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How the KPFA Morning Show almost killed me (and why I want it to live)

Brian Edwards-Tiekert assuming a typically optimistic pose.

About a year ago I was driving to work along the 17 freeway, which winds through the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, and listening to Brian Edwards-Tiekert on listener supported KPFA-FM in Berkeley’s Morning Show. He was interviewing someone about the political situation in Turkey, and how politics in that country affects women. It was just after seven AM.

The interview was so absorbing—serving up intricate and very personal details on how religious, ethnic, and gender issues inform Turkey’s tense political present. As a consequence, I forgot that I was navigating a very tricky section of the road, just after a rainstorm. The car lost control, and did a 360 degree spin over the lane.

Fortunately it was very early and there were no other vehicles around. I avoided the concrete dividers to my right and left. As Edwards-Tiekert’s guest offered an assessment of the latest Turkish election, I backed the car into the proper lane, and continued along my way, still listening.

On Tuesday I tuned into the Morning Show, and Brian’s co-host Aimee Allison was having an extended conversation with sports writer Dave Ziron on the World Series. The author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, Ziron explained why the “Red State/Blue State” metaphor for the San Francisco/Texas showdown glosses over less obvious dynamics of race and class.

I was heading west on the 85 freeway, which feeds into the 17. So wrapped up did I become in the discussion that I forgot where I was going and missed my exit. I didn’t realize this until my surroundings were completely unrecognizable.

These aren’t the worst Morning Show “freeway effect” stories. Back when KPFA was running its Winter Soldier investigation hearings on the Iraq war, my partner Sharon Wood was driving towards to the Golden Gate bridge to get to work. Allison and famed Iraq war reporter Aaron Glantz hosted the program.

Listening to the testimony by Iraq GIs, Sharon began to cry, then rear ended the SUV in front of her, wrecking her car.

Compassionate, youthful, always on top of their game, and equipped with bel canto interview voices—Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert are the best Morning Show that KPFA has ever had, and one of the best in public radio. Edwards-Tiekert is scary smart, yet a diplomat, even when he thinks he’s hearing something a bit dodgy. “You’ve sure done your homework, haven’t you,” a self-appointed expert on cellphone radiation conceded after a single question.

Allison is just a treasure. A former Army medic, she’s an anti-war activist and passionate advocate for her beloved city: Oakland, California. She exudes optimism and joy for life. She makes what she does sound easy, even though it is anything but.

On Tuesday, Aimee and Brian interviewed the two bureaucrats who could throw them off KPFA’s airwaves, and push the station into a long downward spiral.

Meet the new boss

Their names are Arlene Engelhardt, Executive Director of KPFA’s owner, the Pacifica Foundation, and LaVarn Williams, Pacifica’s Chief Financial Officer.

In her opening remarks, Engelhardt could not spare a single good word for KPFA’s current efforts, and instead got right into crux of her agenda. The operation is running on a deficit, and that’s bad. Staff cuts are coming. Big ones.

“[KPFA] was founded on the premise of listener donations, that listener donations would support a radio station, and also on the premise of volunteerism,” Engelhardt explained.

“And I think that’s one of the places where I think we’ve lost sight of our way, particularly at KPFA more so than at the other stations in the Pacifica network. We use less volunteers and pay more staff for functions that in some cases could be done by volunteers, than is happening at other stations in the network.

That’s one of the foundations of community radio, and I think that when times were, shall we say, fat, there was plenty of money, it was great to pay everyone for almost every function within the station. Now that we’re hitting some lean times, it’s time to remember what our foundation was, that was in volunteerism.”

I’ll say this for Pacifica’s new boss—through the ensuing chaotic argument over Pacifica’s budget, she held her ground (as opposed to the nervous Williams, who I thought quickly came undone).

That was a piece of it

Not that the discussion went that well for Engelhardt either. Allison asked how big staff reductions would lead to a healthier KPFA.

Engelhardt: Well, a healthier network means that we survive. And last year this station spent more than 900,000 more than it took in. That effectively ate up every penny of reserves that this station had. If this station had spent 300,000 more than it had, it could have spread those reserves over three years, and perhaps continued operating at the same level.

Edwards-Tiekert: To clarify that figure, almost 400,000.

Engelhardt: 900,000.

Edwards-Tiekert: Almost 400,000 of that 900,000 was an auditors adjustment.

Engelhardt: [pause] There was a piece of it that was an auditors adjustment because of a check that had never been deposited. So yes, that was a piece of it.

