What the *%&@ Is Going on at KPFA?

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Pacifica Removes Morning Show, Fires Hosts

Talking about KPFA is a little like asking someone, “So, what’s up in the Balkans and why are these people fighting?”—Conn Hallinan

KPFA in Berkeley provides KFCF 88.1 FM in Fresno with most of its content, making it what many in the progressive community say is an oasis in an island of commercial and corporate media. There is a concern that the infighting taking place at KPFA will destroy the station and leave KFCF struggling for its own survival.

What if you turned on your radio to listen to your favorite show only to discover that the hosts had been fired and the show cancelled? That’s what happened to KPFA and KFCF listeners last month when KPFA’s parent, the Pacifica Foundation, cancelled the “Morning Show.”

Not only has the show been removed from the air for the moment, but co-hosts Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert were also summarily dismissed. They must have done something pretty bad to deserve such treatment, right? Wrong. Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt, who instigated the firings, told me it has nothing to do with job performance or with any other behaviors on their part—it is simply a cost-cutting move.

The move has proved to be highly controversial, not only in KPFA’s listening area but here in central California as well. People want to know what happened to their favorite show. The “Morning Show,” carried here locally on KFCF, was KPFA’s most popular locally produced program. The show has been broadcast during morning drive time, 7 a.m.–9 a.m., for more than 30 years. In fact, Edwards-Tiekert says he believes that this is the first time in KPFA’s 61-year history that there has not been a locally produced show on the air during morning drive time.

How deep is the financial hole?

The cancellation and firings raise all sorts of perplexing questions. Let’s start with the financial issues. There seems to be general agreement that KPFA and Pacifica are in serious financial trouble, but that is where the consensus ends. It turns out that it is not easy to find out how deep a hole KPFA and Pacifica are in.

In public statements defending the firings, Englehardt said that KPFA lost a million dollars last year and was on track to lose another half million dollars this year. The union, Local 9415 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), complains that there is no easy way for the public to check Englehardt’s figures for accuracy. Despite a long-term commitment and frequent promises to post its financial statements on the Pacifica Web site, as of mid-November Engelhardt had not been able to make that happen. She apologized on air for that failing but said that she had been dealing with other, more pressing issues.

Having access to the numbers is no small matter, as estimates of the deficit vary wildly. The union tried submitting an alternative budget that would save the station $250,000 without making staff cuts. Pacifica rejected the proposal; the CWA says Pacifica never gave it serious consideration and has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Anthony Fest, weekend news anchor for KPFA, makes the financial case for the cuts this way. “Reducing the payroll is a necessary move. In the last two years, KPFA spent much more than it took in. Now the station’s savings are gone, so there’s no alternative but to balance the budget.”

Why pick the “Morning Show”?

Assuming for the moment that big cuts were necessary, the next question that arises is why cut that particular show and why lay off those particular staff people? Here is where things get rather confusing.

Bonnie Simmons at a picket in support of KPFA’s workers on November 4.

The “Morning Show” is a huge money maker for the station. It brings in more money during pledge drives than any other locally produced show, accounting for nearly 25% of the funds raised. No one is disputing this. The obvious question then is, why cancel your most profitable show during hard economic times?

In a way, the “Morning Show” helps subsidize some of the shows that lose money. Some shows, such as “Hard Knock Radio,” which targets youth, is highly unlikely to ever be self-supporting. No one is suggesting that “Hard Knock Radio” be cut; it is a valuable show that serves an underserved audience. However, to keep airing shows that can’t pay their own way there have to be other shows that generate a surplus; the “Morning Show” was a prime example of that. To the critics of the cuts, something about all of this seems terribly backward.

Engelhardt has defended her decision in radio interviews—on KQED in San Francisco, KPFK in Los Angeles and on KPFA itself. She says that the morning drive time is the most profitable fund-raising time for any listener-supported radio station, and she expects that pattern to continue into the future when a new show comes on line.

The second part of that assertion—that a replacement show could bring in money just as well as the “Morning Show” has done—is vehemently disputed by others. Bonnie Simmons, a volunteer programmer and host of a Thursday night music show, told me that expecting a replacement show to bring in comparable amounts of money to what the old hosts were raising “contradicts everything I know from my 40 years in radio.” She elaborated by saying, “You can’t expect a replacement show to immediately command the fund-raising dollars that a show which has been on air for a long time does.”

Conflicting accounts of why the “Morning Show” was targeted

One explanation for why the “Morning Show” was selected for elimination has to do with the staff people involved. Engelhardt told me the show was cut because its co-hosts, Edwards-Tiekert and Allison, have the lowest seniority of any hosts on KPFA, and she was just going by seniority. That statement is in dispute. Edwards-Tiekert told me that he has seniority over at least four other staff not let go.

Engelhardt responds to that charge by saying that seniority only applies within designated job categories and that the hosts being fired cannot do the jobs of producers or news people. Edwards-Tiekert responded by pointing out that he is an experienced producer, has produced shows for KPFA and for Pacifica national broadcasts, and has even trained people to be producers. Furthermore, he has also worked in the news department. Options for Edwards-Tiekert to move into any of those other positions were not explored with him before he received his layoff notice.

There are more issues. Engelhardt, who is not part of the station, has frozen out local KPFA managers from crucial decision making. She decided on the layoffs on her own, without even informing KPFA’s interim general manager or assistant general manager.

These moves have alienated a lot of the station’s staff, both paid and unpaid. There is criticism of Engelhardt for taking out the entire staff of a single show rather than spreading the cuts around among several shows. Philip Maldari, current host of the “Sunday Show” was host of the “Morning Show” for 23 years. He is also a union steward. He says it was Engelhardt who decided to take out the people of the “Morning Show,” which he calls a mistake because “you shouldn’t decimate one program.”

