Sunday, January 10, 2010


WBAI is 50 years old—hyper-local radio Tags:

by Larry Geller

Hawaii is a world away from New York City. I’m a New Yorker like Barack Obama is from Hawaii. We both left.

But just as Obama can come back, it’s great to visit NYC, ride the subway, eat real bagels, whitefish, Jewish rye bread, check out the cheese at Fairway Markets, walk up and down 5th Avenue, have some Ethiopian food, browse used book stores, listen to the old accents and dialects, hear some Yiddish if I’m lucky (doesn’t really happen any more), shop in a real Whole Foods, visit Chelsea Market…

Culturally it’s the polar opposite of Hawaii. Plays, symphonies, Broadway (if you like that), Carnegie Hall, the Roundabout Theater (now grown up and famous, but we were early fans when it was tiny and intimate). Languages. Food. Nannies wheeling strollers up and down streets in Chelsea. Doormen. Real architecture. Cabs you can hail on the street. Central Park. Doormen hailing cabs in front of plush apartments on Central Park. Doormen tipping the cab driver ten bucks just for stopping.

Trouble is, it’s too expensive to spend much time in New York.

Listening to WBAI is something I do almost every day, though, right here in Hawaii. And today they celebrated 50 years.

I listen because they have great news and several other programs I like. Thanks to the Internet, the reception is better in Hawaii than it was when I lived right there in the city.

Public radio to me is not HPR or NPR. It’s WBAI and Pacifica. Instead of packaged programs they have something like 32 local producers at the one station. In New York, people do listen to the radio at all hours, so a program can run from 3-6 a.m. and have an audience. The city never sleeps.

Now, with podcasting, it’s possible to listen without having to sit in front of a radio at a particular time, and that’s how I do my WBAI listening. I usually catch the evening news while doing the dinner dishes.

Today they preempted regular programming to celebrate 50 years on the air. They brought back voices from yesteryear. Yeah, they sound older and maybe wiser now. The pimply kids I have frozen images of are now retired college professors.

I was an occasional volunteer and had a few adventures there (maybe I’ll relate one or two in another article). I remember when they were in a church and the AFP wire teletype sat in the bathtub. Staff translated the news from French. AP and UPI were not to be trusted any more then than they are now.

I remember hurriedly building my Heathkit AR-15 receiver so that it would be ready when Larry Josephson would turn on their stereo pilot for the first time. I made it by minutes (the cover wasn’t on the unit, but it worked). Larry turned on the stereo pilot (applause in the background) and the red light on the front of the AR-15 lit up. He turned it off. He turned it on. He turned it off. Like a kid. All over the city red lights went on and off at his command. What power!

Larry Josephson must have hated the pledge drives, with the fake matching funds and contrived goals that are pretty much the same as you hear now on HPR. So one day he determined to play Kate Smith singing God Bless America (mp3) continually until everyone paid up. It didn’t work. Listeners were furious, and many pledged just to get that god-awful noise to stop but never sent any money. To this day I cannot tolerate pledge drives. When HPR goes into pledge mode, I tune to KTUH if I don’t happen to have my mp3 player in the car. Honest, I have flashbacks of Kate Smith singing. The version Larry played back then was much more dynamic than the one I have linked to above.

Larry was my morning listening before going off to work. He was to be there tonight for the celebration, though I didn’t catch him yet in the podcast.

Bob Fass was doing Radio Unnamable when we lived in NY, and he’s still there doing it today. The program starts at midnight. Amazing to have persisted with it so long (40+ years!). I did catch him just now. His voice is completely different. From the Wikipedia:

Fass’s program, Radio Unnameable, beginning in the 1963, broadcast the work, and impromptu interviews, of counterculture figures such as Bob Dylan, and the first performance of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant".

That performance  of Alice’s Restaurant was longer, as I recall, than the 18-minute version commonly available today.

Thirty-two producers (or whatever the current number might be) is hyper-local programming. It’s what we talk about doing with journalism on the web, at least in one formula. WBAI has been hyper-local for 50 years now. They are also thoroughly modern. Every program is podcast and archived. It’s done automatically. A program is usually available for downloading within 10 minutes after it finishes broadcasting.

Oh—one last thing. In Hawaii, even if you contribute to HPR, you don’t get any say in what’s broadcast. WBAI listeners get to vote for the station board and participate in other decisions. It wasn’t always that way, The Pacifica network went through some turmoil and a revolution before becoming what it is today.

More on WBAI adventures some other time. Now I’m going to plug in the ear buds and catch up on their celebration.

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