Edwards-Tiekert: So you’re not actually describing a 900,000 operating deficit.

Engelhardt: But there was a great deal of money that went into the operating deficit. This year that is looking to be over 400,000 dollars. And that’s no auditors adjustment, that’s just in plain real dollars.

900k, 400k, whatever—no doubt Engelhardt will get back to us on the right numbers. But when it comes to Pacifica history, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

KPFA wasn’t founded on the “premise of volunteerism.” In fact, it will probably amuse some readers to know that, by 1956, Pacifica founder Lewis Hill was accused by his rivals of hiring too many paid staff. Hill’s successor, Elsa Knight Thompson, was a stickler for professionalism, having cut her broadcasting teeth at the British Broadcasting Corporation during the Second World War.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of the concept of “community radio” that the premise of KPFA as a “volunteer” station gained traction, and not everybody looks back on that era with nostalgia.

“Volunteerism barely worked in the 1970s,” warns KPFA literature host Richard Wolinsky, “and it won’t work today.”

The big chance

Kirsten Thomas at a demonstration for Democracy Now in 1999

Morning Show Exec Producer Laura Prives

But plenty of those who do look back at the 1970s with nostalgia are still around, and they despise the KPFA Morning Show. They don’t like it because it has an executive producer named Laura Prives, who knows the difference between thinking and axe grinding,  an ace board-op named Kirsten Thomas, who is nobody’s fool, and skilled news reporter Aileen Alfandary, who has been standing them down for years.

And that last point is the bottom line. Mostly they hate the Morning Show  because it is not theirs—something that they can regularly get their soap box routines on, a program that I generically call the 911Truth-Vitamins-Cure-AIDS-Zionists-Control-the-World-Who-Really-Built-The-Pyramids Show.

These folks never really had a shot at bringing the Morning Show down until Pacifica radio started running governing board elections. Now they’ve got their own little political party, power on Pacifica’s National Board, and, I greatly fear, an Executive Director who is willing to do their bidding.

The fact that they lost the last election at KPFA doesn’t seem to have discouraged them. On the pretext of budgetary concerns, the Morning Show and everything that resembles it at KPFA must die die die.

The big question for me is what you do next. Are you going to let Pacifica flush Brian and Aimee and Mitch Jeserich and the rest of their generation of hope down the toilet? This isn’t 1956 or 1976—this is the Age of Broadband, the most competitive media environment that Pacifica radio has ever faced, and one that it can’t possibly stay afloat in with volunteers.

The next move is up to you. “Whose station? Our station!” you chanted eleven years ago when KPFA was shut down and almost sold. I wonder whether you’ll think it’s yours after Aimee and Brian are gone.

I sure won’t. For more information, go to KPFAworker.

Update (November 9)

Since I wrote this piece the whole staff of the Morning Show has been tanked. I regret not mentioning that Esther Manilla was also a producer for the program. Her accounting of recent events below:

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19 Responses to How the KPFA Morning Show almost killed me (and why I want it to live)

  1. chris stehlik October 31, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    The strange thing about Arlene Engelhardt’s claim for volunteerism is that not only is it off the mark, but she doesn’t seem to practice what she preaches.

    If you look at KPFA’s schedule, a vast majority of shows are already volunteer driven. About 75% of a 24hr broadcast day is already covered by volunteer hosts.

    A quick count of the schedule shows there are about 8 out of 65 shows that have paid hosts. Six daily and two weekly. This can’t be termed a surplus of paid shows no matter how you look at it.

    Secondly when you look at KPFA’s schedule and compare it with Ms. Engelhardt’s previous station WMNF in Tampa, Florida., some large similarities come out. She recently used WMNF as an analogy on volunteerism. Among the wide expanse of music shows, the public affairs shows seemed familiar. Democracy Now, Fresh Air, Alternative Radio with David Barsaminian and more, all have paid staff producing them. Amy Goodman, Terry Gross and Laura Flanders,while they are the best in the business and they are not, nor could not, be volunteers. Yet here they are on a community radio station that Arlene touts as a model.

    So it seems that what Arlene is not so much against programs with paid staff, but rather with locally produced programs with paid staff that live in the area. She seems to be quite fine with ‘outsourcing’ the paid radio from other places.

  2. policymaven October 31, 2010 at 2:45 pm #


  3. KPFA staffer October 31, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    More to the point: Arlene’s old station, WMNF, which she holds up as a model, has about half KPFA’s budget, and spends about $90,000 per year for outside programming (source: WMNF/Nathan B. Stubblefield 2009 IRS form 990 ). That’s their Pacifica affiliation fees plus whatever they’re paying for their NPR programming, combined.

