Public Comment

Commentary: KPFA Talk Show Host Talks Back

By Peter Laufer
Friday July 27, 2007

Your July 24 editorial (“It’s All About Attitude in the End”) was deeply insulting to me, to Rush Limbaugh and to our myriad broadcast brethren. Reducing public discourse to an “us versus them” formula denigrates the very notion of free speech. I’m convinced that I speak for all of us when I say that it is you who are the problem here. More on that, as we say on the radio, in a moment. 

First, let me express thanks for complimenting my credentials as being “up-to-code” as you put it. Yes, a cursory Internet search does confirm the decades of journalism and talk radio. But you undoubtedly don’t know about my lifelong commitment the very philosophy upon which Pacifica Radio was built. Space and modesty prohibit me from detailing those efforts. Suffice to say that KPFA is my home, too. So, I must take exception to your diagnosis that I am in need of an attitude adjustment. (Get thee to a cranium chiropractor? Hello re-education camps!)  

You criticize me for having “sat passively by while guests pitched the inevitability of unbridled capitalism.” But if you had listened attentively to last Sunday’s program, you would have heard that every single call vehemently criticized Mayor Bates. There was no need for me to pile on, and in this context that would have accomplished nothing. Besides, it is not necessarily my job to attack my guests, be they public servants or the citizens they serve. 

Moreover, it is completely appropriate for the city’s chief executive to express his position. That’s why we invited him. Unlike you, I do not assume that all listeners (or even most listeners) know everything about everything. My show is a public information service for the masses, not just a limited forum for the narrow-minded few. That’s why it’s called broadcasting. 

It’s too bad you’ve based your judgment on only one program. Had you bothered to listen to any previous broadcast, you would have heard what many criticize as me being too aggressive. Some see me as too hard, some as too soft. We professionals call it journalism. (To quote radical songwriter Ricky Nelson: “You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”) 

You criticize me for “dissing listeners who call in, while rolling over for neo-liberal politicians.” Listening to the mayor hardly constitutes “rolling over,” and animated discourse is not “dissing.” Besides, since when did members of my sophisticated audience lose their taste and tolerance for verbal sparring? Really, let’s be grown-ups here. A spirited exchange is an essential part of the public forum. 

I wish to emphasize that I did not hang up on any callers. My personal policy is to provide everyone with a reasonable opportunity to speak. I do occasionally tell people to get to the point. There is a clock on the wall and no callers have the right to monopolize the microphone. I am here to serve all my listeners. 

Moreover, my audience is not passive. An important part of my job is to motivate listeners to do more than simply complain. I hope I can act as a catalyst for change. As an example, I assigned one caller who expressed dissatisfaction with park policy to engage the system, attempt to change what bothers him and report back to me and the audience. (Maybe you missed that part of the program, too.) 

Let me digress by immodestly pointing out that, unlike you, the challenges of broadcast programs like this one are not theoretical for me. I literally wrote the book on this subject (“Inside Talk Radio”). If you would like, I’d be pleased to send you a copy; it’s a harsh critique of the medium…Rush Limbaugh included. 

You criticize me for being out of touch with the Berkeley point of view. Unlike your newspaper which has only one point of view, my radio show serves the entire community and all points of view. As anchor of this program, my job (despite what you might wish it to be) is to facilitate the free exchange of ideas. 

You criticize me for being a Marin County carpetbagger. Since when did Berkeley cease to be a part of the Bay Area—or of the world? In fact, it is you who have cocooned yourself in a mindset that everyone who bathes is somehow suspect. That homeowners must be oppressors of the masses. That only lifelong residents of (on?) the streets of Berkeley have the right to an opinion about this community’s public issues. Good grief! You are the problem! 

In addition, as I made clear when I introduced the mayor, KPFA listeners are worldwide. We talked about Berkeley, both from the point of view of those of us who live and work here, and as a laboratory that produces lessons for the rest of the audience to take advantage of. 

After the Sunday show with Mayor Bates I went to the renovated South Berkeley home of a couple of friends for a leisurely lunch on that gorgeous sunny afternoon. The husband is a Telegraph Avenue merchant, has been for a couple of decades. The wife is about to open her own shop down on San Pablo. They’ve lived in the neighborhood for more than 10 years. First, they regaled me with horror stories about my old Dwight and Telegraph neighborhood and how important it is to the quality of life for all Berkleyans to clean up those blocks leading to Sather Gate. Then they corroborated the stories the mayor told on the air about the businesses the city is closing in South Berkeley because they constitute a menace. If they and the mayor are part of the problem, sign me up on their team. 

Finally, apropos of nothing, it’s interesting that you don’t find Telegraph too seedy for your taste, but you wrote in your hit piece on me that you do sort your socks. That’s strange: Disorder is OK outdoors but not in? Sounds like symptoms of a closet conservative to me. 

And now this post script: You’ve been gracious enough to print this unedited response in your newspaper. Consider this an invitation to join me one day soon on my radio show. You’ll find an environment shockingly different from the pages of your paper: a place where all points of view are truly welcome.