An All-Volunteer KPFA: A Recipe for Disaster

On Tuesday, October 26th, 2010, on the KPFA Morning Show, Arlene Engelhardt, Executive Director of the Pacifica Foundation, made the curious comment that (to paraphrase) KPFA needed to get back to its volunteer roots. The wording was vague enough to suggest pretty much anything, but there are some folks out there who believe eliminating the on-air paid staff, and their off-air support staff as well, could be right way to go.

After all, bringing back volunteerism and ending the tyranny of staffers who stay forever sounds like a pretty good prescription for renewal. Nice philosophy, but is that what Arlene is really saying?

First, let's look at the history of KPFA.

For its first two decades, the station was vastly different than what it became. Created by pacifists, the goal of KPFA during its early years was to present all points of view in order to create greater communication amongst all people. There were left-wing commentators, there were right-wing commentators. The rest of the time KPFA sounded like a proto-NPR with classical music, literary readings, and academic panel discussions. The hosts were professionals in their fields, even if the station wasn't paying them. There wasn't a collective in sight. Beyond that, the world was different: listening through most of those years occurred at the home because cars weren't equipped with FM radios; home entertainment wasn't available outside of radio and a handful of TV stations; information could only be gleaned from newspapers or going to the library or reading a book; the Cold War and blacklists were in full vogue. Comparing those days to today, or claiming that Lew Hill would approve of a “volunteer” KPFA is akin to making claims concerning what John Adams would think about net neutrality. There isn't a “volunteer root” in sight.

So let's look at the 1970's, when “volunteerism” supposedly flourished. I came to KPFA in 1975 as a volunteer receptionist. The paid staff consisted largely of Department Heads (the “Executive Producers” of their day), a handful of tech folks, a couple of people in News and on the Morning Show, and a few necessary administrative people. There was also a paid volunteer coordinator who spent most of the time trying to find off-air volunteers who were both reliable and competent. The competent ones, if they couldn't get a paid job at the station, usually left within weeks.

Programs with volunteer hosts aired once a week or once a month, coordinated by the Department Heads. The Morning Show was paid, though there was no off-air support staff. A full-time Music Director handled two or three of the 2 3/4 hour daily Morning Concert broadcasts, and coordinated the others, and also coordinated all the other unpaid music programs, including live concerts. The full-time Drama & Literature Director functioned hands-on for the very difficult 3/4 hour daily Morning Reading, and produced and often hosted many of the other D&L programs heard through the week. The News Department was small, but then again there were two daily newspapers in San Francisco, plus local papers in outlying communities, most of which don't exist any more. One complaint at that time was that the News Dept. didn't properly cover local issues --- that's because the staff didn't exist. Turnover for good volunteer reporters was constant, which is why Wendell Harper was hired in the first place. The full-time Public Affairs and Third World Directors had on-air slots and closely coordinated their programming. A volunteer Women's Director became an employee because the two-hour Women's Magazine was too big a job for an unpaid coordinator. In terms of total hours, paid hosts worked as many hours then as today.

Fund-drives lasted six weeks, earned a pittance, and were filled with “bait and switch” programming (a full day of Beatles music to get people to subscribe, then no Beatles during the rest of the year).  A large chunk of the station's budget, as well as several documentary programs of limited length, was subsidized by state and federal arts grants which vanished during the Reagan years.  One of the reasons for bringing in a paid staff was in order to create “voices” for the station during fund-drives and to spruce up vastly understaffed daily shows.

The real difference was off the air.  KPFA today starts with its paid producers, engineers, and board operators, people whom you barely hear, but are doing their jobs quietly and professionally.
During the 1970's, the off-air staff, from subscriptions assistants to board operators to receptionists, was all volunteer. Competence and reliability, combined, were often in short supply. Obviously, nobody is arguing for that kind of "volunteerism."

So let's go back to Arlene's original statement. Since most of KPFA's programming staff remains unpaid today, she's talking specifically about those local daily programs hosted and produced by paid staff: the Morning Show, Against The Grain, Letters to Washington, Hard Knock Radio, Flashpoints, an hour-long Evening News broadcast, Philip Maldari's Sunday program. That's the line-up: an extended morning drive time, the noon lunch hour, the News, and Larry Bensky's old slot (which raised no money before Bensky came along).