    Under Arlene’s latest budget for KPFA, KPFA would pay Pacifica about $810,000 over the course of a year for a lot less programming than WMNF gets for its $90,000. More than half that $810,000 won’t go to programming: it will go to management and administrative expenses, like the costs of Pacifica’s board, its management salaries, and its attorneys–all of which produce almost nothing of value for KPFA.

    If KPFA were paying at the WMNF rate, it wouldn’t need to lay off anyone — but, of course, Pacifica owns KPFA, so it can squeeze as much money out of the station as it pleases.

  4. lily October 31, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent article. What is also disturbing is that KPFA’s board, staff and even local station management have all joined together to support an alternative “sustainable budget,” which includes many sensible cost-savings, but Pacifica’s honchos and national board seem to have rejected that solution. Instead, they are trying to wipe out anyone who has spoken out against this nonsense, using layoffs as their tool. Simply unconscionable.

  5. mal burnstein October 31, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    If you value what you hear on the station, please do two things: support the station financially; and write to Ms. Englehardt and tell her to adopt the alternative budget and minimize the cuts.

  6. Alison Cecile November 1, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    i see on Facebook that Weyland (Hard Knock Radio) is gone – so the pink slips have been handed out. what will KPFA sound like now?

  7. KPFA staffer November 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Pink slips haven’t been handed out yet — local management offered an incentive package for people to take voluntary layoffs, and today is the deadline. Weyland and a couple others took them up on it.

    The big cuts are still to come.

  8. suzanne adler November 2, 2010 at 4:26 am #

    As someone who listens to KPFA and has worked in radio for many years I have to say I agree with Mr. Lasar that having the best producers possible on KPFA or any radio station is absolutely necessary to developing listeners. However I disagree with Matthew Lasar that the Morning Show is the best on KPFA although it should be given how much money they have to produce good radio. Somehow we have confused professional with paid. And the presumption that unpaid staff members don’t produce any good radio demonstrates to me that the author of this piece is more about politics then professionalism and good judgment. There are many good shows on KPFA done by dedicated and professional radio producers who are unfortunately unpaid and unappreciated including the Voices of the Middle East and Africa Today both shows that are hosted and produced by people with far superior expertise to the hosts of the Morning Show. It is laughable to say Aimee Aillson makes what she does sound easy – since Aimee doesn’t even prepare for her interviews and her producers write all her questions, which she simply reads. She had no experience in radio prior to KPFA and has little political experience or knowledge, which is obvious if you really listened to the show you love. And Brian may be well prepared but he has about as much political morals as the funder’s of the Tea Party so it really makes it difficult to develop any trust of his judgment, something that is essential in radio since we are relying on these shows to present us some semblance of the truth or at least a perspective we can give credence to. No one wants budge cuts at KPFA. But they have to be done given the financial situation at KPFA and legally personnel cuts are suppose to be done according to the union contract by seniority. I didn’t hear you complaining when Hard knock Radio was on the block to be cut. So seems like what you are really saying is you don’t want your friends cut even though they were the last hired? So unless you have a solution for the financial problems at KPFA please try and be at least vaguely balanced in your journalism. Cause your lack of balance on this issue makes it hard to take your opinion seriously as well.

  9. Adrienne November 2, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    Oh the hype and snipe.

    KPFA has been running at a deficit for a long time. It continues to spend more than it can raise. Cuts have to be made. The union contract has seniority rules. There’s not a lot of choices here.

    The “sustainable budget” sounds good and some of the ideas seem reasonable, but it doesn’t save enough money and most of the ideas are not immediately practical for one reason or another.

    To attack Arlene Engelhardt is just weird. The Pacifica national office already made deep cuts and now it’s broke because of stations, including KPFA, who are not paying their share of the common costs including FSRN and Democracy Now! Everybody has a payroll. There’s great staff people all over the network.

    Pacifica Managers, Arlene and LaVarn are not magicians, they can’t make money appear out of the air. KPFA is borrowing from other stations to make its payroll. Calling out the troops to defend truth, justice and the Morning Show from Evil Pacifica doesn’t make sense.

    It’s not about whether there is a tradition of volunteerism or not. Some of the folks who built KPFA’s studio were volunteers. (Ask the wives. They also served.) There’s volunteers at KPFA now. Trying to recruit more volunteers when you need help is an obvious option. So is bringing in well-produced programs that are not done locally. What are others?

