Two letters from unpaid KPFA news reporter, Judith Scherr to Pacifica’s Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt

Dec. 3, 2010

Arlene – I hold you personally responsible for the harm you are causing our local progressive community. We have no local source other than the Morning Show to tell us what our Bay Area activists are doing and to inspire us to action.

How can you as a single individual take away my lifeline to vital information?

Did you know that Oakland just elected its first Asian and first female mayor?? This in face of Big money? What ‘s happening with the transition? How’s she going to face the huge budget deficit? Will her progressive roots show as she takes over as mayor?

What’s the deal with a longtime Oakland councilmember quitting? Will there be a new election? Will Quan choose the replacement?

Richmond’s Green activist mayor won a second term in office – even though Chevron fought her as did the police. What’s she doing in face of that kind of opposition? Some allies will sit on the Richmond City Council with her. What does that mean?

Sam Zell bought an election for $25,000 to reshape downtown Berkeley. Now what?

A new Bay Area progressive organization was launched a couple of weeks ago, with some 60 people reportedly in attendance at its first meeting. What’s that all about?

EBASE recently celebrated success on Measure C.  After years of court fights in Emeryville, hotel workers are getting a living wage. What else is happening in Emeryville and its rising community activism?

And what’s happening with our local environmental, Haiti, peace, health, Sudan, Congo, Tibet, Burma, labor, homeless, peace…..activists? It’s important to know what’s happening internationally — but how will we interact with that knowledge locally?

The Morning Show folks had their ears to the ground. Is your plan to help local conservatives? I don’t think it is – I’m not a conspiracy nut – but the perhaps-unintended results are there.

Give us back the Morning Show with Brian and Aimee before you completely ruin our station, and decimate its service as a vital conduit for local progressive activism.

Judith Scherr
Listener, unpaid staff

November 3, 2010

Dear Ms. Engelhardt:

I don’t know if you saw a letter I wrote to the board about a month ago – I’m resending it here to your attention. I never did hear from the board.

I’m writing to you now in response to an interview I heard on KPFA’s Morning Show. First, thank you for your appearance there. I appreciate you coming on the air.

However, I was shocked with your opening thoughts in which you emphasized volunteerism at KPFA, and the need to have more volunteers and fewer paid staff. I was taken aback by your remarks for a couple of reasons. (1) Your emphasis on volunteerism over paid staff means that the proposals for layoffs are philosophically motivated – not simply budget driven, (2) The traditional progressive view that values workers is not evident in your remarks – especially since you appear to have refused to consider important money-saving proposals such as holding Pacifica meetings by conference call, and (3) You refused to disclose your salary, which should be public information in an organization such as Pacifica.

People with children and rent to pay and who live without trust funds should be valued, salaried workers at Pacifica – that includes people already laid off such as Nora Barrows Friedman, as well as those named in new layoff proposals.

I would very much appreciate a response to this note and the letter of a month ago that follows – I have re-addressed it to you as well as to the board:

Pacifica Board:

I have little time to compose this note regarding the present crisis at KPFA, so please forgive me for writing something that is not comprehensive.

First, I’d like to request complete information so that I understand the situation directly from you. Please send me the complete proposal for layoffs at KPFA and the underlying reasons given for eliminating staff positions targeted. Also please send information on any and all alternatives you are considering. In that information, please include the amount of funds needed for KPFA to stay in the black, the amounts used to fund other stations and the savings from each proposed layoff.

As you know, there has been ongoing enmity directed at some news and public affairs staff on the part of at least one of the local board representatives who is involved in suggesting the layoffs. Can you assure me that these proposed layoffs are truly necessary and well thought out rather than a witch hunt? If the layoffs are found to be personally or politically motivated, I suggest strong censorship – even termination — of any board member involved. Looking into this question should be part of a public and transparent process.

Let me briefly defend the news department, of which I am a part, whenever I have time to come in and do a news story.

First, I am personally grateful for the news department staff (and Brian Edwards-Tiekert when he was part of the department) for teaching me radio. I am now able to add this skill to my freelancing as a journalist and actually get paid for radio stories (not KPFA) now and then.

I don’t think people outside the newsroom understand how it functions. It mostly depends on volunteers like me. In the beginning, I did a news story once a week. I did that for a year. Then for a variety of personal reasons, including the need to eat three times a day, my time at KPFA has become completely irregular. I see other volunteers similarly coming in regularly for a few months, then disappearing when they get a job, move, go back to school. We all leave with the wonderful skills we’ve learned. Such coming and going of volunteers takes a toll on a steady production of quality news and takes enormous time and training from the professional staff — all gifted with enormous patience.

One of the best teachers, I might note, is Rose Ketabchi, on the layoff list, who has showed me (numerous times, because I still don’t get it quite right) how to overlay my script onto the ambiance or background sounds and how to improve my sound in multiple ways. She’s also caught and fixed multiple errors. Having a competent, professional at the board is SO important!

And so when you speak about laying off the paid news staff, you’re talking about filling in with people like me – or those even less qualified, since I’ve had many years as a print journalist. Everyone would be muddling about, without them – such as John Hamilton who is a stickler for good sound and solid reporting — to confer with.

Without our paid news staff, some days there will be three volunteers and some days zero. Within weeks, no one would be listening to the 6 p.m. news at all.

Some people complain that KPFA doesn’t do enough labor programming – that’s Max Pringle’s beat. He covers the day to day labor struggles and understands, for example, the layers of complexity of the SEIU struggles that a volunteer reporter, without studying the issue for several days, would find incredibly challenging to cover. He packs a lot into a three-four minute report.

Christopher Martinez makes Sacramento understandable to those of us who might choose to ignore what’s going on there, except that decisions in the capital impact us and our families and communities daily. A newsroom volunteer cannot simply drop in on a Sacramento story and hope to get it right.

We need at least two additional paid workers to do daily reporting in the newsroom – not fewer. Whenever I’m there and field telephone calls (we don’t have a secretary), people are asking for coverage of events – events that I’m sure KPFA listeners would want to hear about. But there are simply not enough reporters to cover each of the truly important events.

I’m not going through all the proposed layoffs – but will mention just one more: Aimee Allison. People who tear down the news department and the morning show are often the same people who are calling for a show uniquely dedicated to African Americans. (I’m not opposed to that idea.) But why get rid of Aimee? She’s a top notch programmer on a variety of subjects and one who shines on the subjects she’s obviously passionate about — the military and its injustices and racism. Aimee is important in her position not simply because she is a woman of color, but because, as a woman of color, she addresses questions of racism frequently and straight on.

The other two people on the layoff list – Brian Edwards Tiekert and Sasha Lilley have been directly targeted politically in the past by those who are suggesting their layoffs. This, again, makes it look like the layoffs are politically motivated. And let me repeat that any board member who suggests laying off an individual for reasons that do not have to do strictly with budget or program should be censored.

I’m looking forward to more information on the proposed layoffs to better evaluate the thinking of the boardmembers who have proposed them.


Judith Scherr
Unpaid staff, KPFA news department