The whole situation is rather baffling to outside observers. For example, the cuts came right on the eve of a two-day fund drive for the station; the fund drive had to be postponed because of the controversy. How does this help the station’s finances? Go figure.

Could KPFA go all volunteer?

Neither the budgetary nor the seniority arguments seem adequate to explain what is happening. There appears to be something else going on behind the scenes—namely people’s concerns about whether the station is moving in a good direction or a bad direction. As I spoke with a number of the people involved, I noticed that a common theme began to emerge. It has to do with the role of paid staff and of unpaid staff. There is a serious difference of opinion over whether to move the station in the direction of having fewer paid staff, replacing them with volunteers. Opponents of moving in that direction fear a loss of professionalism.

For the most part, this debate is not confronted head on; instead, people dance around the subject a bit. For example, no one on the side that supports the staff cuts will come right out and say that they think the station should go all volunteer. In fact, when asked that question directly, they all say that having a paid staff is essential. The disagreement is over how many paid staff there should be. They say that the station is undervaluing its unpaid staff, not fully appreciating what volunteers can do and not creating enough opportunities for them to take on new roles at the station. In a roundabout way, they are saying that unpaid staff might be able to take over some of the duties of paid staff, enabling the station to lay off paid staff and cut costs. In other words, fire some paid people and take up the slack by putting more volunteers to work.

A strong supporter of the cuts is Tracy Rosenberg. She is a member of both the station board and the Pacifica board; in the past, she has held both a paid position and volunteer positions with the station. She argues that cutting paid staff is a necessity in these hard times. However, she also says that KPFA could not function as an all-volunteer operation. She pointed out to me that even after the voluntary and involuntary layoffs that have happened so far, the station still has more than 30 paid staff.

The case for placing the emphasis on professional staff

On the other side, those who object to removing the “Morning Show” and firing its hosts do not speak of covering all jobs with paid staff. They speak highly of the contributions that unpaid staff make to the station. They are not against volunteers. However, they believe that most of the jobs done by paid staff require huge investments of time, far more than could be expected of volunteers. Furthermore, the crucial positions held by paid staff require a mix of skills that only professionals are likely to have.

I was able to speak at length with Conn Hallinan, one of the critics of the cuts. Hallinan is himself a professional journalist who formerly ran the journalism program at UC Santa Cruz. Currently, he is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus and is a member (and former chair) of the KPFA station board. He knows first-hand what is required to produce good journalism.

Hallinan says the station needs to learn how to make good use of both paid and unpaid staff—what he calls being able to walk and chew bubblegum. For him, professionalism is key. He says KPFA needs to put out high-quality programming that can compete with other professional media. It requires a big time commitment to put together a quality program like the “Morning Show” day in and day out. He says he supports community programming as well, but “for the morning and evening news shows you need people who have been well trained.”

Hallinan and other opponents of the cuts seem to be saying that reducing professional staff endangers KPFA by crippling its ability to produce high-quality professional journalism. They see that trend as something that must be reversed at all costs.

Is this the beginning of a downward spiral?

Certain things are clear. The controversy is going to hurt the station financially, at least in the short run. Planned on-air fund-raising has been postponed. When the fired “Morning Show” hosts are eventually replaced with other hosts, lingering resentment among fans of Edwards-Tiekert and Allison might hamper fund-raising during morning drive time—the most important period. If station revenues take a plunge, it likely will be used as an argument for cutting even more of the paid staff, which could lead to a vicious downward spiral.

Larry Bensky, former national affairs correspondent for Pacifica, came out of retirement to share his thoughts on the situation. On a KQED radio show with Engelhardt, Bensky summed it up this way: “You take away the program that raises the most money, that has the best fundamental journalistic approach to what’s needed…a potential audience expander, and you lay off the people and you decimate it. That seems to me a very short-sighted and a very foolish thing to do.”

Or, as David Gans, a volunteer programmer put it to me, “It is suicidal to take a show like the ‘Morning Show’ off the air with nothing to replace it.”

Implications for Fresno

Those of us here in the Valley watching all of this from afar feel a bit helpless. It is hard for us to influence what goes on in Berkeley. Our own community radio station, KFCF, is somewhat at risk. The general manager of KFCF, Rych Withers, says that more than 90% of KFCF’s revenues come from the on-air fund-raising done by KPFA, and 20%–25% of that is raised during morning drive time. If those revenues fall precipitously in Berkeley, the fallout for our local station could be huge. Withers estimates the problems in Berkeley might cause a drop in revenue of around $17,000 for KFCF just in November and December—an amount equaling about 10% of the station’s annual budget. Withers said some subscribers are asking him how to donate directly to the station without the funds passing through Berkeley. He is working on setting up a procedure to facilitate that.

Meanwhile, “Morning Show” fans in the Fresno area are out of luck. Right now, the time slot is being filled by two programs from KPFK in Los Angeles—over the objections of the hosts of those shows, by the way. Engelhardt says this is only a temporary situation until something like the “Morning Show” can be restored to the air. In the meantime, the listenership at that hour is probably dwindling. It is hard to see how all of this will not do some permanent damage to both stations.

Unfortunately, as Hallinan said to me, all of this is happening as a result of “a war that doesn’t need to be a war.” Once again, we see the left shooting itself in the foot.

For updates about the situation, go to kpfaworker.org to see the union’s side of the story and to pacifica.org to see management’s side of the story (although the Pacifica site is rather slow with the updates).