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Pacifica in Court Over Tower Lease Dispute

WBAI is behind on lease payments and being sued by Empire State Realty Trust

The nonprofit Pacifica Foundation, facing a huge bill from the Empire State Realty Trust for unpaid tower lease costs, now is asking for community support to help it reach what it terms a “fair” settlement.

WBAI(FM) in New York City, which is owned by the foundation, is the target of a lawsuit filed by ESRT in New York Supreme Court that demands payment of $1.8 million for unpaid rent and license fees spanning more than three years. ESRT seeks “summary judgment for breach of agreement,” according to court documents. The Pacifica Foundation says the total amount demanded by ESRT now tops $2 million.

In a Pacifica press release, Bill Crosier, the foundation’s interim director, says “the amount being charged is over four times the market rate in New York City, and threatens the future of independent community radio.”

The Pacifica Radio Foundation owns and operates five noncommercial “community radio stations,” including the aforementioned WBAI. It also owns KPFK(FM) in Los Angeles, KPFA(FM) in San Francisco, KPFT(FM) in Houston and WPFW(FM) in Washington. Pacifica Radio, which had its radio origins in Berkeley, Calif., dating to the pacifist movement during World War II, also operates the Pacifica Network with approximately 200 affiliates.

“[Pacifica’s] 15-year lease that ends in 2020 involves a 7% annually escalating license fee — the largest portion of the bill. There is also an additional overall cost of living increase of about 2% per year. In total the lease increases by 9% every year,” Crosier said in the press release. “(ESRT) has refused to renegotiate the annual increases and release Pacifica from the lease contract, which is scheduled to continue with escalating rental fees until 2020. They are suing us for over $2 million for unpaid tower lease payments, interest, and late fees, even though we were current with payments until three years ago and have been paying the current market rate every month since then. But we simply cannot keep paying four times the market rate. Under the lease, we would be obligated to pay an additional $2 million for the next three years. Market rates for FM transmitter tower leases in NYC have dropped to about $12K monthly for new transmitter site options. WBAI’s bill for the month of May 2017 came to over $53,000.”

WBAI, which has had transmission facilities on the Empire State Building since 1965, alleges the building’s owners took advantage of its monopoly position in rooftop real estate and in 2005, after the loss of the broadcast facilities at the World Trade Center in 2001, negotiated a highly questionable tower lease contract with Pacifica’s former executive director, Ambrose Lane.

Crosier, who took over at the financially beleaguered broadcaster earlier this year, continues in the press release to assert something possibly even more sinister: “The ESRT threat to Pacifica may involve more than financial opportunism. In these urgent times there are interests who stand to benefit from the loss Pacifica’s powerful free speech advocacy.”

A Radio World email to the Pacifica Foundation Board seeking additional comment went unanswered. Empire State Realty Trust Director of Broadcasting Shane O’Donoghue declined comment for this story.

It’s not the first time Pacifica has faced an uncertainty about its transmission platform in New York City. In 2014 WBAI fell far behind on its studio rent.

Pacifica concludes its press release this way: “Listeners and media staff across the U.S. are taking action with petitions, press releases, videos and social media in support of Pacifica and WBAI as they face this daunting legal assault. Pacifica is asking for support to help Pacifica get a fair settlement with ESRT and relief from the grossly excessive annual increases in the antenna lease.”

The Empire State Building, towering more than 1,250 feet above midtown Manhattan, is the transmission home of 19 FM radio stations and is in the process of completing a new auxiliary master FM radio antenna.

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