KPFA fires talk show host Peter Laufer

Frisco Vista received the following e-mail, reproduced here verbatim:

LEGENDARY BERKELEY RADIO STATION FIRES LEGENDARY TALK SHOW HOST

BACK STORY: Berkeley, California’s KPFA/Pacifica radio station, the only radio station in America to have 10,000 of its listeners demonstrate against it, finds itself in another controversy.

After receiving what its program director said were hundreds of complaints from a segment of its “progressive” audience, KPFA abruptly, capriciously, and with no warning fired award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster Peter Laufer from his lively Sunday morning radio talk show.

Program Director Sasha Lilley cited “negative audience feedback” and said her reasons for canceling the popular show were “intangible” but that Laufer was “just not right for Sunday.” Lilley offered to tell the public that Laufer was leaving “to go on to bigger and better things.” Laufer insisted that she better tell the public that he was fired because that was what he was telling the public. Laufer believes, based on letters and email, along with op-eds in the “alternative press”, that a group of malcontent KPFA listener-activists orchestrated a smear campaign against him because he is, as these critics wrote, “not a person of color” and because his credentials (he’s won virtually every prestigious broadcast journalism award) are “too mainstream.”

“The KPFA bumper sticker says ‘Free Speech Radio’ but apparently mob rule is more accurate,” Laufer mused from his Sonoma County coast side home, enjoying his first Sunday morning off in the six months since he inaugurated the KPFA show. “Ever since my undergraduate days, Berkeley has symbolized diversity. But today’s incarnation of KPFA wants to march in a lockstep of so-called politically correct speech. I did the show as a labor of love — the salary about paid for my bridge tolls, gas, and a Sunday dinner out. I am profoundly disappointed and concerned to see that as commercial radio continues to homogenize, a longtime bastion of innovation in the non-commercial radio world reacts with predictable narrow mindedness. If you can’t count on KPFA for tolerance of a diversity of views, what can you count on? Of course I harbor no desire to return to their airwaves after being treated in such a shabby fashion.”

Peter Laufer is author of over a dozen well-received books of social and political criticism; his most recent works probe the lives of soldiers opposed to the Iraq War and promote open borders with Mexico. A former NBC news correspondent — where he produced and anchored the first nationwide radio show on the HIV/AIDS crisis — Laufer has reported the news worldwide, and he won a Polk award for his documentary on Americans in prison overseas. In his own backyard heshared a Peabody award as a member of the KCBS news department when he co-anchored the station’s coverage of the 1989 earthquake that devastated the Bay Area. He created the “National Geographic World Talk” radio show, and is co-anchor with publisher Markos Kounalakis of the radio program “Washington Monthly on the Radio.” He guest lectures at universities worldwide on media issues and his print journalism is seen in a diverse array of publications from Penthouse to the London Sunday Times magazine. Details of his work can be seen at www.peterlaufer.com.

Laufer sent the following open letter of protest to Nicole Sawaya, newly installed as the Pacifica Foundation Executive Director, the network of progressive radio stations that owns KPFA, and Dave Adelson, the Pacifica National Board Chair.

Dear Nicole Sawaya and Dave Adelson:

I am profoundly disappointed that your Berkeley station KPFA has given in to an orchestrated and hysterical campaign to remove me from my Sunday morning talk show. Of course I was not doing the job for the meager amount of money I received. I mistakenly believed that KPFA had a commitment to a lively and diverse approach to free expression performed in the context of creative and professionally produced radio theater. I took on the show when it was offered to me for the opportunity to practice live radio art, theater and journalism for my hometown audience.

My surprise firing was a tacky act and unworthy of the distinguished role Pacifica has played in American media. Sasha Lilley, the KPFA program director, reached me via telephone on my vacation in New York to inform me that my role was terminated.

