Future of WBAI in doubt over rent dispute for broadcast tower

WBAI has long been associated with the counterculture here in the city, presenting its programming from a liberal perspective. But the station is now struggling to survive. NY1's Zack Fink filed the following report.

Smack in the middle of your FM radio dial is 99.5 FM, radio station WBAI, which has been entirely listener-supported for half a century.

"It's there from the Iran-Contra affair. We covered that. We covered the war in Yugoslavia," said WBAI host Randy Credico. "We take a different perspective here, an alternative perspective that you don't get in the corporate media."

WBAI takes no corporate money or grants and instead relies on the generosity of New Yorkers through donations.

But now, a dispute over money is threatening to pull the station off the air permanently.

WBAI's antenna is located on the Empire State Building, and the realty trust for the buiding is demanding $2.5 million in back rent payments, which the station claims it cannot afford.

"As of June 30, 2014, we were up to date. And I told them that there is no way we will be able to continue paying them the $40-, $50,000 in rent per month," said Berthold Reimers, general manager at WBAI.

WBAI used to be located on Wall Street but moved to Brooklyn after the old building had flooding issues following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That's when the station's current financial problems began.

Once a hotbed of leftist organizing and activism, WBAI has struggled to stay on the air.

WBAI was at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case when comedian George Carlin uttered what are known as the seven dirty words that can't be said on the public airwaves. The case was precedent-setting for what constitutes free speech.

And some well-known New Yorkers have gotten their start here, including City Council Speaker Melisa Mark-Viverito, and even this reporter, who began in WBAI's newsroom as a reporter in 1995.

"We need to support them because they are unique," said Bill Samuels, a WBAI listener. "And someone who doesn't have money, radio is, I know you are not in radio, radio is a fantastic medium, and I have a lot of respect for these people."

The Empire State Realty Trust did not respond to a request for comment. 

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