This issue isn't about particular programmers. The fact remains that a paid staff for daily programs during maximum listening slots have the time and energy to do the necessary work that unpaid staff simply does not, and cannot have, and have a consistency of voices that weekly shows obviously cannot have. My weekly half-hour show takes the equivalent of a half-time job because I have no production support staff (Fourteen years ago I fell into one of those magical “day jobs” that allowed me to continue my program; that job ended last year and I've been on savings since). Once you examine the rest of the schedule, and look at the number of hour-long shows produced outside KPFA, you'll note it's not so easy to find that many great local programmers because of the inherent problems in production. Because salaries are not involved, producers and hosts must love the work they do. To get on the air, they have to be good. And, of course, they must have the time and energy, and consistency to do it well, potentially year after year after year.

Without paid staff, there are no voices that “brand” the station, that listeners recognize. These people remain the backbone of fund drives, central to on-air fund-raising and virtually available around the clock. The distinctiveness of the paid voices is a blessing, but can also be a curse because, of course, some people will never like certain folks' personality or politics. Arguments could be made --- in my mind they shouldn't be, but that's personal taste --- about replacing current hosts with other people who will be paid for their efforts. Nothing like KPFA's Morning Show and its progressive politics exists anywhere on the local radio dial. The same is true for the KPFA Evening News and the other programs produced and hosted by paid staff. While volunteers can assist in these programs, at least some members of staff must be on salary to deal with the daily grind and to coordinate segments.

A volunteer Morning Show -- a terrible idea --- would be inconsistent and would often be unlistenable because of that inconsistency. One or two hosts will find audiences; the rest won't. A so-called unpaid collective handling an hour or more each morning would be an organizational nightmare; a competent individual would have to dedicate not only one early morning a week, but also time for coordination meetings with other hosts and many hours for preparation. How can that be handled with another full-time job?  Thus, a live program would be limited to people with flexible hours or trust funds, or retirement income. A recorded program would sound stale. Listeners will be clamoring for their favorite hosts to be aired every day, which couldn't happen without salaries.

The result would be an end to the Morning Show. The same is true for Against The Grain, for Living Room, for Hard Knock Radio, for Flashpoints and Letters to Washington.

KPFA's consistent on-air voices would be gone, and with them, not merely the best reasons to convince people to subscribe to KPFA, but also the voices that ARE KPFA. The result will be a spiralling nightmare of lost listeners and lost subscriber income. The first paid hosts to go would not be the last.

Along with these issues is the push to decimate the Evening News staff and cut the program back to a half-hour. In a world of fewer newspapers and local resources, that would be a disaster.

The upshot of all this is that the local folks pushing these changes are simply not practical. The national folks know better: the new KPFA will consist of pre-existing local volunteer talk programs (many of which are already nationally syndicated), programs from other community stations around the country, plus local music programs: An hour of Al-Jazeera, another rebroadcast of Democracy Now!, a handful of new local weekly shows produced by collectives or individuals. The station will be more sectarian, more given to programs on conspiracy and fringe medical advice (since that's what the folks in charge want), and less interesting for the rest of the audience. As people at WBAI have discovered, there is no new audience out there ready for that kind of programming. They're already listening, subscribing, and complaining, and don't have more money to give.

Non-commercial radio is a tricky business. You want to be pure, but you also need to raise money. You want to have no commercials, but you also must ask for subscriptions on the air. KPFA, as it exists now, has a delicate balance. There may be tweaking to be done, but wholesale change isn't necessary. Once you remove the huge subsidies to the national office, you don't need to revamp the programming. Some downsizing during hard economic times is necessary; wholesale change in the name of arbitrary budgets is not.

For more information, check out this article in Counterpunch and this article in Radio Survivor.

Thanks for your time,

Richard Wolinsky
Producer/Host, Bookwaves on Cover to Cover
Please feel free to contact me at