Can KPFA Be Saved?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday December 01, 2010 - 09:39:00 AM

Whatever will become of KPFA? On the one hand, I feel a moral responsibility to form an opinion on the latest uproar, and yet I haven’t been able to bear to listen to the station much at all for many years now, so what do I know?

I know a number of seemingly intelligent and politically savvy people on each “side” of the on-going controversy, and when I’m talking to any of these people I’m inclined to “believe” what I’m being told at the moment. I know a lot more people with various shades of politics who roll their eyes when KPFA is mentioned and say “I can’t listen to it”, though various family and friends still tune into specific programs that they like and trust.

Many of these, in all categories, still adore Amy Goodman, whose main Bay Area outlet is KPFA, though she’s on NPR-type stations elsewhere. Many of them have been looking to the Planet for guidance about which faction is “right”. But it’s not an easy call. 

Let’s start the discussion with first principles. Radio, opinionated radio, has become the most powerful source of what used to be known as news, though these days everyone from KPFA to Rush Limbaugh mixes a dominant percentage of conclusions into their supposedly objective reporting. Most non-profit stations that carry the national NPR offerings try to seem more impartial, but they don’t feature Tea Party commentators on a regular basis. An important characteristic of radio today is that listeners are invited to share their information on-air, or more likely their misinformation. 

Radio is the most accessible and least expensive way for the motivated consumer of news to stay up to date. On-line news requires a fairly costly equipment purchase and regular internet fees, while a $4.99 radio from Walgreens can pick up several stations for free. 

Television doesn’t work for commuters, either in the car or on public transit. Most jobs won’t let you watch anything on a screen while you’re working, but radio can be just an inconspicuous button in your ear. 

Print newspapers are fading fast. As print papers fall by the wayside, not very many of their readers seem to be comfortable shifting online—they’re much more like to increase their radio listening in an effort to keep informed. Podcasts are touted, but the attraction of on-air radio is that it’s free, immediate and ever-changing, often surprising. 

The last time KPFA was in crisis we assigned a paid staff reporter to cover the brouhaha, even though we were pretty sure she had a dog in the race—and in fact she later went on to work for KPFA news. This time we don’t have the staff, so we’ve opted just to open our opinion section for everyone and anyone to air their views. 

Over the last 8 or so years we’ve published several hundred pieces which mentioned “KPFA”, the majority of them in the opinion section. And the more I read these offerings, the more confused I get. 

Random conclusions: the graph in today’s opinion section seems to prove that over the past ten years KPFA fundraising has been approximately level, up a bit, then down again. Contributions paid from local coffers to the national Pacifica foundation show a similar curve. Staff salaries, on the other hand, went up and stayed up. Clearly, that budget isn’t sustainable, but what’s a remedy that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water? 

Questions about appropriate and high-quality programming are frequently confounded with budgetary theories. I’ve known far too many poorly educated Professional Journalists to conclude automatically that their paid work is “better” on any of several dimensions than that of smart well-informed amateurs. 

Case in point: non-profit KUSP in Santa Cruz, where I often visit, has had for many years the services of ace environmental attorney and former county supervisor Gary Patton, who has delivered a succinct “Land Use Report” highlighting crucial environmental controversies in perpetually threatened Santa Cruz County each week. Recently station personnel, reportedly yielding to pressure from wanna-be developers included UC Santa Cruz, wanted to replace him with their own non-expert staff of semi-pro newsies who lack his experience and expertise. Public outcry has made them reconsider this ill-advised move. 

But all volunteers are not experts, and at a minimum they need good, well-coordinated management to make the best use of their services. And volunteers can be risky. 

KPFA already devotes far too much of its valuable air time to paranoid airheads who will work for free to promote their crackpot cause, whatever it might be. On rare occasions in the car I turn on KPFA at random when KQED and KALW are both boring. All too often what’s on is junk science, most of the time dreadful and even dangerous junk science. Many of these shows put one in mind of the recently revived aphorism variously attributed, most often to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” 

A current example: we got this in a press release on Tuesday from SaveKPFA.org, the group challenging the Pacifica Foundation management: 


“Over 50 people will gather at the office of Pacifica Director, Arlene Englehardt, to protest the fact that AIDS-denialist and vitamin entrepreneur Gary Null has just been given the 12pm-1pm time slot at Pacifica's New York station WBAI. Null still believes that HIV does not cause AIDS--a sort of dead issue in the Bay Area, but alive and well at the Pacifica Foundation. Pacifica has plans to syndicate the Null show to all sister stations. Cash-strapped Pacifica is basically selling the time slot to Null and his multi-millionaire friend, Steve Brown. See: www.whoisstevebrown.info.”
Bad, clearly bad. 

But...a look at the SaveKPFA.org website reveals that among its most prominent local endorsers are Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the various Old Lefties in his cabal, who have recently disgraced themselves by their unsuccessful attempt to knock off independent progressive Berkeley Councilmembers Worthington and Arreguin. No particular reason to trust these folks or their motives, though many respectable Progs are also endorsers of SaveKPFA. 

Their opposite numbers, however, don’t inspire confidence either. The Planet learned through back channels that a hapless climber had fallen to his death from the KPFA antenna tower on Thanksgiving morning. Our caller hypothesized that it was a sabotage attempt, and that it was being hushed up by Pacifica Foundation executive director Arlene Englehardt. 

We called her, repeatedly. We left messages on both her landline and her cell. Nothing. We left messages for KPFA acting manager Ahmad Anderson. Nada. 

Finally we got in touch with the Alameda County coroner, who confirmed that someone had indeed died, and finally with an engineer on the KPFA technical staff who told us what he knew, enough to go with the story. For what it’s worth, he didn’t think sabotage was involved. And engineers are usually a trustworthy lot. 

But what’s up with someone in Englehardt’s position not returning calls from the press in this kind of touchy situation? Not only from the Planet but from BANG and others? How foolish is that? And as of Monday morning KPFA news hadn’t even gotten the name of the victim. 

It’s just as dumb as starting a layoff process which is bound to be unpleasant with axing the most visible staffers in the whole outfit, the voices of the Morning Show. Sure to make a lot of people mad, isn’t it? And also, evidently, doing away with the receptionists who used to answer the phone at both KPFA and Pacifica, so that in-bound callers get only voice mail. What if there’s breaking news? 

To an outsider, the bottom line seems to be that there are two simple contending fact patterns: (1) KPFA is spending some form of “too much” on professional staff, and it can’t go on this way, but (2) the solution is not to turn the whole operation over to mindless volunteers to ride their own hobby-horses. 

Would mediation work? Would it even be tried? As the man said, why can’t we all just get along? Stay tuned, if you can stand it.