    KPFA once had a million dollar reserve fund. At that time, these changes and cuts could have been done with minimal impact on programming and listeners. Now…. well, some of my favorite people and programs are going to take a hit.

    That’s what happens after years of poor management, divisive power brokers and a national economic meltdown. It’s sad. Many people at KPFA have already lost their jobs or been cut in hours. I feel for them, and for others to come.

  10. rick sterling November 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    What is the MEDIUM TERM SOLUTION to this crisis? We need to significantly EXPAND the KPFA listener audience and support base. This is completely achievable and we now have a volunteer KPFA Outreach Committee which is working toward that. KPFA Outreach can and should bring in bring in thousands of new listener supporters.

    What do we do in the SHORT TERM, the next few months? We need to significantly reduce expenses. Yes it is difficult times and yes there need to be painful cuts.

    I agree with Mathew about Morning Show. I have listened for decades and think it is a fine program with talented hosts. Day after day they do a great job. I am also a fan of Flashpoints and of course DN. it is absolutely GOOD to have a variety of programs and perspectives – some more informative, some more hard hitting.

    That said, until we can bring in more listeners and money the hard reality is that major spending cuts need to be made. Give management a chance please. Arlene Engelhardt comes to her position recommended by a guy who knows KPFA as well as anyone – Jim Bennett. Let management work with the union and staff and figure out a real way to turn the economics around.

    Refusing to accept any management, jeopardizing the station or trying to foment an “anti-Pacifica” crusade is not progressive or helpful. Claiming you are out to “save” KPFA is a major distortion.

    In the times ahead we absolutely need KPFA. We need to expand the audience and public support. Give us some time. In the short term we need more cooperation, less factionalism, and more willingness to take a cut for the larger good. Yes, that means management too.

    – Rick

  11. lily November 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Rick – Please don’t claim that staff/supporters are “refusing to accept any management.” That’s ridiculous. KPFA’s local management supported the staff’s sustainable budget (which you can find at, as did KPFA’s local board. It is Pacifica management that overruled them. Pacifica’s executive director is apparently taking her marching orders from the lame duck Pacifica board, who don’t seem to have KPFA’s listeners’ best-interests at heart.

    And Suzanne, yes, of course, KPFA’s unpaid staff mostly do a wonderful job and are quite professional. Professionalism has nothing to do with being paid. The vast majority of the stations’ programming is already hosted by unpaid staff. Some hosts are better than others, however. The Voices of the Middle East program had Noam Chomsky on a while back and accused him of being a “zionist.”

  12. mal burnstein November 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    If management were willing to work with staff and the local board, that would be great. But Ms. Engelhardt has refused to do that, dismissing out of hand the staff/union suggestions without even a discussion, although they were adopted by the local board. She has likewise dismissed my request, on behalf of the new local board majority, to meet with the local board and discuss these very issues before staff cuts are made. Once people are dismissed it is very hard to redo the damage that is sure to result. That is neither progressive nor helpful.


  13. KPFA staffer November 3, 2010 at 10:06 pm #


    I don’t think anyone’s disputing that expenses have to be reduced somewhere. The question is where. Cutting the Morning Show, for instance, is counterproductive–as its fundraising during fund drives totals three times its cost. Wouldn’t it be better for the Pacifica National Board to its move its quarterly meetings, which ran over $110,000 this year, from expensive hotel conference centers to telephone conference calls? Couldn’t the Pacifica National Office, which is asking KPFA to pay it $810,000 this fiscal year, look to its own expenses?

    The Pacifica National Office doesn’t do any fundraising of its own to speak of, doesn’t produce any programming in-house, but according to their tax filings, their payroll includes five–count ’em, five–positions that earn more than anyone employed at KPFA–including KPFA’s managers.

    Meanwhile, five of KPFA’s workers have offered to go on Medicare, to save the station an estimated $30,000 per year on benefit expenses–as long as KPFA reimburses the difference in co-pays. But Pacifica’s now rejected that proposal–the least controversial one the union put on the table. They just don’t seem to be using any good faith to explore alternatives to layoffs.

  14. davehart November 3, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    Perhaps it would be helpful if someone out there could suggest what value Pacifica Foundation actually provides. I hear from some here that it provides no value. I assume others would say something to the contrary. $810K is significant money that I assume comes from those of us who dutifully send the station cash on a monthly basis.

