FCC Is Investigating Pacifica Radio’s New York City Station

The Federal Communications Commission is investigation the underwriting practice of Pacifica’s New York station. The issue has come up as part of the license renewal application for “Pacifica Radio 99.5” WBAI. The Commission has received a petition asking it to deny giving the left-leaning broadcaster a new license for allegedly violating rules that prohibit noncommercial stations from airing underwriting announcements that contain comparative and qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, and inducements to buy products or services provided by program guests.

The FCC sent a letter of inquiry to WBAI in February alleging several programs, including the “Gary Null Show,” the “Christine Blosdale Special,” and “Off the Hook” may have aired underwriting announcements in which the hosts discussed products and services without proper sponsorship identification. The petition to block the renewal came with transcripts of several alleged violations. It was filed in May 2022 by Pacifica Safety Net, a group that is focused on what it says is the continued “mismanagement” of Pacifica. It included examples collected totaling 20 hours of content, although the group said it collected “substantially more examples” of underwriting violations that it is willing to share with the FCC.

Pacifica Safety Net says some of the most egregious examples of pitches for what it describes as “snake oil or alternative beauty products” came with mentions of producer Gary Null pitching his for-profit nutritional health supplements on the air. In at least one example, it says during a station fund drive listeners were offered what amounted to infomercials for the products complete with price and telephone number call-to-action statements.

In another case, it says WBAI pitched numerous beauty products, “how to” programs, alternative healing and other services that similarly included price and phone numbers as part of a fund drive that offered them as a thank you gift for a $150 donation to the station.

“Taken as a whole, these deficiencies reflect a wholesale default of oversight and control by national and local management,” the group said in its petition.

The evidence apparently was convincing enough that the Media Bureau is now taking a closer look. It has sent a letter of inquiry to WBAI asking a series of questions about its underwriting practices dating to June 2014. It is not only seeking a listing of when all underwriting was aired, but also who paid for the announcements as well as any document that support them being classified as underwriting – not advertisements. The answers must also come with a notarized affidavit or declaration under penalty of perjury within 45 days. In the meantime, WBAI’s license renewal remains pending.

Pacifica has not yet turned over the information to the FCC about its underwriting. But in 2022 it asked the Commission to reject the petition. It called Pacifica Safety Net’s allegations “procedurally flawed and substantively baseless” and said the group had relied on “sweeping, conclusory, and often jumbled, allegations” that “have no basis whatsoever in fact.” It also claims the group has no standing to seek a review because it is a California-based group.

“Simply put, WBAI does not air any paid or sponsored programming,” the station said. “Accordingly, it is impossible for WBAI to have violated the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules.” It says the pitches heard on the air are all related to its fundraising efforts, and the premiums it offers listeners are incentives to donate.

The investigation is the latest headache for the Pacifica Foundation, which has tried to move on from years of tumult. It hired a new executive director with the mission of moving forward from an era that included the unauthorized shutdown of WBAI in October 2019 and a $300,000 judgement against the station brought by a former interim Executive Director who sued the station owner for defamation.

It is that background which has motived Pacifica Safety Net to push forward. The group says there have been consistent financial shortfalls at WBAI have totaled more than $8 million in the last decade, with an over $214,000 shortfall projected for WBAI for this fiscal year. PSN has pushed for the sale or lease of WBAI saying it “would have a high value” in either case, and those funds could help support the network’s larger left-leaning mission elsewhere. In addition to WBAI, Pacifica Foundation owns variety KPKK Los Angeles (90.7), variety KPFA/KPFB San Francisco (94.1/89.3), news/talk KPFT Houston (90.1) and news/talk WPFW Washington, DC (89.3).

“PSN’s mission is to keep the Pacifica stations and their unique program service on the air so they may continue to elevate the discourse on controversial public issues, promote diversity, and respect the health and safety of listeners throughout the U.S.,” it says.

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