Berkeley's KPFA is a Private Radio Club

Doug Buckwald
Wednesday May 22, 2019 - 04:37:00 PM

The program hosts at KPFA (94.1 FM) in Berkeley are in the midst of another fundraising drive. They aren't doing well; they are still hundreds of thousands of dollars short of their goal with only a few days left. So, their calls for donations are becoming more strident. 

If you are considering giving a donation to KPFA, you should be aware of how far the station falls short of its self-promoting rhetoric.  

KPFA used to operate like a true community radio station, but now it has devolved into little more than a private radio club for the same handful of paid program hosts who have occupied the airwaves for decades. Kris Welch, for example, has been a programmer and host at KPFA for the past 45 years. Philip Maldari, host of Sunday Show, has also been working at the station for over 40 years. To put this in perspective, the average time in office for a dictator of an autocratic country is 15.2 years. And, the average tenure of a US Supreme Court Justice is currently 16 years -- and they are appointed for life. It appears that, for all practical purposes, the program hosts at KPFA are appointed for life, too. 

Why does this matter? It matters because community organizations are not supposed to be run like dictatorships or oligarchies with the same few people wielding absolute power. In order to truly reflect the interests of the community, these organizations need to welcome and include a significant number of members of the community who have the desire to participate in meaningful ways, including taking on key roles. This is certainly not the case at KPFA. Instead, KPFA is run by a small group of insiders who make all of the most important decisions at the station. Long-time listeners will recognize that there has been only a minimal turnover in the program hosts who occupy most of the high-listenership time slots on the air.  

Each individual human has a unique background with a particular a set of experiences that guides his or her current attitudes and views. Should one or two individuals be allowed to present their unique perspectives on a community radio station for 40 years or longer? Is there really any KPFA listener who cannot anticipate how Kris Welch or Philip Maldari will react to a certain event or issue? Isn't it time for some different perspectives from the community to be heard?  

Every weekday morning, Brian Edwards-Tiekert occupies two hours of KPFA's key drive-time broadcasting from 7 am to 9 am, along with co-host Cat Brooks. These two appear to represent the latest dynasty of program hosts at KPFA, likely to continue in their roles for decades. They exhibit the same perspective that the other long-time hosts have held. This is not surprising, because they are supported by the same insiders who have dominated the station for decades. 

In order to mask the reality of this ossification, KPFA has adopted an aggressive public relations campaign to retain community support. KPFA's program hosts repeat, like a mantra, that KPFA is "listener-sponsored, independent, free-speech, community radio". Sadly, it turns out that only one of these four things is true. KPFA is certainly listener-sponsored – which means that they view you not as a person but principally as a bank account to supply funds for their own benefit. 

Indeed, fundraising is the primary way in which KPFA interacts with the community now. KPFA no longer has any interest in the community's views on program hosts, program content, reliability of news sources, scheduling, expanding listener call-ins, explaining management decisions, budget transparency, on-air bias, or a multitude of other issues. They mainly just want your money. Once they get it, the doors are again slammed shut on community interaction, and the KPFA insiders decide which issues -- from the narrow ideological range that they will allow -- will be presented on the air. 

Longtime listeners have noticed that the size of KPFA's donation requests has increased dramatically. Some years ago, the standard request was $35. Now, it is more likely to be $100, $250, $300, $500, or even $2,000. This skews towards a demographic that is high-income and more well-off, one that is more in line with the donor base for National Public Radio (NPR). There is little doubt that this fundraising strategy affects KPFA's decisions on programming and coverage of issues.  

Unfortunately, there is a very limited range of opinion that is allowed on the air, and most of it echoes the viewpoint of the corporate Democratic Party. It has been this way for at least the past 15 years. In particular, progressives and independents who hold views that are further left than those of the official Democratic Party are largely excluded from KPFA's airwaves. This curtails a presentation of the full political debate that the community deserves. 

KPFA has a mission statement, but I’ve never heard any program host read it on the air. 

Here is one of its key tenets: 

“To promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints.” 

It's not really fair for KPFA to expect financial support from the community if it does not even follow its own rules. 

Listeners who have concerns about KPFA's restricted range of viewpoints -- as well as its lack of community involvement, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency -- should share their thoughts with Quincy McCoy, KPFA's general manager.  

Isn't it time to put the community back into our community radio station? 

Quincy McCoy may be reached at: gm@kpfa.org or by phone at (510) 848-6767, ext 203