Saturday afternoon more than 200 people gathered to remember the man who for 10 years anchored KPFA radio’s morning newscast. By listeners and by co-workers, Chris Bruney was alternately described as a trusted morning companion and a talented newscaster who brought warmth and depth to his broadcasts.
A Berkeley resident since his days as a student at Cal, Bruney died July 8 of a heart attack while sitting behind the wheel of his car at Grand and Telegraph avenues in Oakland. He was 44.
Surrounded by signs proclaiming “Shut Down the War Profiteers!” and “Yes On M—We Support Safe & Affordable Housing,” a cross-section of East Bay activists and journalists filled the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists for the memorial service. Young men and women sat side by side with elderly Gray Panther-types, all gathered to celebrate Burney’s life.
Kellia Rameres, who anchors KPFA’s graveyard shift, remembered Bruney fondly. Speaking at length on his long, curly black hair, black leather jacket and tight blue jeans, Rameres painted a picture of a man far too young to be the subject of a memorial service.
“He’ll be sorely missed,” said Philip Maldari, co-host of KPFA’s “The Morning Show,” in a tribute to Bruney broadcast July 9. “Getting to the station before 5 o’clock in the morning, putting together an incredible newscast at a time of day most of us can’t even open our eyes much less try to understand what’s happening in the world.”
“The response from listeners was immediate and very heartfelt,” noted Aileen Alfandery, KPFA’s morning news co-host. “People were shocked because Chris was their trusted companion in the morning. They woke up to his voice, they brushed their teeth with his voice, they were fighting the commute. So they felt a very personal sense of loss when they heard the news about Chris.”
At the service Alfandery read from a few of the scores of calls and e-mails received by the station.
“A man I never knew died yesterday, and I am heartbroken. I heard his voice in my room for two years, yet if I had passed him on the street, I would not know who he was,” wrote Jennifer G.
Jolayne C. e-mailed: “Those of us that you can’t see … feel as if you are part of our family. We listen every day to what and how you say things to us. When we no longer hear your voice, our lives are changed.”
Like so many of the KPFA family, newscaster Larry Bensky has been at the station for several decades and worked with Burney for the last 10 years.
“He was a wonderful man,” Bensky said after the service. “I think anybody that was here today got a sense of the depth and complexity and warmth and talent that he had. He’ll always be missed, and he’ll always be in our minds.
“We live in such a trans-substantial media, where our presence is electronically ephemeral … it’s there and then it’s gone, or can be gone,” said Bensky. “It’s a very humbling feeling to contemplate that kind of thing. [Just like life] only more so.”
“It’s a huge loss,” Alfandery said of how Burney’s death will affect the KPFA news operation. “Not only to the KPFA family and our listeners, but very practically speaking, we have lost a 10-year veteran, morning newscaster.”
In recent years KPFA has been criticized for lack of staff diversity and for the stranglehold longtime staffers exert on programming at the station. Burney, as an African-American, represented an audible voice for diversity during the morning prime-time drive slot.
“KPFA, throughout the station, has always been committed to affirmative action, and if you look around and see the diversity of our reporters and our on-air persons, you’ll see that it’s always a consideration,” said Alfandery. “There’s such a tiny little space in the media for progressive and alternative viewpoints, there’s a lot of pressure on the very few outlets that there are, and KPFA definitely feels that pressure. And [there’s] a lot of varying viewpoints about how we go about serving that progressive commitment. So I don’t think it’s any surprise that people would feel very passionate about how best to do that, and will be very explicit about their passionate feelings. We will be looking to hire somebody to follow on in Chris’ footsteps, who’ll have their own style, but have the same dedication to news and progressive journalism that Chris did.”
“That’s something that Chris would have insisted on,” said newscaster Max Pringle. “Keep the diversity in that position. It’s important to us as a radio station to reach out to the various Bay Area communities. The person that is sitting in for him now, Kelly Denson, is an African-American woman … I think they’ll insist on keeping that diversity.”
Chris’s mother and father, Joseph and Elaine Burney, came from Southern California for the memorial service.
“I was very surprised that he was this well known and loved in the area,” said Mr. Burney. “You know, we live in Anaheim—KPFA is an FM station, we don’t get it over there. We never knew that he lived this life, that he was so well loved. We were quite pleasantly surprised about that.”