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SF school leaders attempt to steer news coverage of district-owned KALW

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Board of Education Vice President Hydra Mendoza-McDonnel wants the district’s radio station, KALW, to highlight more stories about San Francisco schools. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A top education official suggested that KALW public radio cover positive news about the San Francisco Unified School District on Tuesday, appearing to encroach on the editorial independence of the school district-owned radio station.

Board of Education Vice President Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell gave the radio station two months to figure out how it could include more stories about the district in its news coverage, proposing that the station highlight “great teacher stories.”

“I know that you have to do ‘newsworthy news,’ but I think we just want to be able to highlight SFUSD, whose radio station this is,” Mendoza-McDonnell told KALW General Manager Matt Martin at the school board meeting this week.

KALW is well-known for its eclectic programming and sometimes progressive voice, featuring shows like “Kamau Right Now” with comedian Kamau Bell as well as NPR segments. The nonprofit radio station is one of the oldest FM radio stations in the nation, first broadcasting in September 1941.

The SFUSD has owned the station for more than 75 years.

As a result, the station airs the daily lunch menu for students and broadcasts school board meetings live every other Tuesday night. The station also operates free of rent out of Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Portola.

“This is our station, and I just feel like you would never know that this is ours,” said Mendoza-McDonnell, who also serves as education advisor to Mayor Ed Lee. “I really would love to see more of our stories.”

KALW News Director Ben Trefny said in an email Wednesday that the news department will remain independent.

“We will continue to cover the SFUSD just as we cover any other school districts in our listening area: with independent editorial judgment and sound journalistic principles,” Trefny said. “The school district holds our license, but we’ve always operated with an effective firewall separating our news department from any potential outside influences.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Emily Murase echoed Mendoza-McDonnell’s comments, saying, “I would love to see more content that’s about schools, generally.”

Both commissioner’s comments were part of a greater conversation about how the radio station could become more connected to the district.

Martin, the general manager, said that it would be “challenging” for him to bring the directive to his news department.

“I have a hard time asking my news department to do that, as in, ‘Here’s your charge, cover the school district, the things that the school district wants covered,’” Martin said at the meeting. “That’s not actually what I want to ask my news employees to do.”

In an interview Wednesday, KALX General Manager Sandra Wasson said she “can’t imagine” the administration at UC Berkeley trying to steer coverage at the college radio station, which is licensed by the University of California system.

“Our chancellor has really come out very strongly in free speech,” Wasson said, while noting that the station is college radio rather than community news like KALW. “I really think we’re in a completely different environment.”

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