This is something that is precious
This is something that is ours
This is something that we paid for
This is something that we believe in
This is something that we intend to keep
Alice Walker, speaking at a rally in support of KPFA and documented in the film “KPFA on the Air”
One year ago today thousands of listeners tuned in to KPFA radio’s most listened-to broadcast – the evening news.
Co-anchor Mark Mericle was leading with a story on problems in the health care system when cries for help came from somewhere in the background.
“I have belongings here…I’m nervous. I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me.” The call was more distinct as Mericle directed his microphone toward Dennis Bernstein, the host of the listener-sponsored station’s drive-time news magazine, who was being dragged by armed security guards from the room adjacent to where the news was being broadcast.
Mericle helped get Bernstein’s calls onto the air and reported what was happening. Soon an interim station manager cut off the broadcast, ordered programmers to leave the building and began playing taped speeches on the air. He called police and ordered a citizen’s arrest of everyone who remained in the building.
Meanwhile hundreds of listeners poured into the streets in front and beside the station and as many as could get in, joined the KPFA staff sitting inside the building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
This drama and the subsequent three-week lockout of KPFA programmers showed the proportions to which tensions between listener-sponsors of KPFA and its governing board, the Pacifica Foundation had grown.
Why did people pour into the streets that day, with hundreds camping out each night in front of the station during the lock-out, with 10,000 marching on July 31?
What was the passion, the commitment, the love they felt for something as mundane as a radio station?
A new film, produced by Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood, attempts to answer the question in a one-hour documentary they call “KPFA on the air.”
The film, to be screened at UC Theater on July 28 and on PBS’s Point of View in September, brings to life the depth and breadth of the roots of the 51-year-old station.
The documentary goes back to the creation of the listener-sponsored station by pacifist Lew Hill, who saw KPFA as a focal point for dialogue.
“There were ideas that were just waiting to be pulled out,” says Hill’s widow, Joy Hill, speaking in the film.
These ideas would be shared over the airwaves and would be diverse and contradictory.
They would include voices as divergent as Lawrence Ferlengetti, and Edward Teller. One could hear William Mandel speaking at the House Committee on un-American Activities as well as Republican Casper Weinberger, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
The diversity of ideas, over the years, has created sharp rifts within the station staff and volunteer programmers. Larry Bensky, now a station volunteer after having been removed from his paid post last year by the former Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick, recalls the time during which he was station manager and groups of people were fighting each other for a spot on the air.
“It was not the voice of fringe forces, but open to fringe forces,” Bensky says.
Still, listeners found the station was in the forefront, broadcasting news of the free speech movement in 1964 and the anti-Vietnam War movement that followed.
The station has never confined itself to politics. Its musical offerings have ranged over the years from recorded bird calls, to live Mozart, rap and world music.
KPFA listeners are as diverse as the people who program at the station, so it is not surprising that they have, at various times, led movements to reform the station from outside.
The filmmakers touch on the protests of 1995, when Soviet expert Bill Mandel and others were taken off the air.
“We listen to KPFA, why don’t you listen to us?” was the listeners’ cry.
“Everyone wants a piece (of the station),” was the response of Pat Scott, KPFA station manager at the time.
Despite ongoing struggles around programming within the station, there was tremendous unity and support behind Nicole Sawaya, popular station manager whose contract Chadwick terminated March 31.
In fact, many people say it was Sawaya’s talent that managed to get the diverse voices working together at the station.
The story of what happened after Sawaya was terminated, programmers fired or pulled off the air, the station locked down and reopened; the legal battles to bring democracy to the national governance of the station, with financial accountability available to all; the internal movement to bring younger voices to the station and to bring the diverse voices of people of color; the triumph of democratization of the local advisory board, currently under way – are all stories to be told.
Perhaps the story will be told in “KPFA on the air” Part II.
“KPFA on the air,” along with the films’ producers and KPFA staff, will be at the UC Theater, 2036 University Ave., 7:30 p.m. July 28.
It will be broadcast on PBS’s POV in September.