KPFK About to Become Homeless

By Steve Propes
BILL GARDNER in KPFK studio.

Though it had been rumored for months, the two-story KPFK radio studio on a choice piece of property owned by Pacifica Radio on Cahuenga Blvd. in North Hollywood has been sold.

To listeners of this mainly leftist broadcast outlet, there is an immediate cause of concern. Will KPFK (90.7 FM), the West’s strongest radio signal go dark? Though slim to none, there are storm warnings ahead.

There was a previous sale for around $2 million pending, but that buyer backed out after inspecting the well-used structure, which shows no signs of being updated or modernized. An adjoining asphalt parking lot for about 20 cars is lined with greenery. The back door keypad is apparently non-operative as program hosts come-and-go, not bothering to punch any codes.

One long-enduring broadcast is the 50-year-old “Car Show,” co-hosted by Dave Kunz, who is also the KABC-TV car guy. You can tell Kunz is in-studio from the exotic car parked in the lot and loaners supplied for on-air reviews.

Just after the one-hour “Car Show” is the popular “Rhapsody In Black” hosted by retired L.A. County Children’s Services Worker and Norwalk resident, Bill Gardner. On most Saturdays, Gardner commutes on the Santa Ana Freeway 20-plus miles to KPFK for his two-hour music-intensive R&B oldies show.

In an early January 2024 Facebook posting, Gardner said, “I’m going to enjoy what may be my last month doing ‘Rhapsody in Black’! KPFK sold its building to someone. Escrow happens in February. As of today, KPFK has no place to go although there is a vague promise to house us rent-free in the new owner’s building.”

Among the buyers, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, a fan of Gardner’s show, plans to convert the building to a recording studio, after remodeling, allowing KPFK to use an upstairs studio rent-free for up to ten years. “Rhapsody in Black” volunteer, Jim Dawson said, “an upstairs studio will be moved elsewhere, perhaps into a trailer in the parking lot, so that KPFK can continue during construction.”

In mid-December, KPFK held a moving sale in the parking lot, selling 50 years’ worth of office furniture, appliances, surplus broadcast and office tech, books, records, CDs and DVDs.

Pacifica Radio is the licensee of four other stations in Berkeley, New York City, Washington DC and Houston with 200 affiliates. The second station in the Pacifica chain, KPFK went on-air in April 1959. Almost immediately, it fell under government scrutiny, allegations of communist influence and the like went nowhere.

While making KPFK into one of the most influential stations in America, in 1974, Will Lewis, KPFK’s general manager refused to turn over tapes acquired from the Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, to the FBI. Lewis served 15 days at Terminal Island, sprung by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Lewis was just the second media representative to ever be sent to jail on a freedom of the press issue. In the 1980s, KPFK ran the Johnny Otis Show, in which Gardner cut his DJ teeth and the very popular Background Briefing with Ian Masters.

While fundraising for his controversial weekend program, Masters railed against “quack cures and conspiracy theory” shows on KPFK as interim program director Alan Minsky took weak issue with Masters’ rant. Among the better-known of these shows was the short-lived “Beneath the Surface” with comedian Roseanne Barr in 2009.

In fact, the so-called wellness programs bring in the most funds during these money-raising sessions, which have increased from a few weeks a year to about every other week. At the same time, the station held an election about whether to keep or make changes to how the community board of directors is chosen. Change won, but the board decided to count only certain votes. In April 2021, Masters left KPFK in protest.

Short-tenured general managers are the rule at KPFK. South African broadcaster Eva Georgia from the Gay and Lesbian Center in Long Beach was hired in 2002, leaving in 2007. Former KKJZ station manager Sean Heitkemper at CSULB took over in 2008, resigning in August 2009. In early 2021, the current unpaid manager, Michael Novik took over. The only paid staff is the chief engineer.

“The move will be very challenging,” said Novik in an online statement. “It will be necessary to build a duplicate control room, broadcast studio and recording studio at another site before the move is completed so that the station can stay on the air when the existing facility is turned off and dismantled.”

Novik added, “the station’s survival has been in question for quite a while because of the difficulty in raising enough funds to cover its entire operating expenses.” One of the problems is that Pacifica does not seek out corporate underwriting.

Pacifica politics can at least partially explain the shortfall. In 2019, WBAI in New York City was in deep financial trouble, having not paid rent for its Empire State Building studios and then laying off much of its staff.

 The Pacifica Board decided that member stations should help bail out WBAI and designated funds being raised from listeners to be sent to help out, which is at the root of the KPFK financial crisis and the decision to sell the Cahuenga building.

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Comments

Update: since publication, a source close to KPFK stated, "A new interim studio has been found in Glendale, and it looks like the station will move in late February."

So relieved KPFK will have a new home in Glendale! I so rely on their material. I miss so many broadcasters that have left.

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