Double, double toil and trouble,
fire burn and cauldron bubble
The KPFA cauldron continues to bubble away, and as the heat rises in Berkeley it may be the people of the Central Valley who get burned. When local listeners turn their dials to KFCF to catch a favorite KPFA show they may be in for a surprise. Things are changing, and not everyone thinks the changes are for the better.
KFCF, which calls itself Free Speech Radio for Central California, gets about 80% of its programming from the Berkeley station. KPFA, which is in the midst of a deep financial crisis, has made some controversial program cuts and is rearranging its broadcast schedule. Those of us connected with KFCF are trying to stay out of the internecine warfare going on in Berkeley, but there is no way for us to avoid the fallout completely.
The First Domino to Fall
The first big shock came on November 8 when “The Morning Show” disappeared from the airwaves. The program, which had aired every weekday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for more than 30 years, was taken off the air by Arlene Engelhardt. She is executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns KPFA.
“The Morning Show” had a big following, both in the Bay Area and in the KFCF listening area. It was not a smooth transition, and the listeners were caught completely off guard. The station had not given the fans advance notice of the imminent disappearance of their favorite show, which probably increased the anger felt by those listeners.
In addition to removing the show, Engelhardt fired the show’s co-hosts—Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert. Their followers were stunned by the decision. Engelhardt explained that these were necessary cost-cutting moves, but the explanation did not mollify many of the angry listeners.
Subsequent Program Changes
Something had to be done to fill the gaping hole left by the demise of “The Morning Show.” At first, Engelhardt imported two morning drive-time shows from the Pacifica station in Los Angeles, KPFK. She promised that the substitution was a temporary measure and that “The Morning Show” would be restored with new hosts in the relatively near future. Apparently, the obstacles to doing that were too great, and the restoration never happened.
Then came a second major shift in programming. Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” the popular nationally produced program out of New York, was moved from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., filling up one of the two hours formerly occupied by “The Morning Show.” KPFA also broadcasts “Democracy Now” from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., and that slot remains unchanged.
The regular listeners to the 6 a.m. “Democracy Now” woke up one morning to find it was not there. In its place was an hour-long edition of “Al Jazeera English,” which is produced in Washington, D.C. Apparently there had been negotiations going on for a long time to broadcast Al Jazeera news on the Pacifica stations, but not for that specific time slot. The early-morning slot was not an ideal choice for the Al Jazeera program because the only way to do it was to broadcast a program produced the night before. Apparently, Al Jazeera does not produce an hour-long news program ready to be imported to KPFA that early in the morning, so the previous night’s show is the only choice.
Careful listeners will notice some anomalies that result from the time delay. One might hear a report on Al Jazeera at 6 a.m., only to hear Amy Goodman contradict the report at 7 a.m., because something about the story changed overnight. Goodman is pretty good about inserting late-breaking news into her show, but Al Jazeera really cannot do that in the early morning.
The Unfilled Hour
As of this writing, KPFA had not figured out what to do with the 8 a.m.–9 a.m. hour. For various reasons, importing one of the KPFK morning shows for that hour was not working out well. Anyway, Engelhardt had promised that “The Morning Show” would be back and that it would be a locally produced program. A KPFK import could not be a permanent solution.
For several days in early December the slot was filled by morning news anchor Arlene Alfandary, who usually does a 10-minute news broadcast at that hour. Her 10-minute newscast was transformed to 30 minutes, then 60 minutes in what she termed an “extended newscast.” Then in mid-December, KPFA began an emergency fund drive, and the hour was filled with broadcasts of documentaries being offered as premiums. Again, that can only be a temporary solution.
By the time you are reading this article, things may have changed again. There are several possibilities. A new one-hour morning show might appear. What form it would take is not yet clear.
Originally, Engelhardt had talked of restoring “The Morning Show” with new hosts—paid professionals, as was the case before the layoffs. The idea was to move existing hosts from other shows into the morning slot. However, there was a glitch. Apparently, none of the other paid staff were willing to take the place of their laid-off colleagues. This may have been an act of solidarity on their part, or a reaction to peer pressure, or perhaps a reaction to pressure from the union. Which of those explanations is the correct one? Everyone seems to have a different take on it, so the answer you get will depend on which person you ask.
