That identity was cast into doubt on Monday when the station’s owner, the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, abruptly laid off most of WBAI’s staff and replaced its local programming with shows drawn from Pacifica’s four other stations.
Ten of WBAI’s 12 employees were laid off, according to John Vernile, Pacifica’s interim executive director.
Employees and volunteer hosts at the station said they were blindsided by Pacifica’s decision. “We are in disbelief,” said Alexander J. Urbelis, a host of “Off the Hook,” a weekly show about computer hacking. “Nobody was given any notice of this or any opportunity to be heard.”
Berthold Reimers, WBAI’s general manager, told producers in an email on Monday morning: “There is a show on the air now that I do not recognize. This means your shows are no longer on WBAI.” Mr. Reimers declined to comment.
Pacifica leaders said that the decision to shut down WBAI’s operations in New York had been in the works for months, and that it was an essential step to save the larger foundation from ruin.
In an interview, Mr. Vernile said WBAI — which, like the network’s other stations, is listener supported — had fallen short of its fund-raising goals in recent years. He added that the station was unable to make payroll and other expenses, forcing the larger Pacifica Foundation network to bail it out.
“Listeners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., have been supporting the efforts in New York,” Mr. Vernile said. “It has gotten to a point where we can no longer do that.”
WBAI’s ratings are minimal, but its shows can have an impact. On Monday, Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, wrote on Twitter: “This is deeply disappointing and I hope this station is relaunched.”
WBAI and Pacifica had been under strain for years. Pacifica has not released any financial statements since 2017, when its auditor cited doubts that the organization could continue as a going concern.
The foundation faced possible bankruptcy after a New York State court ordered it in 2017 to pay $1.8 million in rent and other fees to a trust affiliated with the Empire State Building, where WBAI transmitted its signal.
Last year, Pacifica settled with the trust after obtaining a loan from FJC, a nonprofit lender. Mr. Vernile said Pacifica had been meeting its obligations under the loan agreement. Sam Marks, the chief executive of FJC, declined to comment.
WBAI, founded in 1960, was a leader in the free-form radio movement, and has had a history of extraordinary moments in broadcasting. Bob Dylan made early appearances on the station, and in the 1970s WBAI was cited by the Federal Communications Commission for indecency for running George Carlin’s routine on seven “filthy words,” a decision upheld by the Supreme Court.
As WBAI’s audience has dwindled, its finances have grown shaky. In 2013, after nearly a decade of losses, the station laid off 19 employees. At times, it has seemed crippled by factionalism, as board meetings descended into name-calling and bickering over parliamentary rules.
The station’s most valuable asset may be its license to operate a coveted spot on the dial, at 99.5 FM, but Mr. Vernile said Pacifica was determined not to sell that prime piece of radio real estate. Pacifica, he said, wants to “rebuild” WBAI at some point, although he did not offer a clear target date.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said, “but this puts us in a place where we have a shot at bringing everything back in full.”
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