WBAI, a part of the Pacifica Radio Network, is a non-commercial, listener-supported radio station, broadcasting at 99.5 FM in New York City. 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 history of WBAI is long 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.
WBAI played a major role in the evolution and development of the counterculture in the 1960s and early 1970s. Alice’s Restaurant was first broadcast on Radio Unnameable, Bob Fass’ Freeform Radio program, 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 mid- 1960s was author Ayn Rand. The 1964 Political conventions were “covered” satirically on WBAI by Severn Darden, Elaine May, Burns and Schreiber, David Amram, and members of the Second City comedy group. The station presented an annual 24-hour nonstop presentation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, held live performances of emerging artists in its studios, and produced and presented interviews with prominent figures in literature and the arts, as well as original highly-produced radio dramas. 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. 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.
In 1973, the station broadcast comedian George Carlin’s infamous Filthy Words routine uncensored – see F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation for a detailed account of the court case that ensued.
Amy Gooman’s Democracy Now! is presently WBAI’s most influential offering. 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. 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, and Off The Hook, a program by the 2600 hacker group about the societal implications of communications & security technology and related laws, The Personal Computer Show with Joe King and Hank Kee, and the economic journalism of Doug Henwood. Music programming includes Peter Bochan’s All Mixed Up, Liquid Sound Lounge, 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. 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), Radio drama serial The Aliens (one of the few radio drama series to hit the US airwaves since the Golden Age of Radio) focused on inter-cultural relationships around the world, and Asia Pacific Forum (targeted primarily towards Asian Americans) and Al Jazeera are examples of such programming.
Listen live or to the archives at 99.5FM or WBAI.org