When the hurricane hit us, apart from our own immediate survival, our thoughts went out to our listeners and how we could play a part in the recovery process. In times of crisis, radio is incredibly important - a veritable lifeline for those who have lost all other contact with the outside world. On Wednesday, October 31st, there were millions of people in that unfortunate position. All of downtown Manhattan was blacked out, as were massive parts of the surrounding areas. But, luckily, WBAI was still transmitting, albeit from a backup site.
That Wednesday, our producers raced to the temporary studios at 2307 Broadway, armed with the latest emergency info plus all kinds of details on how technology was handling the unprecedented conditions. Cell towers everywhere had failed, access to the Internet was a rarity, phone circuits were overloaded. There were ways of bypassing the trouble spots, quick fixes to the lack of access, hacker ingenuity that nobody else was talking about. Most importantly, we would be there to talk to our listeners, many of whom were frightened and in the dark. Hearing familiar voices at such a time can be profoundly helpful. WBAI was in a unique place to truly serve its listening audience, at a time when we were needed most.
We failed horribly.
Upon arrival at the new studio, we were told that nobody was allowed inside after 6 pm. From that time until 9 am, there could only be prerecorded programming, at the insistence of the studio's owner, Gary Null, who hosts a daily health show on WBAI. We were astounded, not only that we would be locked out at this critical time and replaced with recorded programming that had nothing to do with what our listeners were going through, but that nobody had even thought to contact us before we spent the better part of a day getting to and traversing through a city with no operating mass transit, in order to make it there in the first place.
Obviously, if you own a studio, you can set the rules. Our contention was that these were not the kind of rules that served a community radio station, particularly one operating inside a disaster zone, and that we should find another facility as quickly as possible so more days weren't lost. Remote studio links aren't that unusual, after all.
Instead, the situation continued with this unacceptable arrangement and prevented us from broadcasting the next week (November 7th) as well. We had already blown the opportunity to be there for our listeners in the midst of the crisis but now we were blowing the opportunity to cover the aftermath! To say it was unbelievable would really be an understatement. There are so many ways to broadcast a signal to our transmitter or to switch facilities at a predetermined time - or even to have a remote studio without restrictions feed into the one that wouldn't let us in - yet WBAI seemed unable to break away from the 6 pm curfew that was imposed upon us night after night. We weren't even allowed to broadcast live over a phone line. We were told that we could submit a recorded program that would be aired on or close to our normal timeslot. That wasn't really doable for those of us who still had no electricity or connectivity. But the station still had the power to be the lifeline for those who remained in darkness. Unfortunately, the management chose to continue the lockout and stay where it was.
Our permanent facility at 120 Wall Street remained inaccessible but we were told it might open in time for our next show on November 14th. But, in case it didn't, we made plans to record a program as per the restrictions, now that we had power and access to the Internet again. That's when we received word that, access or not, the decision was made to preempt us this week for another fundraiser. In other words, the biggest natural disaster ever to hit our listening area and we would be silenced for three weeks, even though the station had been up and running the whole time. The storm hit us before Halloween and it would be Thanksgiving before we could utter a single word on air about its effects. And - in case that wasn't enough to thoroughly outrage us - we were informed that we would be expected to take part in an additional fundraiser next month to make up for all of the shortfalls.
Enough already. These awful decisions have cost us our audience and robbed us of the opportunity to significantly serve the community we care about in a true time of disaster. We have always taken these responsibilities extremely seriously and made doing our show a priority above all others. We have donated untold thousands of dollars every year to WBAI because we believe in what the station stands for. But we can't continue doing this. It's clear we're not taken seriously enough to be included in contingency plans and that "Off The Hook" is not seen as a program people need to hear when the world around them is falling apart. That's a damn shame because we believe we would have helped a large number of people with no access to power or Internet regain the communications they lost - or at least know what to expect. There were people all over the world who were willing to help and go on our airwaves to speak as experts. Not even being given the chance is bad enough. Seeing that things aren't going to change and that we're just going to be called upon to keep bringing in more money for the station while maybe clinging onto our meager hour a week is a very depressing outlook indeed.
This may be where our program ends. We certainly can't continue in this environment. We deserve better treatment and our listeners deserve better programming. We've put in an extraordinary amount of effort, donated a ton of money, brought in lots of listeners (particularly young people who supposedly aren't even listening to radio anymore), and yet we haven't been able to expand at all throughout the years. If anything, we're doing less programming than ever, due to all of the incessant fundraising that's become necessary. Technology is a pretty big deal these days and we cover it like no one else does, yet we remain a mere postscript to the station schedule, despite being one of the most listened to shows according to the station's own website statistics (not even counting the streaming and archiving we do on our own). The amount of material we can't cover and the amount of people we can't talk to because of the constant time constraints is simply phenomenal. But the events of these past few weeks have really driven that point home.
Regrettably, we must start looking for another outlet for "Off The Hook." We want to continue broadcasting over the radio, as that is where the true magic is. Podcasts are a supplement to this, but not a replacement. We don't ever want to lose the possibility of someone accidentally stumbling upon our show while driving in their car or of non-tech savvy people being fascinated by what they hear. Pulling in listeners who never even knew that they were interested in what we were talking about is what makes all of this worthwhile. But we know that achieving that may be an impossible dream, even in New York.
WBAI is a unique gem on the radio dial. It must be preserved. But without immediate and significant changes, it cannot survive and we don't see how "Off The Hook" can continue there, either. Popular programs that serve a true function should be recognized as such, not simply treated as some sort of oddity that's the first to get bumped when the talk gets serious. This is far from the first time something like this has happened, which is why we can't buy into the usual promises of trying to do better and being more inclusive next time. The words of hackers and those who design technology should not be thought of as an irrelevant postscript. More often than not, they are the conversation itself. We hope we can find a place where that's recognized.
The Staff of "Off The Hook"