  15. Maureen Gosling November 3, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    I’m a longtime listener (since the ’70s) of KPFA. It’s my water in the desert every day, as I know it is for many people. Especially now, it is going to be extremely important for it to be there to quench my/our thirst for alternative news, music, public affairs. I don’t know all the details of the internal struggles. I know it’s been going on for years, as people have tried to deal with all of the political, personal and financial pressures it takes to run the station. I have learned that there are PBS stations that are planning to leave the PBS fold. KCET is the first. What this says to me, in combination with the problems at KPFA and Pacifica, is that we are in for a lot of breaking apart and dissolution of public interest institutions we have built up and come to depend on – that is, unless we hang in there through this economic crisis in our country. How can we all pull together in all of this and come up with equitable and reasonable solutions without pulling apart the very fabric of programs that are so vital, paid and unpaid?

  16. lily November 5, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    Please have a look at this very interesting short video from yesterday’s rally at KPFA. It helps frame the questions and the answers.

  17. Terry Goodman November 7, 2010 at 6:06 am #

    Davhart says:

    “Perhaps it would be helpful if someone out there could suggest what value Pacifica Foundation actually provides.”

    The Pacifica Foundation’s National Office, which cut its staff to the bone years ago when KPFA delayed cuts, provides the central administrative services that allow the stations and network to operate. It coordinates and corrects the periodic FCC and CPB filings that allow Pacifica to keep its licenses and maintain grant funding (and which the individual stations occasionally muck up). It handles national budgeting, accounting, and all payroll (since the individual stations occasionally muck up). It provides the Human Resources function to insure compliance with fair employment practices (since the individual stations tend to muck up). It provides legal representation and negotiates contracts and settlement agreements (since the individual stations may muck up, and several Pacifica employees and former employees have sued). It maintains the Pacifica network’s technical infrastructure, including websites, satellite links, online archives, etc.; and it services the Pacifica National Board, providing periodic reports and finalizing meeting arrangements.

    The Pacifica National Board, which is all-volunteer, hasn’t provided much return on investment, since it is untrained, factionalized, and frequently derailed. The Board’s main accomplishment has been deciding upon the Foundation’s paid executive leadership, which is an essential function. The Boards also provide a safety-valve service as a non-broadcast forum for the airing of complaints that might otherwise spill onto the air more frequently.

    Outsiders can’t get very far in attempting to understand Pacifica’s internal squabbles, because the factions frequently lie to themselves and to the public and misapply slogans to rally support. Staff has little understanding of or concern for the problems facing management, management (which must constantly deal with the blowback and residue of staff-created problems) has a distorted view of staff’s real value and accomplishments, and Pacifica’s continuously manipulated governance doesn’t really receive the information needed to govern.

  18. mal burnstein November 7, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    Maybe we should all cut the hype in this debate. No one denies that KPFA needs to make some cuts. The questions are: how much needs to be cut; where should the cuts come; and who should decide. The budget rejected by the Pacifica board made certain assumptions that one can accept or reject. They did not call for eliminating the Foundation. They did, however, call for the Foundation share the financial pain of this economy by crediting KPFA for the value of the Pacifica offices as the Foundation does to KPFK; spreading out repayment of arrears over 3 year instead of demanding payment in one year; and allowing for reduced costs of employees who could get health care from a spouse.

    These are not revolutionary requests and they should not have been dismissed out of hand! One senses a political, rather then financial, decision making process on the Foundation board. One can go further of course. Foundation costs of meetings are ridiculous in these economic times. People should not be flown around the country and put up at hotels when video-conferencing is available. Executive salaries should be reduced before staff cuts at the stations to avoid killing the various geese that feed the Foundations coffers.

    These things seem like simple truths; they do not attack the Foundation any more then station cuts attack the stations. But we should not lose sight of the obvious fact that the Foundation is to serve the stations; not vice-versa! Think of a school. In lean times, if the administration is saved at the expense of the classrooms, you have no school left.

    Why, then, should this be pictured as an attack on Pacifica? Or on “management?” It is merely an attempt to save the core of the entire enterprise by spreading out the economic pain. Those who resist that discussion risk turning it into something else. If the only way to save the integrity of the station is to go to war against the Foundation, don’t be surprised if that happens.

  19. donnyg1941 November 7, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    It should be noted that on Friday night the Pacifica National Board voted 10-7 to make the cuts at KPFA. That means KPFA has support among 7 PNB members, and will have more when new members take office in December. And that is what terrifies those who want to make KPFA an all volunteer station.

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