Lilley said, and I quote from notes I took during the phone call and from a follow-up email I received from her, “I really like what you do on the air. You are certainly a team player and I have really admired what you have brought to the airwaves.” Nonetheless, with no warning, I was given my verbal pink slip. During the brief phone call, Lilley cited correspondence she had received from listeners who, she said, did not like my act. When I asked her why these letters were not brought to my attention prior to this termination call, she hemmed and hawed an apology and allowed as how that was probably a management mistake. In a subsequent call I pointed out to her what any longtime radio professional knows: were I to have known a cadre of listeners was organizing an attack on my tenure, I could easily have mustered an equal or greater response from my proactive audience of loyal Sunday morning listeners. Instead, I serenely was cranking out excellent programming, left unaware by Lilley and the rest of the KPFA management of my vulnerability.

Radio aficionados may be amused to know that only once did Sasha Lilley specifically chastise me for my performance. It came after I found an old Viewmaster abandoned in the studio just before air time one day. I clicked its shutter and was mesmerized by the familiar “ca-chunk” sound of my youth. When the show started I offered the first person to identify “the mystery sound” a prize: the book written by my first guest that day, autographed by the author. “I hate the mystery sound,” Lilley told me later, and I cancelled plans for it to be a running moment of frivolity on my otherwise serious show.

My firing came two days after I moderated a benefit for KPFA in Berkeley featuring Naomi Wolf and Daniel Ellsberg — an event that raised thousands of dollars, and where the hundreds in the audience broke into hoots and hollers of applause when I introduced myself from the stage as the anchor of the KPFA Sunday show.

As an added bizarre twist, the firing came on the eve of a feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ben Fong-Torres about me and my talk radio career. In it Fong-Torres cites my seminal book “Inside Talk Radio: America’s Voice or Just Hot Air?” and reports “Laufer knows his stuff. He’s qualified to offer an update on the state of talk radio — albeit from a decidedly left-of-center viewpoint.” He notes I founded talk stations in Berlin and Amsterdam, and that my talk radio career dates back to the first-ever talk station. “Today,” he writes, “he hosts ‘Sunday’ a live program on KPFA.” But Chronicle readers who tuned in after reading the paean to my talk radio expertise heard instead Sasha Lilley herself on the air, hosting my program, with the halting explanation, “We’ve parted ways with Peter Laufer.” Firing is in her management toolbox, but apparently missing from her lexicon.

What gives in Berkeley? Is this the KPFA that I have known and loved? This bodes sour for the future of radio in America. If you can’t trust Pacifica to protect avant-garde yet highly professional radio, what can you believe in? Has the spirit of George Bush’s intolerant regime reached the trenches of Berkeley?

Sincerely and with regrets to report this news to you,

Peter Laufer

18 comments

  1. No media professional should be treated the way KPFA’s Sasha Lilley treated Peter Laufer. Those of us who have known Peter over the years, know he is a person of great integrity with enormous credentials. What happened to media ethics and standards? I grew up in Berkeley and loved KPFA. Not any more!

  2. This is certainly unwelcome news – just what is going on? Does anybody know the nature of the complaints? I have only listened in a couple of times as I don’t like talk radio – right, left or middle – but it seemed to be in the KPFA tradition.

  3. Well, I, for one (and apparently I’m not the only one) am not sorry to see Laufer go.

    Despite Laufer’s impressive credentials, in my opinion, he was a poor replacement for the sorely missed, retired Larry Bensky. I found Laufer’s abrupt, intolerant, overbearing manner extremely off-putting. Sunday Salon was a weekly ritual for me. After about a month of Laufer, I infrequently listened to the replacement show. The final straw happened last month when when Laufer rudely cut off a caller who dared criticize Laufer’s habit of not giving enough air-time to his guests.

