Through the 1940s, a generation of Americans were inspired by the progressive rhetoric of the Democratic Party’s New Deal, which expanded the size of government to improve the nation, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s universal promises of the Four Freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship). World War II veteran Lewis Hill was inspired by the era. Hill had witnessed New Dealers defend diversity and community voices in radio through federal government enforced limitations on media ownership with the Communication Act of 1934. Keeping in that spirit, Hill co-founded KPFA, the first listener-supported radio station in the United States, and later the Pacifica Foundation Radio network which he headed until his suicide in 1957. KPFA is one of the five independently operated, non-commercial, listener-supported radio stations on the Pacifica Network.
KPFA’s mission statement, written in part by Hill, promises “cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression…a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors, To promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints, To maintain an independent funding base.” Sadly by 2014, KPFA is straying from its mission due in large part to a cadre of people who pursue personal profit and largely ignore the millennial generation, those born between 1982-2004.The behavior of this cadre is undermining the work of KPFA’s volunteers, staff, and commitment to diversity. Their malfeasances have led to a divide at the station that is collectively threatening KPFA’s existence.
On March 19, 2014, I attended a talk from Dr. Peter Dale Scott hosted by KPFA at the Hillside Club in Berkley. Even at his increasing age, Scott still has a sharp mind only rivaled by his wit and knowledge. KPFA event planners gathered a profitable, but not terribly diverse audience for Scott. The crowd was nearly filled with older white people. College students without tickets were being turned away at the door from the sold out event. KPFA charged $15 tickets to see Scott, which is expensive for many college students. Furthermore, even if students avoided the sell out and bought tickets in advance (online) for $12, it carried a $13.41 service fee bringing the total to $25.41.
KPFA’s decision to turn away college students is at odds with their mission of “pluralistic community expression.” Student Alisha Gaines-Sherman of Ohlone College drove from Fremont, CA to the event after making arrangements for her 13-year-old son and full time job. Commenting on being turned away at the door, she explained “I felt intimidated…the majority of the crowd was older, experienced men and women. When I was denied entry, it felt like a secret club, who was not looking for new members,…” Fellow Ohlone student Yanyu Zheng took BART from Fremont to Berkeley to see the event and said she felt “rejected.” Student Berna Palavra of Las-Positas College in Livermore, CA drove from Dublin, CA and was denied entry by a woman collecting tickets. Palavra explained that the woman “was rude about it and told me I should have got my tickets earlier…” Las Positas student Christopher Hall drove from Livermore, CA and after passing through the “congregating elderly people” was denied access.
Much of KPFA’s programming rallies against exclusion and greed in contemporary society. However, greedy KPFA event planners denied access to a sector of the community they purport to serve: college students festering for knowledge. The very same day of the Scott event, libertarian United States Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke across town at University of California, Berkeley with the exact same entrance fee of $15. However, in a stark irony, the libertarian pro-capitalist event was more inclusive than KPFA’s event. Tickets for Paul’s event allowed “Berkeley students, staff, and faculty FREE.” It is a glaring sign of KPFA’s recent problematic nature that events centered on champions of the for profit model, like Rand Paul, offer college students more access to information in Berkley, than KPFA.
KPFA could argue their event fees are what enable their large budget, but that would ignore the reckless and costly money management of KPFA. Bob Baldock, who organized the Scott event, has been KPFA’s events manager for 26 years. He earns half time pay for the full time job of events manager. He and his volunteers, control certain venues, such as the Hillside Club in Berkeley which has refused to deal with anyone else at KPFA. Baldock claims he sends event money to the station as well as the visual and audio from events which is used for premiums. Premiums are items such as DVDs which are sold by KPFA hosts and staff to raise money for the station. However, inefficient book keeping at KPFA prevents a verification of Baldock’s claim. Tracy Rosenberg, who sat on Pacifica’s National Board from 2010-2014, claims to have found $70,000 in KPFA event funds missing. She was told that it was missing because people were slow to enter it. However, after 5 months it had still not been entered. By January 2014, she found that the money from 27 events had not been entered into the general account for KPFA. Baldock argues that the missing money claim is “bullshit,” noting that “KPFA accounting, book keeping, and management never contacted me about missing funds.” However, Rosenberg claims that Baldock threatened to quit if a checklist for tracking KPFA events funds was required.
