I have been in the KPFA News Department for eight years. I was one of the journalists arrested in the newsroom on July 13, 1999. I don’t do much reporting now; I board op the Evening News several times a week because it pays. But it doesn’t pay much. I am scheduled for 11 hours a week and generally take on requests to fill in during holidays and vacations as the opportunities arise. I have no benefits.
So it is with great exasperation that I see in the Daily Planet’s April 24 edition Mark Sapir’s commentary about KPFA. Not that I totally disagree with him. KPFA should not resist advocacy journalism; FOX certainly doesn’t. But while various people argue about what should and shouldn’t be on the air, and who says or does what at a local station board meeting, a greater point is being missed: Pacifica does not talk the talk or walk the walk as a social justice institution in the way it operates. Pacifica takes the listeners’ money on a pretext of progressivism but treats the workers as badly as any of the corporations we report on during the Evening News.
Another fundraiser is nearly upon us. Listeners will be asked to donate to KPFA (or KFCF) to the tune of nearly $1 million. But, in fact, the money will go not to KPFA but straight to the Pacifica Foundation. Despite whatever bits of internal political control certain people within KPFA may have, and despite the fact that some people believe that KPFA is or should be “community-controlled,” the true power, legally and practically, rests with whoever runs the Foundation, which doles out listener contributions back to the stations and for whatever projects it sees fit. You may think you’re donating to KPFA’s well-being. But while you have contributed generously, KPFA says it doesn’t have the money to pay former operations engineer and interim general manager Jim Bennett for the classes he has been giving on Sunday nights to train board ops. Nor can it afford to pay him to upgrade training manuals and videos. Why? Because the Pacifica Foundation holds the purse strings.
The fact that we have a labor reporter will be a pitch point. He has done several stories about city and county governments passing ordinances against “big box” stores. One of the arguments against these stores is that they pay so poorly the workers must rely on government assistance. I was hospitalized for two days in March, and as a consequence, have over $25,000 in uninsured medical expenses to deal with. That’s an amount over twice last year’s income from all sources. I now have medical insurance for treatment going forward—the Alameda County Medical Services Plan for the medically indigent.
Our labor reporter also covers stories of the struggles of workers who seek to organize a union. Pacifica kicked the volunteers out of KPFA’s union over 10 years ago, and sought and won a decision from Bush’s National Labor Relations Board that volunteers were not entitled to be in the WBAI union. KPFA relies on a lot of non-unionized labor—volunteers and part-timers like myself and other board ops who don’t get enough hours to be eligible for union membership and benefits. Department heads who would be considered supervisors in most other shops are union members. But most of the rank-and-file workers are not. Strange union.
He also covers stories about companies who have been accused of making employees work off the clock, or not paying overtime. Just before writing this, I received an email from a department head looking for a volunteer board op to take over a weekly one-hour-long shift from someone who has gotten a paid job at another station. Our hourly pay is only $18.76, but the station is looking for a volunteer. Being a board op is a significant responsibility; we have to see to sound quality, handle technical problems, interact with callers, and see to Federal legal requirements, especially keeping obscenity and indecency off the air. This last responsibility has become even more important now that the FCC has raised its fines to a level that could jeopardize KPFA’s viability if we are fined over just one utterance. But not all the board op shifts are paid. Why not? Why does a 58-year-old institution based in a major metropolitan area still require so much volunteer help for its day-to-day operations? It would be one thing if this were a startup, or a small station in a village somewhere. But KPFA is part of a network worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the station itself raises millions each year. We’ve paid off the debts incurred by the “rogues” and we’ve even paid the mortgage on the building. So where is the money—your money—going?
The Pacifica National Board has been debating a proposal to create a $5,000 a month consultancy for board member Rob Robinson, a holdover from the rogue board. As my mailbox fills with unpayable medical bills, the thought of this self-dealing raises my already too-high blood pressure. Did I, and perhaps some of you reading this, get arrested in 1999 for this?
The Pacifica Foundation ought to be ashamed that workers have left this “peace and social justice institution” because they could not afford to work here, that someone in the news department quit after going homeless, and that someone else the news department quit because he was faced with homelessness; that second person called me to ask if I could take care of his computer if indeed he went homeless, that’s how close he came to it. It should be ashamed of the fact that Mary Berg, a programmer of over 20 years standing, needed the generosity of the community to get sight-saving surgery. The Pacifica Foundation should be ashamed that Bonnie Faulkner of Guns and Butter, one of the best fundraisers KPFA has, lives on her life savings, having dipped into her retirement money a decade early to keep the show going. It should be ashamed that I’ve worked here for eight years and am now drowning in medical debt. Is any of this progressive? Is any of this social justice?
But some of you should be ashamed, also, those of you reading this who believe in the volunteer model of radio, who think somehow it’s purer that way and that what’s wrong with KPFA stems from the fact that there are people there who have full-time jobs. Those of you who want to see us keep covering striking grocery workers and teachers and janitors, but who object to us making a decent living from our work, should be ashamed of yourselves. Why should anyone believe “another world is possible” when progressives fund an institution that is operating in ways similar to those of our adversaries, but the level of concern over workers seems to grow only in proportion to the distance those workers are from the KPFA building? What is so progressive about caring that people half a world away live on less than two dollars a day, if you don’t also care that the people in your home area who bring you that information can’t pay their bills?
We all have our opinions about who and what should be on the air. But that is not the purview of the local station board. It does have the power—and the legal responsibility—to oversee expenditures. It should follow the money, all the way to the top.
Kellia Ramares co-founded the show Guns and Butter with Bonnie Faulkner.