July 10, 2013
My recent report on questionable fundraising ethics at WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York, generated a great deal of comments, with all but one of those condemning what is happening at the station.
The one supportive email came from Gregory Wonderwheel of California who wrote:
"The report by CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan titled 'Fundraising Ethics and WBAI' is very disappointing because the report is so vague, irresponsible, and unprofessional that it does not at all appear to be unbiased, I can only conclude that this petulant report is made in this manner because Mr. Kaplan feels personally slighted by the lack of response from the station, therefore he is putting his emotional reactivity into the report."
"Since we only have his side of the story, I would assume that his request for a response was as biased and vague as this report, and therefore it was reasonable to not respond at all without specific issues to which to respond."
Mr. Wonderwheel is referring to the fact that the report stated no one at WBAI responded to our requests for comment. As the ombudsman, I feel an obligation to investigate every complaint I receive, which was done here. To get WBAI's side of the story, my research assistant, Megan Paolone, attempted numerous times to get any response from WBAI management. There was no bias in her attempt to contact them because she never had an opportunity to discuss the original complaint.
In fact, F. Frank LeFever, an elected listener representative on the WBAI Local Station Board, was concerned about the lack of response and requested that we supply him with the dates we attempted to contact the staff and the numbers we used.
Ms. Paolone responded that she attempted to contact Berthold Reimers, the general manager of WBAI and Kathy Davis, the director of public affairs, daily for two weeks, but no one ever picked up, and their phones did not have voicemail. She also sent numerous email requests through the contact forms provided, as well as Ms. Davis' personal email, but never received a response.
The ombudsman's office was not the only entity having a difficult time getting a response from WBAI. Current, the newspaper about public media, recently wrote an article about CPB withholding financial support to Pacifica's five radio stations after the organization failed to timely respond to an audit report citing insufficient accounting practices, misreported revenues and failure to comply with CPB rules on financial transparency.
Matthew Lasar, who writes for the Radiosurvivor.com blog, also could not reach anyone at WBAI for an official response.
Mr. LeFever said he will be looking into the failure to communicate by WBAI staff, but he pointed out that "Communications within WBAI have been very difficult since Hurricane Sandy wiped out our usual phone lines and continue to be difficult in our temporary make-shift emergency quarters at World Financial Center 4."
The good news is that, following the initial report, a station volunteer contacted the ombudsman's office and provided us with personal cellphone numbers for executives at WBAI.
"As one of their unpaid volunteer staff, I share your concerns about WBAI's management and their unethical practice of sanctioning the selling of dubious fundraising premium gifts such as Cancer cures, etc.—and their paying out about $1.5 million per year in salary related expenses," he wrote.
While Mr. Reimers did not return any of our calls, Ms. Davis and Andrea Katz, WBAI's interim director of development, did respond.
Ms. Davis said the station is fundraising almost constantly because it is in such severe financial straits. The station does not accept underwriting, so it is up to each producer to create his or her own fundraising incentives so that the station can remain listener-supported.
"I think that the burden of fundraising has become much more invasive because expenses have increased exponentially," she said. "Each of the producers is fundraising on their beliefs. They offer something that they feel they can offer with integrity."
Ms. Davis said that one major problem facing the station is political infighting that has gone on because of attempts to democratize it. The result has been an increase in incidents of factionalism.
"We have been careening between powerbases over the last 10 years," she said. "One faction will get into power and take down the people before. It goes back and forth in the larger community of stakeholders who feel that they should be in charge."
"There's this ongoing conflict that also undermines our ability to function a little bit. There's always a fight, personal attacks. There's a lot of negativity. That factional fighting has really hurt us."
In terms of the specific complaints about fundraising and questionable premiums, Ms. Davis had this to say:
"We're in crisis, so we're fundraising almost constantly. They can donate $10 or $20 once per month or take the premiums. We're not tying people into any one specific method of support and we're not violating our mission."
"Even one of the things mentioned was this Double Helix Water. It was being offered, the board objected, and it was pulled. People voiced their objection and it's never been offered again."
Ms. Katz also disputed the notion that WBAI's fundraising tactics do anything to violate the station's not for profit status.
"We do not make a profit," she said. "We are in dire straits and are in the process of possibly curveballing 90 percent of our staff. We haven't made a profit in over 10 years."
Still, others continue to express concern about what is happening at WBAI.
Gillian Andrews, who used to be a panelist on the station's show, Off the Hook, said she left the show "because the nonstop fundraisers caused intense, regular strike [sic] as the OTH panelists were hustled to recommend people who could give us freebies to give away as premiums."
Ms. Andrews' blog post about her reasons for leaving WBAI can be found here:
There is no question that WBAI is facing some severe financial difficulties.
Those difficulties have been exacerbated by the decision of CPB to withhold Community Service Grant funding because of the failure of its Pacifica parent to provide requested financial documentation. CPB also plans to recover excess CSG money previously awarded to the Pacifica stations.
As for a response from the station's general manager, Mr. Reimers, Ms. Katz said we can call him 100 times and he will not be responding.
"As busy as I am, he's busier," she said. "We're all doing several people's jobs right now. And you can imagine with no secretaries, no assistants, he has hundreds of phone calls and emails a day that he's sitting on top of. The priorities right now are staying on top of fiscal matters and Pacifica board members."