Baldock’s supposed money mismanagement is part of a larger economic problem that is threatening KPFA. The budget problems within the Pacifica Network are linked to KPFA. KPFA has about $3 million of Pacifica’s $13 million budget. However, Pacifica is losing money: they owe Amy Goodman and Democracy Now thousands of dollars, $7million of their $13 million is in an unknown location, and their New York station WBAI is losing about $50,000 a month after a hurricane destroyed their studio costing them 2/3 of their employees. The fights over how to properly address the money problems at KPFA has led to two groups dominating their governing board: SAVE KPFA(formerly “Concerned Listeners”), who want a more NPR like national station and SUPPORT KPFA who want a more local and grassroots station.
However, some of the economic woes faced at KPFA are self-inflicted. Rosenberg explained that “There is a general perception around the station that some people fix numbers.” Baldock disagrees, claiming to have “never heard of any malfeasance at KPFA, just some rumors about Pacifica…There are no malfeasance going on at KPFA.” However, insiders at KPFA claim that staff members including business managers are reported to have brought files home to manipulate data. Similarly, it is reported that hosts falsely increase their reported fund drive earning to justify their access to a certain broadcast timeslot. According to witnesses and a never released internal report, hosts manipulate and inflate donor data by altering fund drive amounts, steal pledges from other shows, have fake callers pledge donations, and deliver checks to the wrong shows. One host told me off the record that “Corruption is so wide it may take down all of KPFA”because the “books are so cooked they cannot get a rational audit, and everyone is working for themselves.” However, blogger Ed Manfredonia claims Rosenberg is using KPFA’s money problems to distract from Pacifica’s missing money.
Individuals trying to reconcile accounting fraud have been removed from KPFA. Executive Director of Pacifica Foundation, Summer Reese was fired the day before she was supposed to receive KPFA’s accounting books. Public funding is given to radio stations like KPFA depending upon their budget and the strength of their radio signal. However, KPFA missed its deadline to receive public funding after it could not produce its budget for events and fund drives. All Pacifica stations turned them over except KPFA, costing the entire network over $1 million. Reese was fired in a late night vote with three people missing, shortly after the Save KPFA faction got a one vote majority on the board. KPFA member Chandra Hauptman claimed that with the firing, members of the “national board are attempting to consolidate their power with reckless disregard of the consequences.” The firing prompted 400 people at KPFA to sign a petition in support of her. Sonoma County attorney Carol Spooner called the firing a “gross abuse of their authority.” Reese’s contract guaranteed her $300,000 if fired without reason. Reese has been occupying national headquarters in Berkeley in protest of her firing, but refuses to sue Pacifica since it has enough economic problems.
A minority of KPFA members have focused on personal profit while ignoring the generational changes which threaten to decrease their audience size. The time for KPFA to veil its behavior as an extension of the 1960s free speech movement is vanishing as Berkley is increasingly gentrified and KPFA brims with selfish figures. The youth are not feeling welcomed by KPFA, which claims to serve their community. Rosenberg who is in her fifties says “the station is responsive to people 15 years older than me.” Baldock, when asked if KPFA serves the community responded “I do not like the phrase ‘the community’ because everyone has a different conception of what ‘the community’ is.” Regardless, the narrow-minded and self-interested few at KPFA are collectively undermining the station. Furthermore, infighting between factions serves the interest of the plutocracy who own 90% of media and welcome the demise of progressive stations like KPFA. The small, but disruptive members of KPFA who undermine Hill’s commitment to the community need to leave the station for the good of the community. The majority that remain and the replacements which will be needed can better serve the interests and concerns of KPFA’s diverse community no matter which generation they come from.