KPFA’s Larry Bensky has spent much of his 70 years honing the craft of activist-journalist.
“I thought bringing information to people would stir things up. Without that information, nothing would get stirred up,” he said in an interview Tuesday morning with a KPFA news team and the Daily Planet. “Your role [as an activist-journalist] is not to organize people. It is to bring attention to [issues] and the passion.”
“That doesn’t mean you check your mind at the door” and report whatever activists say without scrupulous research, Bensky said, pointing to I.F. Stone as a role model.
He refuses to call it retiring: Bensky is giving up his popular talk show, Sunday Salon, but plans to continue to produce special programming at the station, where he’s worked in myriad capacities from station manager to volunteer programmer since 1969.
While activism and journalism co-exist comfortably at KPFA, Bensky tried to merge the two when writing daily book reviews for the New York Times in the late 1960s.
“They wouldn’t run a lot of stuff I was writing,” Bensky said. “For example at one point I wrote a book review about Bertrand Russell’s War Crimes in Vietnam. They wouldn’t run it. Even though all I did was summarize his arguments. I didn’t take a soapbox stand. They said I didn’t have sufficient criticism of the anti-war movement from the other side.”
Bensky realized he’d never be satisfied working at the Times, so when he had an offer to come to California and work for Ramparts Magazine, he took it in the late 1960s. He found the Bay Area a “tremendously inspiring and activist community” with Berkeley’s activist city government that included City Councilmember Ron Dellums, the “colossal” and spirited demonstrations against the Vietnam War in San Francisco, the Black Panther movement and more.
After a stint at KSAN radio—Bensky was fired after interviewing fired workers of a sponsor on the air—Bensky became production director at KPFA and in 1972, produced and anchored “The Siege of Miami,” Pacifica’s first broadcast linking the radio signal from Miami to Berkeley. The program, which covered the Democratic and Republican conventions and the protests outside of them, was picked up by 18 stations across the country.
“The Siege of Miami” sound quality was not good, “but there was an urgency about it. We were the only people covering the demonstrations, the only people doing the kind of street reporting we were doing—a tremendously exciting moment,” Bensky said.
Being an activist-journalist sometimes meant taking physical risks. During the People’s Park clashes between activists and the UC Berkeley administration in the early 1970s, Bensky said he was tear-gassed a number of times.
“The closest I ever got to combat was on the UC Berkeley campus where the Alameda county sheriffs were shooting birdshot and other projectiles at the demonstrators. It was very, very scary to be out there, but it was also very important to be bringing these events live to people. KPFA was free to do so as no other station was.”
Two sets of events in 1978 jolted Bensky, causing him to back away from journalism briefly, rethink, then reaffirm his career choice.
First there was Jonestown, the settlement of Americans in Guyana founded by cult leader Jim Jones. Bensky had applied to go to Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan as part of the press corps, but did not find he was accepted until it was too late to go. Ryan and four of the journalists were murdered there just before the mass suicide-murder.
Two weeks after Jonestown, San Francisco Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Bensky knew both victims.
The idea that he so narrowly escaped death in Jonestown coupled with the double homicide of people he knew personally—and having to report on both events—weighed heavily on the journalist.
“There’s something about the voice that is charged with bringing people that kind of news that you know people are dependent upon you and yet your heart is so heavy and your spirit is so stricken by what you’re enduring,” Bensky said. “It broke my heart and also made me reevaluate whether or not I wanted to be in that role.”
But Bensky said journalism in his blood, and the need to let people know about what was happening in Nicaragua won out and he could not stay away from the field permanently. “I wanted to be part of communicating to people what was going on in Central America,” especially around the Contras, a right-wing Nicaraguan guerrilla organization, he said.
Bensky worked at various radio stations and in various capacities over the years, including a stint as newscaster at KSAN, where he was re-hired, and another as news and sports director at KBLX.
In 1987, Bensky was asked to host national hearings on Iran-Contra, which involved members of the Reagan Administration selling illegal weapons to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the Contras.
During that time he and his producer created what Bensky calls “the talk show in the hearing room,” which included both audience and pundit participation.
KPFA has seen internal conflict during much of its 58 years. In 1999, the year that the national Pacifica board shut down KPFA, its Berkeley station, Bensky was thrown off the air twice.
The first time was around the issue of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “What I said was, as far as I’m concerned the impeachment of Bill Clinton is a disgrace to the constitution, but Bill Clinton is a disgrace to the office.” Bensky contends he was taken off the air because “that is not the Democratic Party liberal line.”
With pressure from the community, he wasn’t kept off the air for long. When he came back, instead of hosting a daily noontime show, Bensky launched Sunday Salon, but was ousted again when he read a statement condemning management’s firing of popular station manager Nicole Sawaya.
“They didn’t take into account that they were trying to fire the audience,” Bensky said of the national board’s 1999 struggle with KPFA programmers, volunteers and listeners that resulted in an outpouring of support for the station within the community. “It was the most gratifying thing in my life to see how people came forth.”
Bensky is of two minds when he talks about the future of the station. He said he is encouraged because of the level of the people trained at the station and developing their talents.
“Despite the legendary difficulties of what goes on here internally, that part I’m encouraged by,” he said.
At the same time, he fears for the future of the station. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to KPFA,” he said. “The national board is a mess. Local station board elections as far as I am concerned are a farce. They’re not democratic in a sense that I see as democratic. They contribute nothing.”
Still, Bensky concludes, “We have a mission to do here. People who are driven to do it are going to get here, I hope, and still find a way to get on the air.”
Bensky was interviewed by KPFA News Director Aileen Alfandary, with supplementary questions by producer Aaron Glantz and Planet reporter Judith Scherr.