    I also loathed Laufer’s endeavors to sunnily negate the “negativity” that some Pollyannas periodically complain about (pardon my skepticisim, but I wonder if such complainers really are KPFA listeners). One of the reasons that I devotedly listen to KPFA is because I hear a much-welcome rebellious, insolent, irreverent, outraged, and yes, sometimes negative, P.O.V. that I do not hear on homogenized, “happy talk” mainstream TV and radio. America and the world are facing dire and disastrous crises — we all know what they are. Laufer’s attempts to downplay or counter the concerns, fears, anxieties, and anger that some of us have with his (to me, fascistically) chipper, feel-good drivel — the world is going to hell, but C’MON, wasn’t that sunrise this morning just gosh-darned lovely! — instead provoked me to flip the dial in disgust.

    So, I shed no tears over Laufer’s dismissal. Good riddance, say I!

  4. As a staff member of KPFA– though not involved with Peter’s dismissal– I thought I might be able to shed some light. The initial article here seems to be somewhat uninformed.

    Mr Laufer was hired to replace the very successful long time host Larry Bensky, who decided after 23 years to retire from the station. Larry was both loved and hated, but always respected; he was a hard act to follow. I have heard that Mr Laufer was Larry’s pick for replacement. Everyone knew that it would be nearly impossible to not disappoint many- no matter who was chosen as replacement.

    Mr Laufer was hired, as all KPFA staff are, on a 6 month probationary period. He was being tried out and didn’t quite work so he was let go after this period.

    The resistance of the KPFA audience to Laufer was unanimous. Neither was he embraced by those who loved Larry, nor those who hated him. The usual rabble-rousers didn’t like him (those who notoriously push KPFA towards more and more edgy content/programs/personalities), neither was he embraced by the more moderate of our listeners. He just doesn’t work for us and we have a vested interest in finding someone who does. It was not meant as a personal insult, it should not reflect negatively on Peter’s skills or experience. He should have the grace to see this.

    Thank you.

  5. Here’s a message from Peter Laufer:

    Bob Agnew, the program director of Green 960 — the Clear Channel progressive talk radio station for the San Francisco Bay Area — and I see a lucky opportunity with my abrupt firing from KPFA . We’ve agreed to test my Sunday morning talk show on the AM dial begining Sunday, December 2, with some pilots on Green 960. I expect to lure my loyal KPFA listeners over to the wild world of commercial radio.

  6. I have always looked forward to Mr. Laufer’s Sunday Morning Show, enjoying the achives on line when I was unable to catch the show live. I am very disappointed that KPFA apparently did not value his program as much as I did. I will be one of the many loyal listeners who switch to GREEN 960 on Sunday Morning. thank you.

  7. As a long time listener and member of KPFA, I am very sorry to hear Peter has been fired from KPFA. The criticism that Peter is “fascistically…chipper” and therefore “not right” seems on par for KPFA. I want to hear critical political analysis and social criticism, but I believe that encouraging listeners to feel empowered and hopeful and, rather than helpless and hopeless, is advantageous personally, politically and socially. I’ll be tuning in to Green 960. How can KPFA have screwed this up?

  8. Dear Peter Laufer.

    For reasons that I need not belabor, I haven’t listened to KPFA at all in the last twenty years or so, despite, or perhaps because, of having served as Production Director and Chief Engineer during the adolescently anarchic pre-corporate years.

    As a techie who could also talk, I was viewed skeptically by my geek pals for my apparent willingness to breath the same air as the odious management, but that talent proved useful in protecting the engineering autarchy from, say, the Third World Department. Without us, as they all knew, they couldn’t even rouse a rabble in Provo Park.

    I’ve liked Bensky personally, yet loathed his radio persona, since the KSAN days (back then I called him a wannabe Joe Pine of the Left, a reference to an antique, and by today’s standards, kittenish radio bully.) He manages to make it unpleasant to share the same otherwise sensible views

    But when I came upon your program, and the determinedly respectful framework you insisted on erecting, I for the first time took pains to listen to the radio station on occasional Sunday mornings.

