Accepting Sponsorship = Endorsement: How a Handful of Environmental Activists Pushed WNYC to Have a Fiscal Reckoning and Drop Williams Company and Pipelines as a Sponsor

This is a story of how collective perseverance, strategy and consistently showing up can and do have outsize impacts toward a positive future. This is a demonstration of grassroots activism and the power of individual agency that we each carry within ourselves. And, best of all, this is a call to empower yourself and your community, to break down the poisonous bricks upon which the current fossil fuel infrastructure depends, and build a new foundation that supports the diversity of life.

 

Accepting Sponsorship = Endorsement

“There is nothing we will advertise that does not align with our principles….We have actively rejected advertising and sponsorship in the past because when it doesn’t feel right, it’s just not right.” Then minutes later came the statement that tipped me over the edge from public observer to enraged questioner - “As long as support falls under our criteria, we aim to be balanced and not demonstrate being skewed an a topic. For example, we can’t accept sponsorships from Earthjustice but reject Williams Companies.” One is a nonprofit environmental law organization working to protect people's health, preserve forests and wildlife, and combat climate change that endangers us all. The other is a for-profit fracked gas company that has polluted and destroyed local communities and environments. To compare the two is deeply insulting and dangerous.

Before me and a couple dozen WNYC listeners stood Hal Trencher, Senior Vice President of Sponsorships at New York Public Radio/WNYC, presenting to the NYPR Community Advisory Board on how public radio manages sponsorships at WNYC. He was half an hour into an overview of NYPR/WNYC’s sponsorship process and development, emphasizing such successes as sponsorship growth of 81.6% since 2015 (rising from $16.9 million of revenue to $30.7 million in FY17). And throughout, he insisted that although sponsorship does not imply endorsement from NYPR, “if it doesn’t feel right” sponsors can and do get dropped.

 Williams and WNYC's relationship extended off air, with the company sponsoring RadioLoveFest, a popular cultural festival in Brooklyn. 

Williams and WNYC's relationship extended off air, with the company sponsoring RadioLoveFest, a popular cultural festival in Brooklyn. 

If this is indeed the case, then Williams should never have been accepted as a sponsor in the first place. Yet for many years now, listeners of NPR’s local affiliate WNYC, have heard the innocuous sounding “WNYC is supported by Williams [...] building upon a commitment to support local communities" dispersed throughout their radio program of choice. Unfortunately for listeners and local communities, this statement and the advertising logic behind it are deeply false and dangerous, conveniently blurred by the glow of WNYC’s reputation for thoughtful, independent and nuanced reporting.

What this Orwellian sponsorship spot doesn’t tell listeners is that Williams is a billion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure company, whose pipelines and compressor stations enable the processing and transportation of fracked gas. Far from supporting local communities, Williams projects have poisoned water and air, leading to increased medical problems, decreased economic opportunities and long-term impoverishment of people and the environment. Williams has a remarkably poor safety record (including 6 worker deaths, 13 explosions, 97 injuries and over $1.5 million in fines), has ridden roughshod over local landowners, and is building out fossil fuel infrastructure in excess of future demand in its pursuit of profit.  While Williams operates throughout the United States, its proposal to build a 23-mile long fracked gas pipeline across New York’s Lower Harbor brings particular urgency to examining the company, its history, and its fiscal relationship with NYC institutions such as WNYC that directly influence the public.

The reasons why fracked gas, its infrastructure, and Williams in particular are an imminent danger are extensive. While at one time “natural” gas was touted as a cleaner alternative to coal and petroleum, recent studies have shown that it releases significant amounts of toxic gases into the air at all points in the extraction, processing, and transportation process. Fracked gas is particularly dangerous for its impact on the atmosphere and global climate change due to the fact that it is made up primarily of methane, which is 83 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02 over a twenty-year timespan. For these and many other reasons, Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York State in 2014.

But the extractive portion of fracking is only one aspect of the toxic process required to bring this poison to market. The pipeline Williams proposes to build under New York Harbor, the Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline, poses significant and unnecessary dangers. The NESE pipeline would be laid primarily by excavating a trench along its 23-mile long path. Williams itself, as part of the environmental study it was required to file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has documented the extent to which the seabed of the Lower Harbor is contaminated by old industrial toxins like lead, arsenic, PCBs, and dioxin.  To prevent inadvertent damage to the pipeline from anchors or fishing gear, the pipeline must be buried under a minimum of four feet of seabed.  Excavating such a trench will churn these contaminants up into the waters of the Lower Harbor, negatively affecting both marine life and beachgoers.  In conjunction with the boat traffic, drilling, and dredging (which Williams says will sometimes run 24/7), construction of the NESE pipeline will threaten the whales, seals, dolphins, and fish that have in recent years found a home in the Lower Harbor.  

With this information in mind, we - New Yorkers and activists from People Not Pipelines, Sane Energy Project, 350BK and others - have been attending the monthly  New York Public Radio Community Advisory Board meetings over the last year to demand that this public institution reject money from Williams and other companies like it. The CAB, as mandated by federal law, consists of volunteer NYPR/WNYC listeners and advises “the Board of Trustees with respect to whether the programming and other policies of the station are meeting the specialized educational and cultural needs of the communities it serves.” It is in turn advised by committed listeners such as ourselves, who provide feedback through the discussion portion of its monthly public meetings.

