Public Comment

KPFA: The Alternative Home Shopping Network?

By Richard Phelps
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:04:00 AM

Recently Michael Eric Dyson spoke in Oakland about the Jeremiah Wright controversy. He is a dynamic and entertaining speaker. KPFA recorded his speech. Has KPFA played it on the air for our listeners? No! KPFA management has played a portion of it to promote it for sale! 

Each of us may have our own interpretation of Pacifica’s mission. I do think we would all agree that getting public affairs, news and culture, that the corporate media won’t broadcast, out to the people, is the essence of Pacifica’s mission. Educate and activate. 

Pacific Bylaws, Article One, Section 2, in part: 

“In radio broadcasting operations to promote the full distribution of public information…” (Emphasis added.) 

In March 2007 KPFA recorded another Dyson speech. Was it played for the KPFA listening audience? No! It too was sold on multiple occasions and never played entirely on the air! This is also true of a Howard Zinn speech, the “God is Great” debate, and a Bill Moyer’s speech recorded and sold last year with others. This year we have “Rachel Corrie Speaks,” the Left Forum and the recent Dyson speech among others not broadcast except for a tease portion. KPFA management holds them back, creates scarcity, and sells them, like any other corporate operation.  

I have no problem with selling the speeches and programs as long as they play them for all to hear. The corporate media has a political wall to stop progressive speeches, programs and culture from getting to the people. KPFA has a glass sound barrier, stopping those that don’t have the money from hearing these important speeches and programs. Unlike the corporate media, KPFA lets us know of them so they can sell them. How do you think this makes our low-income listeners feel? Excluded, not good enough, not deserving? This is one of the hidden injuries of class. Does KPFA’s management think this creates loyal listeners? Do they care? This has been raised many times and they don’t seem to give a damn about our low-income listeners or our mission. Instead of playing these speeches for tens of thousands of KPFA listeners, they sell them to a small number of people. Is this what Pacifica is about? 

Last year I made a motion at the Local Station Board to require that the station play the speeches that they sell so everyone could possibly hear them. It was voted down by the “Concerned Listener” majority, the group that is in bed with management on issues like this. They have together fought against transparency, unpaid staff representation, fair elections and Democracy Now! in prime time, etc. 

What slippery slope does this commodification of public affairs lead to? Here are a couple of the many examples I could give. Dr. Stephen Bezruchka gave a speech called “Is America Driving You Crazy?” His thesis is that there are more mental health problems in America given our great disparity in wealth. How ironic that KPFA replicates this class divide by making the entire program available only to those that can afford to buy it! 

It gets worse. During the winter fund drive the Morning Show folks proudly proclaimed three times during the pitching that “The Great and Mighty Walk was not available anywhere else.” I easily found it on the Internet and purchased a copy for a third of KPFA’s price. The entire program has never been played on the air! Shouldn’t honesty be a fundamental principle at Pacifica?  

When my motion was debated on an LSB show last year, Brian Edwards-Tiekert, of “dismantle the LSB” fame, argued that it would be difficult to play many of these speeches since they are longer than most program times. This raises a fundamental question: does the airtime belong to the current holder of a time slot or does it belong to all of us as a commons? When a good speech comes along the station should find room for it to be promptly played and programmers should be willing to share their time to make it happen. In the words of Robbie Osman, from his 2004 paper on the DN! time change struggle ( “We will have to choose whether to defend the station’s mission or defend our own turf.”  

Unlike the KPFA of old, where programmers produced specials for the fund drives, now most fund drive programs are recorded speeches, or DVDs or CDs that are bought and resold and never completely played on the air. If these speeches and programs are as great as they promote them to be when asking for your money, why aren’t they played on the air? 

I yearn for the days before the August 1995 purges, when more than 100 community activist programmers were fired, including many from communities of color, and the beginning of the Healthy Station format with strip programming, etc. The station was more spontaneous back then. When a prominent person gave a speech, we heard it live or shortly thereafter, we didn’t have to pay for it and I donated much more than I do now! 

KPFA’s management is afraid that if speeches are played on the air no one will buy them or donate. If there was more excitement on the air, live or current speeches, and the news wasn’t straight off the AP wire, and more like the Knight Report, and the listeners felt that their concerns mattered, I know I would donate much more and I believe lots of others would also. KPFA could be so much better with progressive management that puts the mission first! This management group has run the station since 2003 and has lost 5,000 subscribers during the Bush regime, while increasing the paid staff 50 percent. 


Richard Phelps is a former chair of the KPFA Local Station Board.