Another idea that is being kicked around is that “The Morning Show” might turn into an all-volunteer operation. That option is also fraught with problems. To produce a good, professional, two-hour (or one-hour) news show five days a week is a huge undertaking. Hours and hours of preparation time go into each 10- or 20-minute segment produced. It is literally a full-time job, so one would have to find skilled volunteers willing to put in just as many hours as the paid staff had done in the past.
That might be too much to ask of any one volunteer, so the workload might be split up. For example, there could be different volunteer hosts every day, each volunteer or volunteer team producing perhaps one show per month. That, of course, destroys the continuity; it is more like having a series of different shows on different days of the week. Listeners probably would find it a poor substitute for the professionalism to which they had become accustomed.
Financial Implications for KPFA
This whole thing started because of a budget crunch. Unfortunately, the changes that have been made have alienated a lot of listeners and could have the effect of making the budget crunch even worse. “The Morning Show” once brought in 25% of the funds raised in pledge drives, even outdoing the highly popular “Democracy Now.” With “The Morning Show” gone, it remains to be seen whether the substitute shows will do nearly as well with the fund-raising.
KPFA in Berkeley and KFCF in Fresno are both listener-supported radio stations; the money to operate them comes almost exclusively from the listeners. There are differences, however. Although KPFA is owned by Pacifica, KFCF is owned by the Fresno Free College Foundation. That means that the local station does not have to take orders from Pacifica. However, the two stations are closely intertwined.
KFCF gets most of its money from Central Valley listeners who call in to the Berkeley station during a fund drive. KPFA collects the money on behalf of KFCF and then sends it to Fresno, minus a small administrative fee. That arrangement usually works out well for both stations.
How KPFA Is Putting KFCF in a Pickle
KPFA is now in such a deep financial hole that it does not actually have the money to pay KFCF what it is owes. That does not mean the Fresno station will never get its money, but it might have to wait a while for it. That, of course, creates a cash flow problem for KFCF.
The Fresno station is in an awkward situation. KFCF is not really a party to the conflict in Berkeley. KFCF listeners are loyal and continue to support their local station. However, if KPFA digs itself into a hole so deep that it cannot get out of it, money donated by Central Valley listeners for their local station might get lost somewhere in the bottom of that pit in Berkeley.
The listeners from the KFCF listening area who are angry over the changes happening in Berkeley are mad at KPFA, not KFCF. However, if they withhold their money during pledge drives it is KFCF that will be hurt by the action.
Local Donation Option
During the mid-December KPFA pledge drive, the Fresno station decided to try something new. KFCF General Manager Rych Withers went on the air during the Berkeley pledge drive to inform local listeners that they could, if they so chose, donate their money directly to KFCF without it going through Berkeley. This offer was in response to requests from some disgruntled listeners who did not want KPFA to handle their money anymore.
Donating money directly to KFCF rather than going through KPFA does not really hurt KPFA that much; money they collect in Berkeley for the Fresno station does eventually have to be sent to Fresno, so it is not really KPFA’s money at all. However, the local donation method does help the Fresno station somewhat with its cash flow problem; the money donated locally cannot be delayed for several months as it passes through Berkeley.
It remains to be seen how many local listeners will switch their donation method and send their money directly to KFCF. Withers is not really pushing local listeners to change their method of donation; he is just offering them the option. It provides listeners with one more alternative as they decide how to vote with their dollars.
Here are the options Withers has offered his listeners. They can go to the Web site, www.KFCF.org, and donate or set up automatic deductions online; they can write checks directly to KFCF and mail them to P.O. Box 4364, Fresno, CA 93744; or they can call the station at 559-233-2221 during business hours and work out a method of payment.
For updates about the situation at KPFA, you can try the following Web sites: www.saveKPFA.org is supporting the fired workers, www.kpfaworker.org is the union site, www.pacifica.org is management’s Web site and www.supportKPFA.org is another site supportive of management.