Live broadcasting has increasingly disappeared from the airwaves at community radio station 91.7 KALW over the past year as it has transitioned to more automated programming and reruns during the pandemic, station staff members said this week.
Licensed by the San Francisco Unified School District, the station has increasingly aired pre-recorded shows, including Saturday prime-time evening shows including Folk Music & Beyond, A Patchwork Quilt and Bluegrass Signal, since last March to follow COVID-19 protocol. Announcing staff say they have seen cuts in hours and positions, and listeners have collectively sent in close to 100 emails to the station calling for their favorite radio hosts to keep their jobs.
“KALW is my station in life,” one listener wrote. “I’m with you because of the quality of its people, their humanity, their chemistry, and both the broad view and locally based knowledge and wisdom they bring through the door. Don’t make me rethink that commitment.”
The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents some station staff, invited listeners, musicians and hosts to take their concerns to this month’s school board meeting. They aired their complaints during the designated time slot for community comments on Tuesday.
JoAnn Mar, host of Folk Music & Beyond, said she accepted automation as a temporary fix for unusual circumstances. But she said management told her that her program will remain automated “for the foreseeable future” earlier this month.
“Automation means the reduction of live-hosted programs and live music performances, which have been an important hallmark of KALW’s programming,” Mar said.
In shows like Mar’s, local musicians perform live, participate in interviews and have the chance to promote their new music and upcoming events. Listeners stop tuning in and the commentary is lost when a live show is only prerecorded, she says.
“You’re running the same old boring repeats,” Mar said. “Over time people are going to stop listening.”
Pete Kronowitt, a San Francisco-based singer-songwriter, said the annual SF Free Folk Festival relies on KALW airtime for promotion, especially on shows with a supportive folk audience like Mar’s.
“All the folk artists in the Bay Area depend on DJs who support us. Our livelihood has been greatly affected by the pandemic,” Kronowitt said. “Automating KALW will have a drastic and negative effect on the music scene.”
School board President Gabriela Lopez said she’s been assured that these radio announcer jobs are safe.
“Our stance is of absolutely not being in favor of a shift like that, of replacing people with machines,” López told the Examiner. “I don’t see that as a move, but I understand the fear.”
Station manager Tina Pamintuan said that airing pre-programmed material is not intended to be a long-term solution, but budget concerns and COVID-19 policies hinder their ability to have everyone in the studio. She stated in a message to KALW listeners that the station is committed to “keep paychecks stable” for the hosts.
”We have been just really dedicated to keeping all of our staff employed through this difficult time,” Pamintuan said. “And as people take leaves for various reasons, whether it’s medical leaves or quarantining, we just want to make sure it’s stable no matter what.”
While the union said four staff members had been laid off, Pamintuan said two of those positions had been retirements and another was a part-timer who had worked very few hours in the previous year.
She said KALW hopes to better serve communities that have not been traditionally served in their 80th year.
”I think in this year, we’re really going to be looking hard at our programming and making some changes there that feel just forward-looking, very, very much in line with out goals of equity,” Pamintuan said. “Very locally based, very community based, all of that is still extremely important to the station and we are investing in new shows in that area, to the best of our ability, despite the pandemic and with all our fundraising challenges because it’s important.”