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Cancer claims KPFA producer

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Saturday February 10, 2001

Master gardener, speech therapist, nurse, photojournalist, radio programmer, a friend who knew how to listen, a religious, spiritual and fun-loving person – Leona Jacobs-White was all of these, according to her friends and family. 

Jacobs-White, 72, died of cancer in her Berkeley home Jan. 31. Her death was peaceful, friends said. 

KPFA, Berkeley’s community radio station, had been White’s second home since the mid-1980s. After she retired, first from nursing at Oakland Kaiser Hospital, then from her post as speech therapist for the public schools in Richmond, Jacobs-White, an African American, joined a training program at the radio station especially designed to bring minority women into broadcasting.  

After graduating from the program, Jacobs-White began producing shows at the station’s Women’s Department. Amelia Gonzales, who heads KPFA’s training program today, directed the Women’s Department at the time. She talked about the breadth of Jacobs-White’s programs, recalling that they ranged from shows on sex workers trying to unionize, to issues of women’s health and nutrition. “She would not let herself be pegged into one arena or genre of radio,” Gonzales said. 

Some of the work the Women’s Department took on was grueling, such as the 24-hour programming on International Woman’s Day. “She made work seem like a party,” Gonzales said. 

Around the time that Jacobs-White was completing the training program, Dr. Mike Alcalay found out he was HIV positive and was beginning to plan a radio show on the epidemic. White became his co-host in addition to her work in the Women’s Department. 

While the program covered serious topics, what stands out for Alcalay was the “laugh in her voice.” 

Others who work at KPFA also point to Jacobs-White’s sense of humor and they signal out the infamous bat show on “Seven Generations.” 

White co-produced “Seven Generations,” a program about the environment, which draws its name from the Native American concept that today’s decisions ought to be made with the seventh generation in mind. 

“She was very committed to the earth and to gardening,” said Weyland Southan, who co-hosted the program with Jacobs-White. 

The program on bats that Jacobs-White produced was aimed at showing that the flying creatures eat insects in gardens and eliminate the need for pesticides. 

White wasn’t content to simply interview an authority on bats. She had the expert come into the studio with the creatures. They flew around the studio during the interview. “Bats were screeching on the air,” Southan said. 

Adding to the diversity of her programming, Jacobs-White recently worked on a series called “Pagliacci’s Fools,” which recreated old-time radio drama.  

She was more than a programmer. She was a decision-maker as well. As such, she was a member of the station’s Local Advisory Board. “She was helpful on internal matters,” said Phil Ofegueda, KPFA’s assistant general manager. 

“Living Room” host Kriss Welch remembers White as someone who, when she asked how you were, really wanted an answer and listened to it. “She always had a comforting and kind word,” Welch said. “If you were unhappy, she would really support you.” 

She was both loving and fun-loving said her cousin P.J. Jackson, who had recently gone to Trinidad for Carnival with Jacobs-White. 

Weyland Southan remembers that White “lived every moment to the end of the moment.” She practiced the Yoruba religion and “was very excited about going to the next world,” Southan said. 

Gonzales recalls: “She called everybody love.” 

Her survivors include her uncle and aunt, Charles and Meda Lewis of Oakland, cousins Phyllis “P.J.” Jackson of Oakland, April Campos of Oakland and Charles Lewis, Jr. of San Jose.  

A memorial service will be held near the time of her birthday, May 28.