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Still Making Waves
KPFA, mired in controversy as usual, marks 50th anniversary with a day of blasts from the past
Sam Whiting, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle


KPFA-FM celebrates its 50th anniversary today, and the Berkeley radio station will be full of protest and dissent -- maybe even revolution

--on the air, in the air and out on the street.

The on-air special will include archival tape spanning a half-century of the nation's first listener-sponsored station. Interspersed with regular programming between 7 a.m. and midnight today, listeners tuned to 94.1 will hear a kidnapped Patty Hearst snipe at her parents for being capitalist pigs and Che Guevara foment rebellion just months before his assassination.

``We're going to bring out some of our best voices, the people who have gotten us where we are,'' says program director Andrea Kissack.

The flagship of the five-station Pacifica chain, KPFA was the first of its kind, long before National Public Radio followed its lead. With all of its corporate underwriting, NPR might as well be commercial. At KPFA, the only spots that sound anything like commercials are pleas for donations. With a 59,000-watt signal that reaches most of Northern California and into the Central Valley, KPFA has always lived on the generosity of its listeners, whose subscriptions pay 80 percent of the annual operating budget of $2.3 million.

KPFA is the people's radio, and they all try to run it. ``As long as I've been with the station, there has never been a time when there was not internal discord,'' says radio drama director Erik Bauersfeld, who has been there since the early 1960s.

Among the radical voices to be excerpted today from the archives are Angela Davis, Joan Baez, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin and Harvey Milk. Allen Ginsberg's ``Howl,'' which had its first broadcast on the station in 1957, will be aired at 5 p.m. today. An hourlong documentary on Mario Savio and 1964's Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley will air at 7 p.m.

At noon there will be a demonstration outside the station to demand reinstatement of Nicole Sawaya, the general manager who was let go March 31, and longtime talk show host Larry Bensky, who was fired for breaking a company gag rule and speaking on the air about Sawaya's firing. The staff and its union are leading the charge, along with the listener organization Take Back KPFA. The Berkeley City Council passed a resolution Tuesday night supporting Sawaya and Bensky. Even the KPFA 50th anniversary committee has disbanded in protest.

``How appropriate that there will be a protest going on outside as well,'' says Kissack. ``We do really well in crises. We're familiar with how to work in them.''

Programmers see the irony of a gag rule at KPFA, so they probably are going to talk about Sawaya and Bensky anyway. ``I got fired for speaking freely on free-speech radio,'' says Bensky, who had been with the station for 30 years. ``I want to be reinstated, but it's bigger than me. It's bigger than Nicole. It's about the usurpation of power.''

Bensky may or may not be on the air today, but others will have unkind words to say about the station's parent Pacifica Foundation.

``Either that or we will be off the air,'' warns Bob Baldock, public events producer. ``The entire paid staff, this squabbling bunch of people, is working behind this one manager.''

The demonstration will be at Martin Luther King Way and University Avenue, in front of the adjacent Pacifica Foundation. There is already one boarded-up window there, where on the night of Sawaya's release unknown persons exercised their freedom of speech by firing several slugs from a .38.

Another irony about Pacifica is that the most political radio station in the Bay Area may have the worst interoffice, interlistener politics. When KPFA family members aren't taking on the world, they turn on one another or unite warring factions to attack management.

``Can you imagine people getting so worked up over commercial radio?'' asks Sedge Thomson, host of the ``West Coast Live'' show on station KALW.

KPFA went on the air at 3 p.m. April 15, 1949. A group of Berkeley anarchic pacifists led by Lewis Hill commandeered an unused frequency. Because nobody had heard of FM, they distributed shoebox-size tube radios with the dial set to 94.1 to potential listeners. Hill was seen as too controlling and was dumped by his own board in a political coup in 1953. A year later, Hill staged his own coup, reclaimed power and drove out the board.

``There was, I would say, a control issue,'' says Kris Welch, who has hosted KPFA's ``Morning Show'' since 1974. ``These same issues keep coming up. It's a trip.''

Pauline Kael, the famed film critic, got her start at KPFA, from 1953 to '63. In a segment to be aired at 8 a.m. today, she rips into ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' then rips into KPFA. ``They give you guilt. You give them money,'' she told listeners just before quitting in 1963. ``And the more guilt they give you, the more you need to assuage your guilt by giving them money.''

In 1995 there was a scheduling shakeup and bloodletting. Jazz expert Phil Elwood and many other longtime hosts lost their shows. There has been unrest and uprising ever since, but the station endures on the strength of unique music programming by volunteer disc jockeys.

Tom Diamant and Ray Edlund have been alternating their country and bluegrass shows, ``Panhandle Country'' and ``Pig in a Pen,'' every week for 20 years. They are packaged with shows dedicated to American folk, hick and protest music that can take a listener from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays without hearing one electric instrument.

There is lowrider music on Fridays, blues on Saturday, jazz on Monday evenings, reggae Tuesdays, the Grateful Dead Wednes days.

Luckily, the 50th anniversary program falls on a Thursday, because that is when Bonnie Simmons and Derk Richardson have their weekly shows back to back, from 8 p.m. to midnight.

While rock FM has moved steadily toward the bland over the past 30 years, Simmons hasn't. She's just moved stations, from KSAN to KFOG to KPFA, the last bastion of free-form programming.

Her format is simple. ``I start from a song at the beginning of the show,'' she says, ``and where it takes me is where it takes me.'' Usually this is into and out of folk, country, Motown, '70s soul, roots Americana. Her segues sound seamless and scripted, though she chooses the next song only while the current one is playing.

For each show Simmons brings all her own music, throwing about 200 CDs into a mail crate, chosen according to whatever is handiest. The two-hour show has its own momentum, occasionally interrupted by friends who drop in with their instruments. Among these have been Richard Thompson, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's entire band. She will play some of these live sets tonight.

``It's really fun just to improvise,'' she says. Tonight she and Richardson plan to improvise one song from each of the 50 years KPFA has been on the air.

But given the recent rancor, they are unsure how long they will last at KPFA. It is uncertain whether Sawaya and Bensky will get their jobs back or whether Take Back KPFA will ever take it back. But the answer may come at 2 p.m. today: On the air, KPFA will have its astrological chart read.


The Berkeley radio station (94.1 FM) marks its anniversary by airing selected archival tape, interspersed with regular programming, from 7 a.m. to midnight today.

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle  Page E1

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