Public Comment

Commentary: Community Radio at the Crossroads: The Significance of the KPFA Board

By Joe Wanzala, Shahram Aghamir, Tracy Rosenberg and Anthony Fest
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:52:00 AM

KPFA listeners know that the Local Station Board elections tend to be acrimonious. What many listeners might not realize is that the controversy of the LSB elections actually reflects a historical issue about the nature of community radio itself. The four of us founded the Independents for Community Radio affinity group of LSB candidates with the goal of ensuring that KPFA remains rooted in the communities it serves. In October 2008, nearly 90 KPFA staff members issued a statement articulating their goals for leadership at the station. They called for management committed to fulfilling the historic Transformation Proposal made during the 1999 KPFA Lockout. They also called for leaders who support the unpaid staff, maintain a respectful and collaborative approach to station operations, and understand that KPFA should include community representatives on its decision making bodies. These aspirations remain largely unfulfilled or have been undermined by the current management and its Concerned Listener allies.  

Jon Bekken, writing in “Community Radio at the Crossroads: Federal Policy and the Professionalization of a Grassroots Medium” (in Ron Sakolosky and Steve Dunifer, eds., Seizing the Airwaves, A Free Radio Handbook, 1998) defines community radio as being characterized by “access, public participation in production and decision making and, predominantly, by listener-financing. The intention is that management of the station is in the hands of those who use and listen to it.” He acknowledges that operating a station on such a model is difficult, but vital, as it is ensures accountability to the audience and wider community in a way that commercial stations do not. The alternative is what happened at KQED in San Francisco, where the board marginalized progressive activists such as Henry Kroll, Sasha Futran and others. Eventually, in 2006 KQED sent out a ballot asking its members to relinquish their voting powers. They voted by 2 to 1 to do so. 

This change at KQED was part of a trend that has placed community radio stations around the country under pressure to conform with the National Public Radio model. The two main groups running in the KFPA election, Independents for Community Radio and Concerned Listeners, represent sharply divergent visions of the station. The Concerned Listener slate in many ways represents a return of the Healthy Station Project (HSP) initiative that led to the Pacifica wars of the 1990s. HSP (which former KPFA General Manager Lynn Chadwick was involved in developing) was designed to move community stations toward commercialization and "professionalization," and supported the use of more paid staff and a reduced role for volunteer community programmers and listener-members in decision-making. The ensuing battle to save Pacifica was an expression of the community’s rejection of the HSP paradigm. 

The Concerned Listeners’ platform reflects key aspects of the HSP. They tout “professionalism” and since taking control of the board in 2007, have supported efforts by management to marginalize the volunteer staff and reverse the post-1999 lock-out victories for listener democracy. They have shut down the Program Council, a body composed of staff, board members and community representatives which represented a successful system for making collaborative programming decisions. The CL also support an authoritarian management style, eschewing conflict resolution, one result being the tragic arrest of and injury caused to a young African American volunteer programmer Nadra Foster, after a manager summoned the police. 

Independents for Community Radio are not opposed to ‘professionalism,’ in the sense of high-quality radio. Equally important, however, is preserving the “alternative” culture of dissent within which KPFA operates. Jerry Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, has observed that “What is called the ‘professional’ model is really the commercial model, built on the unexamined assumption that professionalism precludes the participation of volunteers. Unfortunately, some stations have been plunged into the red by ditching their volunteers and pursuing the chimera of big time radio.” The tension between the participatory democracy, community radio model and the “professional,” pro-management model favored by the Concerned Listeners is perhaps best expressed by John Whiting in his essay, “Pacifica in Vincula: The Life and Death of Great American Radio” in which he observed that an inexpensive, accessible, grassroots structure is incompatible with a “self-justifying hierarchy in which the preservation of personal and professional lifestyles must necessarily take precedence over all other priorities.” By following the latter path, he noted, “KPFA has changed from the station many people listened to but didn’t support to the station some people still support but don’t listen to.”  

For the present KPFA management, good programming has become synonymous with “programming that raises money” and listeners are viewed as a revenue stream. KPFA now struggles to extract financial support from the listeners to cover spiraling operating costs, while simultaneously closing off meaningful avenues for community participation. 

We believe that, instead of building a more costly infrastructure, KPFA can and should leverage its existing platforms and partner with independent media and community organizations. KPFA should be a “convener of community,” create meaningful roles for community leaders and contribute to civic leadership. The station should promote interactive journalism by bringing listeners into the newsmaking process - as the resurgent ethos of citizen journalism in the blogosphere is changing the role of the consumer of media from passive to engaged. The preservation of listener democracy is fundamental to the success of this vision. 

Please vote for the Independents for Community Radio (ICR) candidates. In alphabetical order, they are: Banafsheh Akhlaghi, Shara Esbenshade, Sasha Futran (incumbent), Ann Hallatt, Adam Hudson, Laura Kiswani, Rahman Jamaal McCreadie, Henry Norr (incumbent), Andrea Pritchett, Evelyn Sanchez, and Akio Tanaka (incumbent). Read more at 



Tracy Rosenberg and Joe Wanzala are long-time KPFA listener-activists; Shahram Aghamir and Anthony Fest are unpaid KPFA staff members. All four also serve on the KPFA Local Station Board.