    This morning, I got the “parted ways” thing in the first 30 seconds, declaimed in a tone that brooked no further discussion. I was sort of thrilled; I love the microcosmic drama of Pacifica, viewed from my luxury skybox. So I googled around, learned the story, got my blood circulating, but found this slightly disappointing evasion:

    “What gives in Berkeley? Is this the KPFA that I have known and loved? This bodes sour for the future of radio in America. If you can’t trust Pacifica to protect avant-garde yet highly professional radio, what can you believe in?”

    C’mon, Peter. This isn’t your first radio! (don’t you steal that phrase, like “yuppie” was pilfered from the East Bay Express…) It was ever thus at KPFA.

    I will say what the HR dept (what? They don’t have one?) should have said: best of luck in all your future endeavors. Whitey.

    And I will add my own wisdom, profound as Tiresius’, since I have been both Management and Worker: you’ll be back. The radio station is a slippery eel, and no one can hold it for long. Or should want to. I pity the lifers.

    Best regards (I do my own HR)

    Doug Maisel

  9. This firing is in the new tradition of KPFA that causes me to cancel a 30-year subscription. It follows in the footsteps of the appalling farewell gift to Larry B–the completely tasteless “Elvis on velvet” that dishonored his massive, foundational contributions to KPFA. Lemlem and Sasha actually lied to me when I asked them about it–saying that it was in inside joke, that Larry greatly appreciated it. Not even remotely true. (Ask Larry.) I’m done with KPFA. I love Kris and Jim and Mary Tilson and the rest of the elders there, but KPFA’s actions ARE tacky at best, entirely soulless at worst. I too was a devoted fan of Larry’s and at the beginning of Peter’s time there I missed Larry’s curmudgeonly edge, but soon came to appreciate the power of Peter’s profound civility. I don’t know how to communicate this to Peter, so if someone can forward it to him I’d be grateful.

  10. Comment from kathryn page:

    ” . . . I . . . soon came to appreciate the power of Peter’s profound civility.”

    Define “civility.”

    Granted, Laufer didn’t apoplectically scream and rant and rage as does Dennis Bernstein. But I found Laufer to be obnoxiously pushy and rude: interrupting guests and callers, talking over others, cutting off a caller who criticized him. That style is more characteristic of AM talk radio, so Laufer should be right at home on “The Green” 960 along with “Air America” motormouths Randi Rhodes, Ed Schulz, et al.

    I agree that Larry Bensky had a “curmudeonly edge,” which I also found off-putting and which did not endear him to me.

    The Sunday show needs a host who, in addition to being acceptable to more KPFA listeners than was Laufer, shares the same sterling characteristics of patience, tolerance, and REAL civility exhibited by Chris Welch (Living Room), C.S. Soong (Against the Grain), and Michael Krasny (Forum on KQED). Also, he or she should LISTEN more and be in love with the sound of his or her own voice LESS than was Laufer.

  11. Good riddance to Peter Laufer AND more good riddance to the insufferable, predictably boring, rote statist, Larry Bensky. Now
    if only more of the twenty five year plus tiresome bores such as
    Kris Welsh, Phil Maldari, Mark Mericle, Wendell Harper, ad nauseum, would be shown the door it would be great ! KPFA is way too controlled by the lockstep, goosestep PC orthodox lefties who have embraced every bad cause of the last 150 years. Why not some real diversity ? Have on a holocaust revisionist, have on Bill Cosby, an Ayn Rand Objectivist, an
    advocate of Rothbardian Anarcho-Capitalism, an acolyte of
    left anarchist Murray Bookchin and so on. Have some real debate, not the same old Maldari (aka Eden ?) control freaks.
    Bernstein’s a tiresome blackophile ass but he does good work
    on Palestine, a needed counterweight to all the pro-Israeli State
    bias. Let’s think outside the box, folks.

  12. I found Peter Laufer incredibly irritating. I thought it was simply a personality trait that maybe shouldn’t be / couldn’t be criticized any more than a physical trait like the nose one was born with. Never the less, that irritating quality cut back on my Sunday morning KPFA listening.

