WBAI: The Soul of the City

| 08 Oct 2019 | 10:07

    People still remember the time that Bob Dylan and some pals – one sporting “suede shades” – crashed Bob Fass’s radio show on WBAI FM in the wee hours of Jan. 25, 1966.

    At the time, Dylan was busy in the early stages of recording his landmark album, “Blonde on Blonde,” uptown in Manhattan. But he had a fondness for the freewheeling, unpredictable station and an allegiance to Fass, one of its beacons for decades.

    Dylan felt so at ease that he even took calls from listeners. It was a testament to the majesty of the counter-culture radio station that Dylan called in to Fass’s show again twenty years later, on May 21, 1986, while he was in the process of recording his “Knocked-Out Loaded” album in Los Angeles.

    I kind of doubt that Dylan would have paid such a tribute to Murray the K or Cousin Brucie or their radio stations.

    That was what WBAI represented to New York – a haven where people didn’t have to be corporate or fancy or pretentious.

    New York City lost a little bit more of its identity this week when WBAI found itself teetering on the very edge of the abyss – most of its employees were laid off and local programming was canceled.

    You may not have listened a lot to the station, a property of similarly-minded Pacifica Foundation, which appeared at 99.5 on the dial and was a staple of New York’s radio underground since its inception in 1955. But that was your loss.

    It was – and it pains me to use past tense here – about as different as possible from the smooth, polished intonations of, say, a Sirius satellite channel.

    WBAI was proudly iconoclastic. It wasn’t slick. It wasn’t corporate, God knows. It was the kind of station that gave on-air figures the freedom to do just about whatever the hell they wanted. And that was one of its coolest hallmarks.

    Couldn’t Be Saved

    But even boasting fans like Bob Dylan ultimately couldn’t save the beleaguered radio station. Pacifica cited “ongoing and continued projections of further financial losses,” the New York Post reported. The station had experienced major layoffs in recent years, invariably a sign of trouble to come.

    In March 2014, the New York Post recounted, the station got an emergency loan to prevent the building’s owner from taking its assets, after the station fell $1.8 million behind in its rent in the Empire State Building.

    Will It Come Back?

    Pacifica hopes to revive WBAI when it can concoct a sturdy financial structure. But who knows if that will ever really come to pass. I’m still waiting for my favorite neighborhood pizza place and dry cleaners to come back from the dead.

    When it comes to faded institutions like WBAI, maybe it is best just to cherish the good times and be grateful we were there to experience them.

    A radio station isn’t merely a business, anyway. It’s more like a friend that you can turn to, day or night. When the walls are closing in, we always have a favorite station or radio personality, who can ease us through the tough times.

    Gritty Station

    Anyone who worked at WBAI or simply loved the station from afar would probably blanch at such sentimentality. WBAI was as gritty as the city it stood for. WBAI was anything but perfect. But it was always a little exciting to listen to. You never knew what might happen. That was a large part of its charm.

    Sure, we will move on. But we will miss the station. We’ve lost a little more of what makes our city special. It’s too bad.