About a year ago I was driving to work along the 17 freeway, which winds through the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, and listening to Brian Edwards-Tiekert on listener supported KPFA-FM in Berkeley’s Morning Show. He was interviewing someone about the political situation in Turkey, and how politics in that country affects women. It was just after seven AM.
The interview was so absorbing—serving up intricate and very personal details on how religious, ethnic, and gender issues inform Turkey’s tense political present. As a consequence, I forgot that I was navigating a very tricky section of the road, just after a rainstorm. The car lost control, and did a 360 degree spin over the lane.
Fortunately it was very early and there were no other vehicles around. I avoided the concrete dividers to my right and left. As Edwards-Tiekert’s guest offered an assessment of the latest Turkish election, I backed the car into the proper lane, and continued along my way, still listening.
On Tuesday I tuned into the Morning Show, and Brian’s co-host Aimee Allison was having an extended conversation with sports writer Dave Ziron on the World Series. The author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, Ziron explained why the “Red State/Blue State” metaphor for the San Francisco/Texas showdown glosses over less obvious dynamics of race and class.
I was heading west on the 85 freeway, which feeds into the 17. So wrapped up did I become in the discussion that I forgot where I was going and missed my exit. I didn’t realize this until my surroundings were completely unrecognizable.
These aren’t the worst Morning Show “freeway effect” stories. Back when KPFA was running its Winter Soldier investigation hearings on the Iraq war, my partner Sharon Wood was driving towards to the Golden Gate bridge to get to work. Allison and famed Iraq war reporter Aaron Glantz hosted the program.
Listening to the testimony by Iraq GIs, Sharon began to cry, then rear ended the SUV in front of her, wrecking her car.
Compassionate, youthful, always on top of their game, and equipped with bel canto interview voices—Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert are the best Morning Show that KPFA has ever had, and one of the best in public radio. Edwards-Tiekert is scary smart, yet a diplomat, even when he thinks he’s hearing something a bit dodgy. “You’ve sure done your homework, haven’t you,” a self-appointed expert on cellphone radiation conceded after a single question.
Allison is just a treasure. A former Army medic, she’s an anti-war activist and passionate advocate for her beloved city: Oakland, California. She exudes optimism and joy for life. She makes what she does sound easy, even though it is anything but.
On Tuesday, Aimee and Brian interviewed the two bureaucrats who could throw them off KPFA’s airwaves, and push the station into a long downward spiral.
Meet the new boss
Their names are Arlene Engelhardt, Executive Director of KPFA’s owner, the Pacifica Foundation, and LaVarn Williams, Pacifica’s Chief Financial Officer.
In her opening remarks, Engelhardt could not spare a single good word for KPFA’s current efforts, and instead got right into crux of her agenda. The operation is running on a deficit, and that’s bad. Staff cuts are coming. Big ones.
“[KPFA] was founded on the premise of listener donations, that listener donations would support a radio station, and also on the premise of volunteerism,” Engelhardt explained.
“And I think that’s one of the places where I think we’ve lost sight of our way, particularly at KPFA more so than at the other stations in the Pacifica network. We use less volunteers and pay more staff for functions that in some cases could be done by volunteers, than is happening at other stations in the network.
That’s one of the foundations of community radio, and I think that when times were, shall we say, fat, there was plenty of money, it was great to pay everyone for almost every function within the station. Now that we’re hitting some lean times, it’s time to remember what our foundation was, that was in volunteerism.”
I’ll say this for Pacifica’s new boss—through the ensuing chaotic argument over Pacifica’s budget, she held her ground (as opposed to the nervous Williams, who I thought quickly came undone).
That was a piece of it
Not that the discussion went that well for Engelhardt either. Allison asked how big staff reductions would lead to a healthier KPFA.
Engelhardt: Well, a healthier network means that we survive. And last year this station spent more than 900,000 more than it took in. That effectively ate up every penny of reserves that this station had. If this station had spent 300,000 more than it had, it could have spread those reserves over three years, and perhaps continued operating at the same level.
Edwards-Tiekert: To clarify that figure, almost 400,000.
Edwards-Tiekert: Almost 400,000 of that 900,000 was an auditors adjustment.
Engelhardt: [pause] There was a piece of it that was an auditors adjustment because of a check that had never been deposited. So yes, that was a piece of it.
Edwards-Tiekert: So you’re not actually describing a 900,000 operating deficit.
Engelhardt: But there was a great deal of money that went into the operating deficit. This year that is looking to be over 400,000 dollars. And that’s no auditors adjustment, that’s just in plain real dollars.
900k, 400k, whatever—no doubt Engelhardt will get back to us on the right numbers. But when it comes to Pacifica history, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
KPFA wasn’t founded on the “premise of volunteerism.” In fact, it will probably amuse some readers to know that, by 1956, Pacifica founder Lewis Hill was accused by his rivals of hiring too many paid staff. Hill’s successor, Elsa Knight Thompson, was a stickler for professionalism, having cut her broadcasting teeth at the British Broadcasting Corporation during the Second World War.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of the concept of “community radio” that the premise of KPFA as a “volunteer” station gained traction, and not everybody looks back on that era with nostalgia.
“Volunteerism barely worked in the 1970s,” warns KPFA literature host Richard Wolinsky, “and it won’t work today.”
The big chance
But plenty of those who do look back at the 1970s with nostalgia are still around, and they despise the KPFA Morning Show. They don’t like it because it has an executive producer named Laura Prives, who knows the difference between thinking and axe grinding, an ace board-op named Kirsten Thomas, who is nobody’s fool, and skilled news reporter Aileen Alfandary, who has been standing them down for years.
And that last point is the bottom line. Mostly they hate the Morning Show because it is not theirs—something that they can regularly get their soap box routines on, a program that I generically call the 911Truth-Vitamins-Cure-AIDS-Zionists-Control-the-World-Who-Really-Built-The-Pyramids Show.
These folks never really had a shot at bringing the Morning Show down until Pacifica radio started running governing board elections. Now they’ve got their own little political party, power on Pacifica’s National Board, and, I greatly fear, an Executive Director who is willing to do their bidding.
The fact that they lost the last election at KPFA doesn’t seem to have discouraged them. On the pretext of budgetary concerns, the Morning Show and everything that resembles it at KPFA must die die die.
The big question for me is what you do next. Are you going to let Pacifica flush Brian and Aimee and Mitch Jeserich and the rest of their generation of hope down the toilet? This isn’t 1956 or 1976—this is the Age of Broadband, the most competitive media environment that Pacifica radio has ever faced, and one that it can’t possibly stay afloat in with volunteers.
The next move is up to you. “Whose station? Our station!” you chanted eleven years ago when KPFA was shut down and almost sold. I wonder whether you’ll think it’s yours after Aimee and Brian are gone.
I sure won’t. For more information, go to KPFAworker.
Update (November 9)
Since I wrote this piece the whole staff of the Morning Show has been tanked. I regret not mentioning that Esther Manilla was also a producer for the program. Her accounting of recent events below: