum oversaw this series as well as retrospectives of the works of Jerzy Kosinski and Donald Barthelme, co-produced with Judith Sherman, the station’s music director.
A semester of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry seminar held at the Naropa Institute in Colorado was presented by Ruas, and for many years the station covered the annual New Year’s Eve celebratory poetry marathon at St. Mark’s Church. The day the Vietnam War ended, poet Muriel Rukeyser came to the station to read her poem on peace.
Ruas inaugurated the Audio Experimental Theater, a series presenting the works of avant-garde artists: Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Ed Bowes, Michael Newman, Joan Schwartz, Benjamin Folkman, Vito Acconci, Charles Ludlum, Jacques Levy, Willoughby Sharp, John Cage, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Richard Foreman, and Joan Jonas.
In drama, the station defended Tennessee Williams against his critics during his last years by covering his Memoirs and broadcasting a production of Two-Character Play. Other dramatists whose works were featured included Jean-Claude van Itallie, Richard Scheckner, Andrei Serban, and Elizabeth Swados.
Ruas initiated interview programs featuring nonfiction writers discussing their fields of expertise—Buckminster Fuller, Thor Heyerdahl, Ed Sanders, Jonathan Kozol and Nigel Nicholson.
Each of the arts had weekly coverage. Courtney Callender’s Getting Around covered the cultural scene. Moira Hudson was the dance critic.The visual arts critics were John Perreault, Cindy Nemser, Liza Baer, Joe Giordano, Judith Vivell, Kenneth Koch, and Les Levine.
Susan Howe produced a weekly poetry program presenting the works of John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Maureen Owen, Charles Reznikoff, Rebecca Wright, Ron Padgett, Carter Ratcliff, John Hollander, Anne Waldman, Helen Adam, Audre Lorde, Michael Brownstein, Mary Ferrari, and Muriel Rukeyser. She also produced specials featuring William Carlos Williams, V. R. Lang, Jack Spicer, Louise Bogan, Paul Metcalf, Jonathan Williams, Harry Mathews, and James Laughlin. John Giorno presented his 5-part series Dial-a-Poem Poets.
For a few years WBAI became a cultural force as these programs were disseminated nationally through the Pacifica Network.
With the decline of the arc of history represented by the 1960s and 1970s, the station turned against itself. A new board of directors determined a new agenda, and, against the staff resistance provoked by what was known internally as The Crisis, and manifest in the seizure and occupation of the facilities, a different station emerged, one which attempted to offer an alternative perspective within the mainstream commercial aesthetic rather than from the outside.
Dwindling and decline
In 1998, WBAI moved to the tenth floor at 120 Wall Street in the Financial District.
In late 2012 WBAI suffered extensive damages to their offices following the events of Hurricane Sandy. The Manhattan offices saw flooding reach the second floor, trapping seven staffers inside, and the telephone systems being disabled. The devastation by Sandy occurred in the midst of fundraising efforts, which ultimately prevented WBAI from acquiring the necessary funds to remain operational. As a result of funding and operational difficulties, WBAI announced in 2013 it would be moving out of those studios to temporary studios of WHCR-FM located in Harlem, a station operated by City College of New York (CUNY).
Lynne Rosen and John Littig, co-hosts of the monthly show The Pursuit of Happiness, were found dead on June 3, 2013, after committing suicide in their Park Slope home.
In June 2013 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting suspended payments to WBAI citing accounting irregularities and a failure by the station to meet its financial obligations. Layoff notices effective July 15 were subsequently issued to the station's staff and management.
On August 9, 2013, Pacifica management announced that due to financial problems, WBAI was laying off about two-thirds of its staff, effective August 12, 2013. The entire news department was laid off.Summer Reese, the interim executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI, said that after talks with SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents broadcasting talent, “we will be laying off virtually everyone whose voice you recognize on the air,” effective Monday. She corrected that and announced the final number was 19 out of the station’s 29 employees, about 66 percent. Andrew Phillips, the former general manager of another of Pacifica’s five stations, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, was appointed WBAI’s interim program director. The New York Times reported that the station owes $2 million in broadcast fees to Democracy Now! alone, while cash on hand was just $23,000.
In March 2014 there were assorted rumors that the station will be sold or leased or moved, in whole or in part (including their equipment and antenna at the Empire State Building) after contentions and firings both at WBAI and at Pacifica headquarters.
On 17 December 2014 the California State Attorney General opened a full and formal investigation into the Pacifica Radio Foundation, owner of WBAI-FM, with respect to its alleged irregularities as to its finances, violations of California law with respect to nonprofit organizations, and violations of its own bylaws.
Democracy Now! is presently WBAI’s most influential offering. A news/talk show that mixes humor and public affairs The Julianna Forlano Showhosted by Brooklyn College Professor Julianna Forlano airs during the 6 p.m drive time hour. The station also hosts shows such as Golden Age of Radio serials, Weaponry, a show about military history and technology, Free Speech Radio News, and Wakeup Call (WBAI's morning drive time news magazine presented by several hosts including Mario Murillo and Esther Armah). Also included is a regular arts program, The Artsy Fartsy Show with host Barika Taheer Edwards.Others are the weekly science fiction program Hour of the Wolf presented by Jim Freund, As I Please, a program of literature (Joyce, Beckett, Pound and many more) presented by Simon Loekle since 1980 and Off The Hook, a program by the 2600 hacker group about the societal implications of communications & security technology and related laws, and The Personal Computer Show with Joe King and Hank Kee. Music programming includes Peter Bochan's All Mixed Up, Music of the Grateful Dead and more on Morning Dew, Free-form music and arts program "In the Moment" hosted by Ahmad Ali with Will Roberson and Mailon Rivera of Urban Alchemy 360º on Friday Mornings, Jeannie Hopper's Liquid Sound Lounge on Saturdays, "Through The Opera Glass" and Chris Whent's "Hear of a Sunday Morning" on Sunday mornings, Chico Alvarez's New World Gallery on Sunday afternoons and David Kenney's Everything Old Is New Again, a mix of pop and jazz standards, show tunes, cabaret and interviews on Sunday evenings.
WBAI also offers programming and specials targeted primarily toward cultural audience segments that are typically under-served by most commercial media outlets. Examples include:
Radio Tahrir (supported in part by the Islamic Center of Long Island and targeted primarily towards Muslims)
Out FM (New York's "only progressive queer radio hour")
Joy of Resistance ("multicultural feminist radio")
First Voices Indigenous Radio (a global look at native/indigenous peoples) are examples of such programming.
The Artsy Fartsy Show, covering arts-related topics aimed at a youth audience
WBAI's FM subcarrier (SCA) (at 67.65 kHz) is leased to Radio Maria New York which airs Catholic programming in both Italian and Spanish languages.