Public Comment

Big Changes Are Needed at KPFA Radio in Berkeley

Doug Buckwald
Saturday October 12, 2019 - 11:20:00 AM

In its early days, KPFA functioned as a true community radio station, with vibrant community involvement and a sincere dedication to democratic principles, freedom of expression, multiple viewpoints, and strong opposition to militarism and war.

Now, if KPFA's founder Lewis Hill somehow returned and visited the station, he would be appalled to see what it has become. KPFA's current leaders have largely abandoned Hill's original vision and ideals and now operate the station as little more than a private radio club for the same handful of paid program hosts who have occupied the airwaves for 20, 30, 40 years or longer. KPFA's paid programmers are unionized, and their union, Communications Workers of America (Local 9415), is a consistent supporter of Democratic Party candidates. Quincy McCoy, KPFA's General Manager, likes to say that KPFA is a "community-powered" radio station. I think it may be more accurate to say it is a "union-powered" radio station. The listeners foot the bill, but the union members call the shots. 

Due to strict union rules about job security and seniority, KPFA’s paid program hosts are able to keep their jobs as long as they want -- for the rest of their lives if they choose. This results in a concentration of power and a rigidity of viewpoints that are highly detrimental to fostering productive connections with the community. This rigidity also severely limits opportunities for new voices to emerge that could make valuable contributions to our understanding of our complex and evolving world. The significance of this exclusionary policy is immense -- and it goes hand-in-hand with the self-interest of paid KPFA programmers who stubbornly cling to their positions and prevent a wider variety of community members from having the opportunity to communicate with a radio audience. Many members of our local community have tremendous knowledge, expertise, and resources, but they never make it onto the airwaves. This represents a significant loss to the community. 

Longtime listeners of KPFA understand that the station is now run by a small group of insiders who make all of the important decisions. However, community organizations are not supposed to be run like feudal monarchies or oligarchies with the same handful of people wielding absolute power. In order to truly reflect the public interest, these organizations need to include a significant number community members who have the desire to contribute in meaningful ways, including taking on key roles. This is clearly not happening at KPFA. Instead, the insiders who run KPFA carefully select the few people who will be allowed to take positions on the air. They do not want anybody who will rock the boat or challenge their authority. 


Fundraising grows, programming shrinks

In spite of this exclusionary practice, KPFA's program hosts repeat, like a mantra, that KPFA is "listener-sponsored, independent, free-speech, community radio". Unfortunately, it turns out that only one of these four things is true. KPFA is certainly listener-sponsored – which means that the paid staff view you not as a person but principally as a handy bank account to supply funds for their own benefit.  

Indeed, fundraising is virtually the only way that KPFA interacts directly with the community now. In this way, KPFA is like the ne’er-do-well relative who calls you up only when he has run out of cash and needs money fast. Otherwise, he is completely out of contact, doing whatever he pleases. KPFA's leaders have no interest in the community's wishes on program hosts; program content; development of new programming; reliability of news sources; the presentation of multiple perspectives; appropriate scheduling; expanding listener participation on programs; transparency about management decisions; budget priorities; partisan political bias, or a multitude of other issues. They mainly just want our money. Once they get it, they slam the door shut on community interaction, and the KPFA insiders decide which guests and issues will be presented on the air, and how they will be presented.  

What viewpoints are allowed on KPFA? 


Unfortunately, there is a very limited range of opinion that is allowed on KPFA's airwaves, and most of it closely matches the viewpoints of the corporate Democratic Party. In particular, progressives and independents who hold views that are further left than those of the official Democratic Party are almost entirely excluded from KPFA's programs. This prevents a presentation of the full range of political debate that the community deserves.  

KPFA's hidden leaders directly impact our thinking by actively preventing the expression of alternative viewpoints. They do this by (a) canceling programs that challenge the currently-favored beliefs at the station (such as Bonnie Faulkner's popular and groundbreaking “Guns & Butter” program which was recently pulled off the schedule); (b) promoting corporate-approved viewpoints through featured guests who are sponsored by think tanks funded directly by these corporations; and (c) regularly silencing listeners who try to raise questions about these things on the air. It is not particularly relevant that KPFA airs no corporate advertising -- because it allows many corporate-approved messages to get through loud and clear. Moreover, KPFA's program hosts are careful to hide the corporate connections of their guests from the listening audience. The fact that these insidious corporate influences effectively undermine legitimate leftist movements does not seem to concern any of the KPFA hosts who regularly feature corporate-influenced spokespeople on the air.  

How can we protect freedom of speech and enhance community participation? 


KPFA was born and nurtured as free speech radio. If we let KPFA get away with the overt censorship and media bias it is now practicing, we will certainly lose more alternative voices on KPFA in the future.  

In truth, community radio doesn't exist if the community isn't directly involved in programming and personnel choices, which are the body and soul of broadcasting. Any other arrangement is simply a hoax to promote the interests of one group over another behind a myth of unity. KPFA's increasing insularity from the community is almost certainly the main reason that KPFA's recent fund drives have all fallen significantly short of their goals. The current fund drive – intended to make up for the previous shortfalls – is also on track to fall short of its goal. It’s a downward spiral that makes recovery ever more difficult. 

The more time a radio station spends on fundraising -- badgering listeners with endless appeals and special promotions and hyper-ventilated "matching fund" challenges -- the less time it spends on quality broadcasting. Lately, it seems that the main purpose of KPFA is to continue raising funds so that its paid programming staff and management will keep their jobs. In my opinion, this is not an appropriate mission for a radio station that claims to serve the public. What’s more, I don't think this situation will change until KPFA takes steps to genuinely strengthen its connections with the community. 

Listeners who have concerns about KPFA's restricted range of viewpoints -- as well as its lack of true community involvement, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency -- should communicate their views to Quincy McCoy, general manager of KPFA, and the members of the Local Station Board. And what better way is there to communicate than to put our money where our mouths are? I think it may be time to tell KPFA that we will not give them one more dime until they change their policies and include the public in decision making again. 

Isn't it time we took back control of our community radio station?