The Possibly Pending Death of a Legendary Radio Station

Friday A/V Club: When Timothy Leary, Ayn Rand, and Big Mama Thornton shared a microphone


A legendary radio station may be on the verge of death. But we don't know for sure because, as is often the case with this station, everything is a mess.

The outlet is WBAI, the New York affiliate of the radical Pacifica network. A shadow of its former self, BAI has been spiraling through monetary, managerial, and other problems for years now. So it wasn't surprising when, on October 7, the Pacifica Foundation announced that it was laying off the station staff and suspending all local programming. Nor was it surprising when those some of those local staffers convinced a judge later that day to issue an order temporarily enjoining the network from enacting its plans. (Pacifica broadcasters are not known for quietly obeying the higher-ups.) There's been a tug-of-war over the transmitter since then, and a bitter split within Pacifica's national board too. The people trying to oust the staff say that they intend to revamp and relaunch the station; their critics accuse them of planning to sell it and use the proceeds to keep the rest of the network afloat. The two sides are scheduled to meet in court on Monday.

We'll find out soon enough how that turns out. But for now, let's look back to the happier (though no less contentious) days of the 1960s and early '70s, when this was one of the most diverse and innovative outfits on the radio dial.

WBAI began as an ordinary commercial station in 1955, broadcasting at 99.5 FM. Then an eccentric millionaire named Louis Schweitzer bought it, thinking this would be a good way to ensure he could hear more classical music on the radio. The station got an unexpected boost in listenership during a newspaper strike, as New Yorkers tuned to it for the news, and Schweitzer found he had a financial success on his hands. Unfortunately for Schweitzer, that meant he was hearing more commercials on his station—and he hated listening to ads. So he decided to hand the whole thing over to the Pacifica Foundation, which had been broadcasting a mixture of highbrow cultural programming and dissident political commentary in Berkeley, California, since 1949 and had just launched a second station in Los Angeles.

So Schweitzer cold-called Harold Winkler, Pacifica's president, and told him that he could have WBAI if he wanted it. Much of the ensuing conversation reportedly consisted of Schweitzer trying to convince Winkler that he was not a crank—or, at least, that he was a very rich crank who really did intend to give away a radio station. The transaction was soon completed, and in 1960 WBAI became a noncommercial Pacifica station broadcasting in the middle of New York's commercial FM band.

This was seven years before the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 10 years before the birth of National Public Radio. In those days, if you were a station that didn't run ads and didn't have a university to support you, you relied on a mixture of listener sponsorship, philanthropic support, volunteerism, and pure energy.

BAI had energy aplenty. It quickly became one of the most eclectic radio stations around—the kind of place that interviewed Yoko Ono in 1965, long before she had anything to do with the Beatles, just to have her sing Japanese songs and talk about Japanese culture. Its most famous host was probably Bob Fass, whose overnight free-form programs made a hash of every genre boundary. Fass did innovative music mixes (he may be the only DJ ever to layer Buddhist chants over a Hitler speech), brought on famous guests (at one point, he was the only radio host who Bob Dylan would allow to interview him), and—as he got involved with the New Left—organized demonstrations on the air. And he was just one of many on-air personalities enjoying enormous creative control.

The BAI broadcast that I'd most like to hear was transmitted shortly after student militants seized and occupied Columbia University in 1968. Three satirists—Paul Krassner, Marshall Efron, and future HBO executive Bridget Potter—were scheduled to sit in as guest hosts for Steve Post's late-night program. They opened the show by claiming to be a trio of students named Rudi Dutschke, Emma Goldman, and Danny the Red, and they declared that they were there to liberate the station. "They read all the standard station announcements, carefully followed all FCC regulations, including station breaks on the hour and half hour, and made no attempt to disguise their voices, which, after years of guest appearances on my program, were as familiar to my audience as my own," Post wrote in his book Playing in the FM Band. "Still, within an hour police arrived at the studios, having received reports of a student takeover and of my detention as a hostage in WBAI's bathroom."

I wish I could post that program here—not just as a tribute to WBAI, which may be about to die, but as a tribute to Efron (who died last month) and to Krassner (who died in July). Alas, I can't find a recording of it. But I do have some other samples of the station's early programming to share. The Internet Archive has a great selection of BAI audio files from 1960 through 2019, and I've embedded some highlights below.

First: From 1968, an episode of The New Symposium, a program dedicated to the gay community. Needless to say, this was not your usual radio fodder in 1968, when same-sex relationships were still taboo for most of the country. Most stations wouldn't touch the topic, and if someone did broadcast a show about it, it probably featured psychologists and other credentialed experts discussing homosexuality as an "issue," not a group of guys chatting about which local gay bars are mobbed up (all but one of them, apparently) and where the good pickup spots are. Yet here they are, having a calm conversation without any shudders or titters. At least not until the end, when someone mentions that one good place to go cruising is "the local bingo games in the Catholic churches in the Village." That sparks some knowing laughter.

Second: A bit of black power, also from 1968. Recorded at a time when much of the black liberation movement was interested in decentralization and community control, this interview centers around the theory that Harlem had been illegally absorbed by New York City and therefore should be an independent, self-governing town. This wasn't a new idea, but here it gets filtered through a 1960s black nationalist lens.

The socially conservative side of black nationalism rears its head around the 28-minute mark, when guest Herb Lambright complains that the police have been "allowing every kind of decadence to exist" in Harlem. The example he gives is gambling—"You can hardly go two blocks without seeing a crap[s] game," he says in disgust—but I can't help wondering how he'd feel about the hosts of The New Symposium.

Third: Not every voice on the station was enthusiastic about that uprising at Columbia University. Go to the 46:21 mark below, and you'll hear Ayn Rand deriding the Columbia rebels as hoodlums and praising a student group called the Committee for Defense of Property Rights.

Rand's radio editorials appeared regularly on WBAI in the '60s. National Review did something similar for a while, but it stopped participating in the Pacifica network's commentary series in 1961, explaining that it did not want its words to appear in a series that also aired commentaries by Communists.

Fourth: a rather different political commentary, this one from the LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. It was 1970, and the Weather Underground had just broken Leary out of prison and spirited him away to Algeria, where he was taken in by the exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. That alliance ended poorly, but for the moment Leary was gamely spouting propaganda for what he calls "the noble and beautiful Weathermen Underground." In this rambling 16-minute phone call, he gives us such turns of phrase as "the wise, benign, and loving protection of the Black Panthers," "the wicked pig capitalist bourgeois press," and "the genocidal robot police establishment."

Fifth: Let's wash all that down with some music. From 1971, here's a live performance by blues legend Big Mama Thornton—the woman who sang "Hound Dog" before Elvis made it his own. Be forewarned: Before the concert actually starts, the recording features nearly nine minutes in which all you can hear is the crowd milling around and the musicians tuning their instruments. Did that part go out over the air too? Probably. Welcome to noncommercial radio!

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For WBAI's biggest mark on American jurisprudence—the famous "seven dirty words" case—go here. And for more about WBAI, Pacifica, and free-form radio, read my book Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, available here.)