KPFA and the Importance of Voices

KPFA and Pacifica are not new to drama, alas.  I remember the last go-round quite well.  I was sitting on the floor of the apartment, doing yoga stretches in preparation for my evening workout.  I had the KPFA Evening News on the stereo.  Long time news co-director Mark Mericle read through the headlines.  Then he became distracted.  There was a pause, which on live radio always seems longer than it really is.  I could hear someone yelling in the background “Don’t hurt me!  You’re hurting me!”  Mark came back on the mike, his voice betraying his anxiety at seeing a colleague in trouble, to explain that Flashpoints presenter Dennis Bernstein was being arrested at his desk and dragged out of the building.  I can’t remember why Dennis was being arrested, except that it was part of the larger purge that was going on at the time.  A measured calm returned to Mark’s voice as he tried to give a blow-by-blow of the arrest occurring just few feet from him.  And then, there was silence.  This time the pause was permanent.  I sat on the floor blinking for a moment, debating on whether to continue with my workout or go to the station to see what the hell.  Naturally, I ended up doing the latter.

I got to KPFA in Berkeley to find many more listeners had gathered to find out what the hell.  By this point, the coup was a fait accompli.  The interim station manager piped in music from the already pacified KPFT in Houston — that’s all KPFT did at that time, air music and light programming.  So now they were bringing this mess to Berkeley.  Yeah, good luck with that.  Fortunately, the coup was short lived.  After many weeks of protests condemning the heavy-handed tactics used to change the network, KPFA returned to local control (as did KPFT and the rest of the network).  Life continued.  For a while, anyway.

Right, so now, eleven years later, KPFA is embroiled in another unfortunate internecine battle.  Pacifica’s current executive director, Arlene Engelhardt, states that the network, and KPFA in particular, are mired in debt.  Drastic Steps are Required.  So, wielding the Beeching Axe, Ms. Engelhardt laid off nearly everyone that worked on the station’s long-running Morning Show this past week.  The Morning Show.  One of the station’s most popular programs, and many state its most reliable fund-raiser.  And the station was planning a fund-raiser this week!  In light of the current circumstances, the fund-raising effort has been cancelled.

This latest episode also played itself out on the air.  Last Tuesday, November 9, was to be the first day that morning programming was to be piped in from LA Pacifica station KPFK.  But the laid off Morning Show staff had other ideas.  They took control of the studios and aired one last home-grown program to explain what was going on and discuss how the station, and the Morning Show, ended up where it ended up.  Made for fascinating live radio.  It really did.  It was sort of like pirate radio.  To her credit, Arlene Engelhardt allowed herself to be interviewed during the rogue Morning Show, though to my ears her explanations for her actions — strictly fiduciary, seniority based layoffs, etc. — rang hollow.  Despite protests, she has not reversed the decision to end the Morning Show.

I’ve listened to the Morning Show for most of the 21 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.  It’s been a good mixture of local, national, and international news and commentary, reports and rants, summaries and speculations.  Now its gone.  That makes no sense to me at all.  There is word that members of the current Pacifica National Board want to make KPFA and all Pacifica stations an all-volunteer effort, and eschew paid, professional staff all together.  What a waste of fine talent.  In addition to the great talent that’s always comprised KPFA’s news and current affairs staff, the station has for decades managed an apprenticeship program, grooming a new generation of critically thinking journalists.  All of this is at risk now because of this in-fighting.  Amazing.

We need KPFA’s voice more than ever.  The Republican’s are retaking the House in just under two month’s time.  We need as many non-Fox, fact-based voices as are available.  Ms. Engelhardt needs to find another way to balance the bank sheets that does not involve ditching the station’s most popular programs and talented presenters.  We need all hands on deck.

© 2010, gar. All rights reserved.

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