The “Resisters” or WBAI Fightback at the Oct. 15 rally. Photos: Paul DeRienzo
A New York State Supreme Court judge has restored WBAI 99.5 FM Radio to local control.
The station’s local programming and other assets had been seized on Oct. 7 by John Vernile, the interim executive director at Pacifica Foundation, WBAI’s parent organization. Vernile also fired all of WBAI’s New York staff and producers when he seized control of the station.
Yesterday, Judge Melissa Crane ruled that an Oct. 20 vote by a majority of Pacifica Foundation’s National Board (PFNB) rescinding Vernile’s actions was valid. That vote followed another one on Oct. 13 by a majority–12 out of a total of 22–of the Board, which had also dismissed Vernile’s actions.
Judge Crane ruled that a purported vote–9 to 7–on Oct. 12 by some Pacifica Board members that had affirmed and supported Vernile’s takeover of WBAI was not valid because five Board members were disenfranchised when they were barred from voting because of alleged “conflicts of interest” by the minority faction that backed Vernile. Judge Crane concluded that only one of the five had a conflict of interest. The Board members blocked on Oct. 12 then voted to rescind Vernile’s actions on the Oct. 13 vote and, critically, again on Oct. 20.
Crane’s ruling is a huge victory for WBAI and independent journalism. The station was represented by the indefatigable attorney Arthur Schwartz, who doubles as a producer at the station.
It’s not clear if the minority element that had backed Vernile plan to appeal Judge Crane’s ruling. The PNB majority plans to block any funding for lawyers’ fees for the Vernile faction to continue litigation.
In an interesting development, hours after yesterday’s decision, Vernile complied with the court order to restore WBAI’s signal to local control. The antenna is atop 4 Times Square. Shortly after midnight several WBAI producers including Mimi Rosenberg were back on the air with celebratory announcement to the station’s loyal listeners with news of the courtroom victory.
“This is a great win for the people of New York City and local control of our institutions,” Rosenberg, who is producer of Building Bridges, said. She was emcee when the fired producers, other staff, volunteers, supporters and listeners held a press conference and protest against the takeover, on the steps of City Hall on Oct. 15. Elected representatives in attendance included Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council-member Lourie Cumbo, and Assemblyman Harvey Epstein. All testified about the important role the station has played for New York and its surrounding area for decades.
On Oct. 7, New York State Attorney General Letitia James also tweeted, “The closing of WBAI is a huge loss for New York City and local news coverage we all depend on. This is deeply disappointing and I hope this station is relaunched.”
The month-long battle started in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, when Vernile, accompanied by security guards, entered WBAI’s Brooklyn headquarters unannounced, ordered all employees to leave, shut off the transmitter, dismantled equipment, took down the website, closed the bank account and “fired” staff and producers. The illegal action, referred to as a “coup” by WBAI’s supporters also shutdown a fund-drive that had reportedly raised tens of thousands of dollars. WBAI’s supporters wondered how Vernile could claim he wanted to stabilize the station’s finances while at the same time wrecking a fund-drive.
Now, several of the WBAI shows off the air since Oct. 7–and replaced by unfamiliar programs piped in from other station’s in Pacifica’s network–will be back on starting Nov. 6, 2019. WBAI’s station manager Berthold Reimers said more details about plans for WBAI to shore up its fundraising will come shortly.
Judge Crane’s ruling left unresolved the disputes around financial shortfalls that have created challenges not only for WBAI but also for Pacifica itself and some of the other stations in its network. She suggested mediation as a possible route to resolve differences between Pacifica and WBAI.
After the Vernile Oct. 7 takeover, WBAI was able to get a temporary restraining order (TRO) from New York State Supreme Court Judge Frank P. Nervo. Schwartz argued that Vernile had acted in contravention of Pacifica’s bylaws. The TRO was later mostly vacated when lawyers acting under instructions from the minority Pacifica faction and Vernile appealed. These lawyers then moved the case to federal court claiming that the dispute was over its license, which is governed under FCC rules. But U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer rejected the argument and declined to hear the case which then ended up back in State Supreme Court before Judge Crane, who issued yesterday’s ruling.
Tensions leading to the standoff between Pacifica and WBAI, New York’s 60 year-old progressive non-commercial listener-supported radio station, had been brewing for some time. Many WBAI supporters point out that the station’s license could be worth over $25 million dollars in New York’s competitive commercial radio market. They believe the minority faction that attempted the takeover wants to find a way to sell the license.