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.

Photoessay: Hidden in the Open

I love photographic exhibits.  One of my favorites was a retrospective of California based 20th century photographers at the Oakland Museum of California some years ago.  It featured the works of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and other masters of that generation.  A good photograph tells a story reflecting some aspect of the age in which it was taken.  It becomes a window to the past.

A few weeks ago my sister sent me a link to an absolutely amazing online photoessay entitled Hidden in the Open:  A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples. Not only did this serve to introduce me to the exhibit’s totally cool creator, Bronze Buckaroo, but the exhibit itself has enthralled me with its depiction of African American males in various poses of closeness and friendship.  As BB notes, we cannot know for certain if in fact all of the men in the pictures were gay.  Though some of them, in my eyes anyway, scream girlfriend! with snaps flung high.  It is too easy to fall into these pictures and speculate on the lives behind them, both the figures shown and the one behind the camera.  Where did they hang out?  What music did they listen to?  What were their hopes and dreams and fears?  What would they tell you about themselves if you could interview them?  Each photo tickles you with these questions.

Hidden in the Open is a well put together exhibition that pries open a window to the past that is too often boarded-up.  I highly recommend checking it out.


1985.  UCLA.  Sophomore year.  I fell into the swell of anti-apartheid protests that engulfed the campus that year and began to live the life of the “activist student.”  My mother made a suggestion.

“You should start writing a journal.”

I agreed with her, but it took another year before I began in earnest.  She knew I was a writer before I did.  She was often right about those sorts of things.

The journal started as a chronicle of my burgeoning career as a student protester.  I was studying the life and ways of Mahatma Gandhi at the time, and it showed.  Yikes!  I cringe at some of my early entries.  I sound like a bloody Gandhian puppet.  My voice, my real voice, was deeply buried, yet to be discovered.

1987 should have been the journal’s first watershed year, but it was a test I failed miserably.  I barely wrote in it at all.  I still look back at that period with much regret and sadness, because I would love to now be able to reread an accurate chronicle of what I truly thought and felt at that time.  I even remember erasing one of the few honest entries I had made.  I wrote them in pencil in those days, so tenuous I was, so afraid to speak too loudly, even as I shouted slogan after slogan at protest after protest.  My journal had (and has) no audience apart from myself, though I fancied it an open book for all to see, again, mimicking the Gandhian model.  A facade, and a sad one, which kept me from having conversations with myself, conversations I desperately needed to have.  I suspect my whole pretense about the open journal was to keep me from having those conversations.  I remember taking an intro to psychology course at that time.  I failed because I never went to class.

In any case, the cracks to my facade began to appear by the end of ’87.  First was the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, an event woefully underreported at the time and now a date observed internationally as Coming Out Day because of this event’s importance to queer history.  I knew a couple of folks at UCLA who went.  Their stories intrigued me, even if I was not able or willing to admit it.  They gave me hope.  Then something else happened.  In late November, I had my first true sexual experience, and it was with a man.  Until that point, I had never had sex of any kind with a man or a woman — as closeted as I was with myself, it never felt right to me to date women so I never did.  I wrote about this great episode obliquely in the journal, scribbling some gibberish about getting it out of my system and expressing relief that I could finally “move on.”  Ha.  Move on to the next man, no doubt.

Flash forward to April 1988.  I finally admitted to myself, in my journal, that I’m a gay man.  That broke the dam and the flood has continued, in one way or another, ever since.  So in the end the journal became a tool to help me come to terms with, and accept and embrace, my sexuality.  I came out to my family by writing them a letter entitled “What James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Gregory Russell have in common.”  I made a special trip to the family house — I had moved out by that point — and gave the letter to my mother and sister, who were home at the time.  My mother put down the letter after reading the title and stood to give me a hug.  My sister joined her.  It was all good with them and later with my father and three older brothers, too.  I exhaled.

It’s impossible to write without honesty.  It’s impossible, I continue to learn, to write well without the courage to say what needs to be said.  As I continue to write fiction, largely about things black and gay, I continue to find new challenges for myself to say what I really want to say, to say it clearly, to say it well.  the gar spot is just another evolution of this process.  Forces in my life have often advised me to start blogging.  (“Fool!  Start a blog!” my sister often said.)  I resisted because I didn’t think I’d have enough to say to maintain a proper blog.  Who knows, maybe I don’t.  I leave that for you and the fates to decide.  But at least now, finally, I’m willing to give it a go.

Mazal tov.