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Having consistently heard about WNYC’s acceptance of sponsorship funding from Williams, the CAB invited Hal Trencher to its November meeting to discuss how how public radio sponsorship works. After so many months of pressure, 10 of us found ourselves ready and eager to learn why an institution dedicated to “independent journalism and courageous conversation on air and online” would finance its work with hefty Williams sponsorships instead of informing its listeners of the above mentioned facts. After all, NYPR is well aware of the strength and value of its “halo effect,” encouraging companies to become sponsors in order to gain the “positive association and shared values that NPR listeners attribute to the companies that sponsor us.”  If “76% of audiences have a more positive opinion of a company that supports public radio,” then shouldn’t a nonprofit, public organization driven by a public media code of integrity be more selective and transparent about which companies receive this fiscal endorsement?

 

The Corporate Logic of “Community Giving”: Increasing the Odds of Successful Business Execution

In fact, Williams and fossil fuel companies rely precisely on this type of halo effect to create a false perception of community support in the years leading up to the permitting of a pipeline or other infrastructure project. This is done through a number of tactics - from throwing pocket change to small “community benefit projects” such as the $4,000 purchase of robotic kits for local children in Delaware County, NY to sponsoring large nonprofits such as WNYC, Brooklyn Public Library and New York City Audubon Society.

This is a manipulative maneuver that exploits the impoverishment of communities, making residents feel grateful, indebted and dependent on the pipeline developers that come back a year later to seize their land, cut down their trees and poison their water systems. This logic is precisely spelled out by Williams in its description of its community giving strategy: “It is centered on energizing and engaging employees while growing targeted skills, strengthening communities where we do business, and increasing the odds of successful business execution.” In this corporate model, no decision exists without an underlying profit motive.

New York City is no exception, with Williams buying out the tacit support of local organizations through its Rockaway Community Grant Program and the direct sponsorship of institutions like WNYC. Starting in 2014 with the successful development of the Rockaway Lateral project, Williams’ current sponsorship efforts are aimed at creating support for the Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline through New York Harbor.

 

What We Expect of Our Public and Non-Profit Institutions

Instead of giving Williams the golden sparkle of its decades-built halo effect, WNYC should be doing the job that we expect and pay for - producing high-quality content that examines companies such as Williams, their dirty and violent history, and their future plans to exploit and destroy our communities, environment and climate. WNYC/NYPR’s own public media code of integrity ends with the goal to “promote the common good, the public interest, and these commitments to integrity and trustworthiness in organizational governance, leadership, and management.” Nowhere on this list do we find the goal of promoting the private interests and profit of polluters, extortionists, and killers.

Through a year of CAB meetings, social media (#DumpWilliams and #NoHalo4Polluters), and letter writing, we have been insisting that Hal Trencher, the WNYC trustees and leaders do their job. As active radio listeners and supporters, and members of the the NYC public,we  have been demanding that they do more reporting, like the 2016 investigation of how the AIM Pipeline Expansion will affect New York, and less dirty fundraising. We have been insisting that by cleansing their fundraising practices of sponsors like Williams — sponsors that harm their listeners, our communities, and our planet — WNYC can begin restoring the public trust and integrity that has been in stark decline in recent times.

And finally, WNYC listened.

Citing the many concerns expressed by its listeners over its sponsorship practices, NYPR’s CEO Laura Walker announced during the CAB’s January meeting the organization’s decision to no longer accept fiscal sponsorship from Williams.

Today we celebrate NYPR/WNYC’s decision to reject money from Williams, and rescind its endorsement of the toxic system of fossil fuel infrastructure. This is a tremendous victory that can and will be replicated, again and again.

We Persist for a Healthy and Thriving Future

The failure to reject dirty money is a disease that runs rampant across many nonprofits, foundations, communities and governments. In a system that glorifies profit and the power of money above all else, it’s almost inevitable. To counter this, our public institutions must practice full transparency and active investment in clean energy sources with deep grassroots local involvement. The recent announcements that New York City and New York State will divest their $390 billion pension funds from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in renewable energy are a major step in that direction. But if New York is to be the progressive state that it claims to be, we must reject all fossil fuel infrastructure and money, whether it be in the form of pipelines built to bring fracked gas from our neighbors in Pennsylvania or checks purchasing the golden halo of WNYC and Brooklyn Public Library. Our public institutions should understand that supporting our life support system on planet Earth is neither a gift to a special interest group nor a pursuit morally or ethically equal to receiving payoffs from a predatory and destructive fossil fuel company.

This battle was won and can be won again and again. Offshore wind power, a wonderful source of clean and renewable energy, is on its way and will put an end to such projects as Williams. It is up to us to ensure a faster shift away from fossil fuels, and that this new energy system exists on a foundation of equity and justice.

Learn how you can make this happen by joining our Offshore Wind for New York campaign.

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Written by Annie Garneva, a member of Sane Energy Project's Core Team.

To join the team, contact Lee at Lee@SaneEnergyProject.org