Today marks 20 years since the official celebration of WNYC's independence from the City of New York. The first payment of $3.3 million was made against an agreed upon $20 million for the WNYC Foundation's acquisition of the AM and FM broadcast licenses held by the city since 1924 and 1943, respectively.
I've yet to tally the number of times WNYC's very existence was threatened in those 73 years, but it was a lot, and frankly, it's a miracle the station survived. Not long after it first went on air on July 8, 1924, its signal was challenged because Mayor Hylan had used the airwaves to attack owners of private subway lines. In 1930, there was a serious question about the separation of church and state because of the station's broadcast of Holy Name Society breakfasts by the police and fire departments. Fiorello H. La Guardia, that great champion of WNYC, ran for Mayor in 1933 on a platform calling for the elimination of the station to save taxpayer dollars. It took some time and effort, but he was eventually convinced of its value and then made great use of it himself. In 1938 members of the City Council accused WNYC of airing Soviet propaganda that suggested life under Joe Stalin was hunky-dory. There was an investigation and vehement calls for WNYC to be silenced.
In the years that followed, regular demands for the demise of WNYC in the name of relieving the taxpayer's burden continued to be heard. By the early 1970s the station’s outlook became truly bleak. The Lindsay administration made such dramatic cutbacks that long-time Director Seymour N. Siegel felt he could no longer remain at his post. From Lindsay to Mayor Beame was like going from the frying pan to the fire as far as the station's financial situation was concerned. The city fiscal crisis meant Greek-style austerity, and Mayor Beame named a task force to make recommendations on the future of WNYC. The situation improved under Ed Koch, but he then later provoked questions about city ownership and the station's editorial independence by pressing for the broadcast of the so-called John Hour.
Fortunately, the creation of the WNYC Foundation in August 1979 was the seed for independence, as supporters of the station now had a vehicle for channeling non-city funds to the stations. In the years that followed, more and more of the financial burden was shifted to the foundation, so that by 1995, when the Giuliani Administration called for the city "to get out of the broadcasting business," the foundation was ready to assume control and responsibility for the valuable broadcast licenses. Negotiations between the city and the foundation were intense. But 20 years of independence, awards, growth, and great programming have made it all worthwhile.
For the definitive story of WNYC's shift from the city to non-profit ownership, see Peter H. Darrow's Going Public: The Story of WNYC's Journey to Independence.