KPFA Radio Meltdown

94.1 FM battles budget cuts, layoffs, program rejiggering, and now, boycotts.

KPFA had to make some cutbacks.

Beset by recession woes and budget cuts from its parent funder, the Pacifica Foundation, KPFA announced last week that it would have to take some drastic measures. In a letter posted on the station’s web site, general manager Lemlem Rigio announced 20 percent reductions across the board, plus some additional trimming to make the cost of each program commensurate with its income. Around the same time, managers decided to rejigger the schedule to increase listenership. It seemed like a smart business move, even though several staff members and managers would have to take a pay cut. Two paid staffers were laid off and one lost half her hours, but from a managerial perspective, the collateral damage was minimal. Nonetheless, the changes created an uproar at KPFA.

Technically, the first casualty was an all-volunteer program called Music of the World, which got the hatchet about a month before actual budget cuts were announced. Run by five programmers with immense knowledge of global cultures and folkloric music, it aired from 10 a.m. to noon every weekday. Listener stats on the web site show a huge drop-off at that time (roughly 22,000 people, according to a graph that compares KPFA’s cumulative listener patterns to that of other public radio stations). Part of the problem was that Music of the World comes on right after Amy Goodman’s news show Democracy Now, which is unquestionably the most popular show on the station. Listenership peaks at 9 a.m. when a politically-minded talk radio audience tunes in for Goodman’s show, and plummets right at 10 a.m. To an observer, it seems right to relegate Music of the World to an evening slot where it might find its own audience.

But try telling that to Music of the World producer (and professional didgeridoo player) Stephen Kent. On November 26, Kent sent out a mass e-mail to announce that Music of the World had suddenly lost 60 percent of its airtime, going from a two-hour weekday slot to a one-hour show, four days a week. The show had been chopped without notice, said Kent, who blamed the station’s lack of commitment to music and the arts, and predicted more drastic cuts to come. Sure, the move had coincided with a major financial crisis at KPFA, and been “dressed up” as a necessary change, Kent said. Yet he believed, contrary to KPFA management, that move was entirely political. “I can’t see a single one-hour music broadcast … in a day that is otherwise completely dominated by wall-to-wall talk radio programming … being a priority in the minds of those who make the programming policy at KPFA,” he wrote. Kent also noted that management had replaced the first hour of Music of the World with a political talk radio program called Letters to Washington, which deals with current events. This meant one chunk taken from the music pie at KPFA, and inserted into the news pie.

Yet, talk radio hosts had similar complaints when the cuts hit them, too. As promised, Rigio and fellow managers slashed each program by 20 percent, but made further cuts to shows that apparently weren’t pulling their weight with fund-raising. The youth-oriented hip-hop show Hard Knock Radio suffered one layoff, as did Flashpoints, a left-wing political talk show that airs every weekday at 5 p.m. The news program lost two staffers who were not replaced, (including occasional East Bay Express contributor Eric Klein). Most programs took the cuts in stride, having known a year in advance that budget cuts were coming. Some were visibly disheartened. News producer Aileen Alfandary says she wasn’t at all surprised by Kent’s letter campain, given its many historical antecedents. A couple decades ago an underperforming punk program got removed from the air under similar circumstances. Its producers recruited a bunch of friends to descend on KPFA in a flatbed truck, and stage a musical protest.

But few people were as outspoken as Flashpoints producers Dennis Bernstein and Nora Barrows-Friedman. After her hours were cut in half, Barrows-Friedman released an open statement sent to various media outlets, including the Express. “This was an ambush,” she wrote, describing a December 11 meeting with Rigio. Barrows-Friedman had arrived at the meeting expecting to discuss her diminishing staff and added workload. Instead, Rigio said she was going down to part-time. “I believe this was a violation of the union contract because a shop steward was not present,” Barrows-Friedman wrote. “I am filing a grievance as we speak.”

Flashpoints staged a protest outside KPFA on Thursday afternoon, after a dramatic union meeting in which both parties aired out their beefs. By this time, Barrows-Friedman had circulated a petition arguing for the complete restoration of Flashpoints. She asked that signatories agree to decline interviews with KPFA, prohibit the station from airing their prior work, and refuse to donate their books, CDs, or DVDs to be used as premiums during fund drives. The petition garnered signatures from Howard Zinn, Dahr Jamail, Anthony Arnove, Dr. Richard Falk, and Peter Phillips. It was a great show of street cred. But to other staff members at KPFA, Barrows-Friedman had exacerbated divisions at the station.

Part of what got KPFA in trouble in the first place was its lack of cohesion — the sense of it being a cluster of self-interested departments, rather than a group of people working for the collective good. Competition is stiff for airtime, and for good day-time slot, let alone for the few paid staff positions that KPFA offers (at present, the station is majority volunteer-run). Not surprisingly, those who have enviable spots are very protective of them. After Letters to Washington host Mitch Jeserich argued that Flashpoints has the lowest listening audience of KPFA’s “drive time” programs (the online metrics show that Flashpoints peaked out at 125 listeners last Friday, in comparison to 160 for the evening news that followed), Flashpoints executive producer Dennis Bernstein accused Jeserich, in another mass e-mail, of muscling for his slot. Jeserich takes exception to that, saying that he’s quite happy at the 10 a.m. hour, which now has roughly the same amount of online listeners (225 on Monday, December 21) as Democracy Now. Meanwhile, Jeserich has to deflect allegations that he’s part of the conspiracy to annihilate world music at KPFA.

From a business standpoint it makes sense to maximize one’s listening audience, even if it requires program reshuffling. Moreover, a cost-benefit analysis shows that some programs earned more than others. A glance at KPFA’s September 2009 pledge drive stats shows that Flashpoints raised $45,811, against the morning show’s $181,881. (If you consider the fact that the morning show gets two hours of air time verses Flashpoints’ one, that’s still a 2:1 ratio). “At this point,” said Alfandary, “Flashpoints, with the cuts, still has more staff per hour. More than the morning show, which is a much more popular and listened-to program. More than Letters to Washington, which is a more popular and listened-to program — even though it’s brand new.”

Perhaps the real question is how did a small, progressive outpost manage to stave off recession woes for so long? Fund-raising has declined from its 2006 peak of $783, 618. According to a 2009 “State of the Station” report on KPFA’s web site, 2008 saw only $666,222. Still, KPFA managed to meet its fund-raising goals year after year, thanks to the heroic efforts of a few, combined with a slight lowering of the bar. Once the new budget year begins, station employees have reason to be cautiously optimistic — if only they could curb the efforts of a couple people who want to boycott their own station. After all, it seems counterintuitive to tell listeners not to donate, especially during a budget crisis. It’s unclear whether the Flashpoints petition will accomplish anything positive, but it might increase layoffs.