Wednesday, February 12, 2020

L-A Radio: Non-Com KPFK Underfire For Pitching 'Snake Oil'

Listeners have been expressing outrage at the amount of airtime KPFK 90.7 FM is turning over to programs pitching alternative health and wellness nostrums and wild conspiracy theories, particularly during its ever-lengthening and ever more frequent fundraising drives.

They can’t stand it,” host Ian Masters told The L-A Times last week, adding that he senses the downside personally. “My credibility is assaulted every day because we’re selling this snake oil.”

That’s as concise a picture as you’re likely to get of the crisis confronting KPFK, which is now entering its seventh decade, and engulfing the Pacifica network of which it’s a flagship. Pacifica was founded by pacifists in 1946 and launched its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, in 1949.

Those stations and others in the Pacifica network have been suffering from declining audiences for years. The central board and managements overseeing the stations have tried to make up for shrinking listener donations by airing prepackaged programming.

Although those programs do bring in more money by offering gifts to donors, longtime hosts feel they may be driving away the stations’ traditional fans, exacerbating the long-term decline. The station broadcast 138 days of fundraising appeals last year; 10 or 20 years ago, says Masters, fundraising was limited to perhaps a week or so every six months.

“We’re not fulfilling our mission through these premiums,” says Anyel Fields, KPFK’s general manager. Fields says that when KPFK made a fundraising pitch while airing political commentary following President Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, it attracted about $500 in pledges. But some health-and-wellness programs will draw $3,000 to $4,000.

KPFK 90.7 FM (110 Kw) Courtesy of REC Networks
Given that it owns the most powerful radio signal in the U.S. west of the Mississippi, KPFK’s listenership is strikingly small — a cumulative audience of about 130,000 in an average week or as few as 1,000 listeners during an average quarter-hour, or 0.3% of the Los Angeles radio audience or less at any given time, according to Fields and the Nielsen survey. The KPFK transmitter’s rated power of 110,000 watts is strong enough to reach from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

By contrast, public radio powerhouses KPCC and KCRW, with signals about one-tenth KPFK’s power, have as much as 10 times the audience.

The Pacifica Foundation, which comprises five FM radio stations — including WPFW in Washington, D.C.; KPFT in Houston; and WBAI in New York — has been in the forefront of progressive broadcasting for most of a history that encompasses landmark battles over free speech and politics.

In recent years Pacifica has lurched from financial crisis to crisis. But more recently the problems have coalesced into an all-encompassing emergency amounting to what then-interim Executive Director John Vernile called in September “an existential threat.”

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