The following letter is being published in light of the outright physical removal of a long-time programmer from the KPFA studios, and the recent bannings and firings of unpaid staff. It was previously sent to the station over four months ago.
After much reflection, I have decided to write this letter of concern. To begin with, I am a 19-year subscriber to KPFA, and have long supported its alternative voice that has challenged the corporate funded airwaves. A decade ago, I witnessed with amazement how a small group of avaricious board members came within inches of destroying the entire Pacifica network for the sake of making a quick buck. Sadly, I now see the same thing happening again, but with a different cast of characters. Since the stopping of the attempted sale of KPFA over seven years ago, I would have thought that there would have emerged from this a truly democratic community station whose programming reflected the different and diverse views that make up the San Francisco Bay Area. There would be far more participation in management decisions by the listeners, the unpaid staff, and volunteers. Alas, this is not what I hear going over the airwaves, nor what I read about in print or on the net. What I now see occurring at the station does indeed greatly trouble me.
It appears that factionalism has once again raised its ugly head, only this new civil war comes from within the KPFA community itself. From what I see, it appears that the paid staff and their allies have taken it upon themselves to make the final decisions concerning programming, fundraising, and the future direction of KPFA and Pacifica itself in general. It’s as if a silent coup has taken place, with no trace or mention of it spoken anywhere except off the airwaves. What used to be a voice of cutting edge radical opinion has now become as staid as a new age info ‘zine. Interesting station announcements have been replaced with perpetual pleading for dollars. More and more we hear only pieces of intriguing speeches and talks, but in order to hear it all, we the listeners have to shell out cash to get the complete recording. Perhaps the day will come when we will see the emergence of Pacifica Pay Audio, where in order to hear a complete show, you the listener must download a pledge payment, or some other type of fee.
But, after all, isn’t it money that’s at the heart of all this? From what I heard during the debates at the last station board elections, there are two factions at work here. The first would be those who would call themselves “Concerned Listeners.” They support the current direction of the station, and want it to become more of as large national network, which would take the place of the bland and co-opted National Public Radio. That’s an extremely expensive proposition, and would require massive amounts of funding to accomplish. Apparently, this faction wants to woo a more moneyed listener audience to form a pledge base for this plan, And indeed, a lot of their support tends to come from the more left-liberal faction of the Democratic Party, and other like-minded people. I will even make an educated guess and say that in order to obtain these potential resources, much of the station programming has been watered down and tailored to issues which reflect the concerns of these “affluent radicals.”
The second faction, some of whom refer to themselves as “People’s Radio,” tend to be more community oriented and concerned with grassroots issues that affect their neighborhood and region. They want to see the station’s direction determined more by listener representatives instead of a select staff, and want more grassroots participation in the station’s affairs. While they have their many imperfections, I myself feel that their voices should be considered very seriously, as many of these people have been some of the staunchest defenders of KPFA and its mission, especially during the last crisis. While they may lack the financial resources of the “Concerned Listeners,” they make up for it by having a large body of dedicated individuals. Indeed, they are the reason why KPFA still exists, and what has upset me very much is the almost patronizing way that this group has been treated by the station management and paid staff. As a result, programs which have taken a stand against the local economic status quo, such as Poor News Network, have been pushed off the airwaves. The reason always given is “broadcast professionalism,” but I find it an interesting coincidence that these shows also express opinions which would greatly offend this new moneyed base of network support.
In conclusion, I find it a tragedy that what was supposed to be an experiment in media democracy has now become the purveyance of the select few who have taken it upon themselves to know what is right for the majority of the listener audience. While I have nothing against national or international coverage by Pacifica (Democracy Now! being a shining example.), the network should take a good look at itself and ask the question why they have lost almost 5000 subscribers over the last five years. Perhaps the only reason why I keep subscribing are the great music programs which still have the semblance of free form and spontaneity, something which almost all the public affairs programs badly lack. If KPFA loses sight of its original mission, which is to serve the local community, this will ultimately mean the end of the station itself.
John F. Davies is a Berkeley resident.