    I can see from his list of accomplishments that he has an impressive track record. The hubris, however, yeow. Humility is a beautiful thing. Not fake humility, simply a real understanding that no matter who we are, what we’ve done, what we know, there’s never good reason to be tremendously impressed by ourselves. Making space to hear and receive the experience of others.

    “… hundreds in the audience broke into hoots and hollers of applause when I introduced myself from the stage…” When a person is full of him/herself, it’s really hard to find an opening, for explaining how that stance is limiting.

  13. I’m a regular KPFA listener from Philadelphia. From here I’m oblivious to much of the heated personal politics of the station, but to these ears Laufer was not cutting it, and painfully so. It’s impossible to followed a seasoned reporter like Larry Bensky but Laufer’s unpredictable flip asides and forced sunniness had a glaring air of falseness on a station where the hosts have earned a real trust from their listeners. I’m sure Laufer is gifted in other areas but radio hosting is a very specific skill and being a good guest or a knowledgeable expert is often not sufficient for the job.

  14. Comment from Mary:

    ” . . . Humility is a beautiful thing . . .”

    Well, I certainly agree with that statement!

    For me, the following defense by Laufer perfectly exemplifies your point, Mary:

    “In a subsequent call I pointed out to [Sasha Lilley] what any longtime radio professional knows: were I to have known a cadre of listeners was organizing an attack on my tenure, I could easily have mustered an equal or greater response from my proactive audience of loyal Sunday morning listeners.”

    . . . which is, of course, what you do when you are a self-aggrandizing egomaniac.

    Laufer’s attitude reminds me of a similar stance by KQED radio (and it is one of the reasons why I have never become a member). During one of its insufferable pledge drives, a self-satisfied program director giddily urged listeners to call and write in “why you LOVE us.”

    W-R-O-N-G!

    Instead, she should have asked listeners, “Tell us how we can improve KQED! What can we do better?”

    Alas, such advice falls on the deaf ears of those who only want to hear sychophantic praise and compliments.

  15. As a former broadcast professional, I consider KPFA’s abrupt dismissal of Peter Laufer to be disgraceful, tacky and totally amateurish. The station appears to have given into pressure from a puerile and bigoted faction of listeners who objected because Laufer didn’t fit their preferences for age, sex and color. If that ain’t discrimination then I don’t know what is.

    Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Laufer’s Sunday program and found it entertaining, informative and challenging. I also have a great deal of respect for Peter’s professionalism and integrity – two attributes the management of KPFA clearly lacks.

  16. The warfare at and around KPFA has always amazed me. Every time I run into hearing the multidinous, and virulent, sides to every issue, it all seems like petty conflict. Rather than bludgeoning one another, doesn’t it make better sense to see the big picture? Why are folks so pissed off about who’s on and who’s off. If we, if our democratic republic, redistributed the natural assets of our society, like in this instance the airwaves, and subsidized the public sector of those airwaves, which should be 50% thereof, KPFA or channels like it could expand into 3 channels with each faction – left-left, left-center, left-right (relatively speaking of course) getting their own voice and audience.

    So what I’m saying is, the problem is not that one personality or another, or management, is the problem, but that the system has closed down the diversity that everyone desires (and should have the choice of being able to listen to), through resource throttling, and that if you really want change, we need to go to the root cause rather than victimize one another with petty bickering. Clearly, the powers that be love to see the left throttle itself while they maintain control of all of our resources.

    In the cause of seeking proposed change that would allow us to air our differnet voices, why not lobby for a new resubdivison of all our airwaves and internet at the FCC. 50% goes for yearly lease to the highest commercial bidders. 50% is given to non-profit public use subsidized evenly by proceeds from the commercial lessees. I bet if all of the minds that battle over personal taste at KPFA got together to brainstorm the details of a plan like the above, and present it with media attention to the FCC, we might get some real democracy going on in the US. And the diversity needed to remove us from internal conflicts.

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