“We are listener sponsored radio,” Margaret Prescod pleads during her show on Thursday morning. “We do not want to close our doors! That's how serious this is.”
The KPFK 90.7 FM personality throws to a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. after urging listeners to pledge in exchange for an archival compilation of the social justice preacher's speeches. Phone room volunteers answer calls as they stream in steadily. Prescod's golden brown dreadlocks frame her face while the slow tenor of her voice reaches a frenzied pitch during Sojourner Truth Radio's last ten minutes.
The station is in full survival mode. Either it raises $300,000 dollars during a one-week emergency fund drive or it faces the harsh choice of locking the doors to the two-story red brick building in North Hollywood and going off the air to save money.
Since 1959, KPFK has remained a constant and unique fixture on the Los Angeles dial. That's the year the station became the second one enlisted in Pacifica Radio founder Lewis Hill's vision for a pacifist airwaves supported by the people. Beginning with KPFA in Berkeley, his model for listener-sponsored media would later be emulated by the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).
Being free from commercials and corporate underwriting allowed KPFK to offer an outlet for left-wing politics through the decades. In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) famously delivered recordings of kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst to KPFK. The station's manager went to jail rather than turn them over to the FBI. Today it continues on, albeit under extreme financial duress, as an umbrella of political perspectives ranging from progressive democrats to anti-capitalist anarchists.
The situation didn't always used to be this dire. Ten years ago, right out of college, I remember a different KPFK. Back then, I started co-producing Uprising Radio, the station's flagship show, with Sonali Kolhatkar.
With Dubya in the White House in 2005 and U.S. ground troops occupying Iraq, the political left flooded the streets in protest. KPFK's anti-war bent stood out in a media landscape too busy genuflecting before a modern-day Moloch demanding sacrifices of youth on the battlefield.
When fund drives rolled around, phone lines lit up. Clips of the late People's Historian Howard Zinn criticizing the war was all it took to top $10,000 in an hour. The station raised a million dollars, or close to it, in a span of two weeks.
That was then and this is now.
“The crisis of the network really stems from the governance structure and the bylaws,” program director Alan Minsky tells the Weekly. He's held his position on an interim basis going on six years as if to underscore the point. Minsky mulled how to repair the station and network in How Pacifica Can Become the Media We Need, a TruthDig piece published last year. “As bad as it's been, we would basically have balanced books if we hadn't lost our Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding,” he says.
The fallout happened during the tumultuous tenure of former Pacifica Executive Director Summer Reese for reasons unknown. “Exactly why it happened is pretty much a mystery.”
With the funding nixed, a fragile financial situation flirts with disaster. Interim General Manager Anyel Zuberi Fields finishes answering phones during the pledge drive before settling in his office. “The station has been running about a four year deficit. During most of that time, there hasn't been any change in the way that we raise funds,” he explains. “We were going to hit a point where we couldn't even pay our utilities.”
Fields is determined to become stabilizing presence even though his position is as tenuous as the station's future. Since taking the reigns in July after nine years with KPFK, he's opened up new revenue streams away from the fund drives that constitute 98% of station funding. The money is starting to trickle in. Listeners can now become Sustainer Circle members by signing up for automatic monthly donations. Media sponsorship for big events like the Pan African Film Festival has been monetized.
The hope is to break new ground while trying to dig the station out of a hole. Fields wants to repair the newsroom and build trust anew with listeners. But for as much as other avenues are being explored, in times of crisis there's only one way to get a quick cash infusion. “If we didn't have this fund drive, we couldn't make payroll, we couldn't pay utilities and a whole slew of other bills,” Fields says. He contemplated shutting the station down indefinitely until it caught up with its finances and if the emergency drive flopped, his hand would be forced to do so.
Coming on the heels of a Winter fund drive that damn near went into Spring, the one-week plea for pledges lasted longer than expected. It ended just this morning with the 6 a.m. broadcast of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! marking a return to regular programming. The threat of shutting the station down has been averted for now. But there's little time for a sigh of relief. The station is prepping its full-on Spring fund drive sometime next month.
Emblematic of leftist infighting, the blame game for KPFK's woes fires in every direction. One thing all can agree is the need to preserve rebel radio on the airwaves. “KPFK means different things to different people,” Prescod says. “It's a valuable resource for people working in social change.” And it needs to become more resourceful to survive. “It's like what Tupac rhymed about making a dollar out of fifteen cents,” she says.
That line of work has gotten harder with the fallout from the Great Recession, a downturn that also hit the station hard. The economic devastation has listeners looking for alternatives and KPFK is trying to find new ways of being able to stay on-air to deliver them. Just like the anti-war movement energized the station ten years ago, the current moment holds the possibility of it connecting with the disaffected.
KPFK took Pacifica programmer and Marxist economist Richard Wolff out for talks on the crisis and cooperatives to packed audiences in February, including at the Delhi Center in Santa Ana. “We are the only place that's going to provide that,” Minsky says.
“The promise is unrivaled,” he adds on an uplifting note. “KPFK is the primary media outlet that can make sure that the evolution of Southern California continues on a progressive path.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!