Sunday, November 25, 2007

The hiring and firing of Peter Laufer

Last week, "Dear Sasha" addressed KPFA's Interim Program Director of KPFA, Sasha Lilley, interjecting herself into the LSB (Local Station Board) elections. The feature resulted in a landslide of e-mail. Many issues were raised, some of which we're honestly not interested in addressing. One issue that came up early was Peter Laufer. The first e-mail to this site on the issue received the following e-mail reply from Jim:

I'm learning of the firing from your e-mail. C.I. may have known of it but, if so, didn't mention it.
Peter Laufer has been noted at our site many times. We included his Mission Rejected in a
March book discussion.
C.I. regularly mentions Laufer at The Common Ills.
We have not covered or mentioned his show because we do not give attention to KPFA programming since the threat to stop the online stream resulted in community members of The Common Ills being in an uproar. Every few months, C.I. sees if the community has moved past that. As of now they haven't.
I'll put the issue on proposed topics for next Sunday's edition.
I don't know that we'll write about it. If we do, I don't know that you'll like what we write. The last sentence is because C.I. said, when the announcement was made, that Laufer wouldn't last the year, that it would be a very bad fit for both. That wasn't said gleefully (C.I. likes Laufer and knows him). That was partly due to what Laufer was going to be taking on and the management of KPFA. Because C.I. has a lot of respect for Laufer, that statement surprised me. C.I. explained the move was a public relations coup for KPFA but Laufer was going to end up hurt from the whole process.
If we cover it, we'll probably cover it from that angle.
Thanks for writing,

The back story. Legendary broadcaster (not just a legend at KPFA), Larry Bensky hosted the two hour Sunday Salon each Sunday morning. Prior to that, his broadcasting work included being a national correspondent for Pacifica. He has many credits to his print journalism career as well. The point is Bensky was and remains a legend. (Judith Scherr offers an overview of Bensky's career at The Berkeley Daily Planet.)

That does not mean that every KPFA listener enjoyed him or listened to his two-hour radio program. Every voice is not universal. Some segments of the listeners saw him as openly hostile and shed no tears when Bensky's departure was announced.

Though he informed KPFA in November, the public would have to wait until March 1, 2007 when Bensky posted an announcement online (the following day, his upcoming departure would be announced on KPFA). In his announcement, he noted the following:

However, it is also true that had things worked out better for me personally, and for KPFA and Pacifica as an organization since our turmoil in 1999-2001, I might feel differently about continuing. Or at least differently at this time of leaving. As I see it, the so-called "democratization" of our local and national governance structure has not enhanced our effectiveness as a media outlet, or as a force for peace and social justice. In fact, despite the best intentions of a few people involved, Pacifica's current governance and administration is a wasteful, counterproductive, and far from transparent distraction.

For me personally this has meant that, despite repeated and tantalizing hints and promises, I never got the job I back that I worked so many years to establish: National Affairs Correspondent. Nor has Pacifica managed to re-establish itself as national programming entity, with or without me as part of it.

The announcement was greeted with the same divisions that marked much of Benksy's work in the later years. Some negative criticism was to dub the announcement "self-serving," while positive criticism was to note how much Bensky had provided the station with over the years.

The two-hour Sunday program was prime 'real estate' on the KPFA airwaves. His departure opened it up. Repeating, the station had been informed of the impending departure in November 2006. What followed was a gross mishandling and misunderstanding of what it meant that went far beyond the insulting Elvis painting gift Bensky was presented with. It was a joke, insisted Lilley and Lemlem Rijio. Most aware of the 'joke' saw it as an insult. The fact that the interim program director and interim general manager of KPFA could so bungle a goodbye gift did not bode well.

Bensky was not present at the creation of KPFA, as he himself often noted. But he was someone who had spent a large amount of time at the station. With his departure, the hope among many at KPFA was that the two-hour slot would be opened up for others who had also 'put in their time.'

Peter Laufer had filled in for Bensky on Sunday Salon many times. Laufer was not, however, part of the KPFA family. Laufer is a mainstream journalist with many substantial credits to his name. As whispers at KPFA began to circulate that Laufer would be the one given that two-hours each Sunday morning, there were a lot of hard feelings. The bulk of the frustation was not aimed at Laufer but, where it belonged, at the management. Exactly what was the point, wondered one programmer, in bringing in pledges, putting in your time, when a highly desired slot opens up and management elects to skip over those at the station and award the host duties instead to an 'outsider'?

As the topic became a big issue around KPFA, management should have sensed there was a potential problem. They also should have grasped that the issue wasn't "sour grapes" but instead something that would be reflective in the listening audience.

Laufer is not only an accomplished journalist, he is also a war resister (during Vietnam). Though an "outsider," he had many qualities that KPFA listeners could respond to. For them to be aware of those qualities, they would have to know about them. Any hopes that management might grasp that were dashed in a June 1, 2007 report to the listeners. In the midst of the report, Rijio and Lilley brought on Laufter to announce that he would be taking over the Sunday spot. And?

And that was it for the interim program director and general manager. This was a huge announcement and listeners deserved to be introduced to Laufer. Instead, Laufer was instructed to introduce himself. As 'hosts' of the report, it was incumbent upon the program director and the general manager to conduct an interview. They didn't do that. They basically said, "Dance for us, perform for us." Laufer seemed a bit taken aback on air -- you can listen at the KPFA archives -- but he went along with it and offered some of his career highlights. Then the two women were done with him.

An award winning journalist, a well known journalist, coming to KPFA was news. It was a feather in the cap for KPFA. It said, "We are serious players." But that appears to have been the only thought that went into it on management's part.

There was no attempt made on the part of management to explain to Laufer what he was facing. He had no idea and was completely blind sided.

Laufer made one big mistake that he is responsible for. When he took over the program, and for weeks later, it had no title. On his end, he thought he and the listeners could come up with a title together -- which they eventually did, calling the program Sunday.

Though this was an effort on Laufer's part to involve the listeners and to approach his KPFA role in a free-wheeling approach that goes to the roots of FM radio (and Laufer worked at KPFA decades ago), it was seen by some as a sign that he really didn't appreciate the slot he had been handed. That was programmers, that was listeners. "He got Larry's spot and he can't even think of a title!" was an outraged programmer's comment four weeks after Laufer had been doing the show.

That was Laufer's big mistake. He didn't grasp how this would appear.

As Ava and C.I. have noted, a successful replacement takes the Cheryl Ladd approach. You come on like the kid sister. A successful replacement isn't someone you feel is being crammed down your throat.

That has nothing to do with Laufer but has everything to do with management. Any 'new' person brought in and handed that two-hour slot was going to (and will) have the same problems. If you're going outside the KPFA family for that slot, you do it wisely.

From the start, management did a very poor job. That was obvious when Rijios and Lilley failed to introduce Laufer, failed to do the basics of having a conversation with him on air in the listeners' report. That was obvious when he soloed from the start. Laufer, though a substitue host for Bensky, was the "new guy" everyone would be following including people who did not listen to Sunday Salon because they didn't care for Bensky.

The smartest thing to do would have been to pair him up with other hosts as guests for his first few weeks. Listeners could hear a Nora Barrows-Friedman, Kris Welch, Dennis Bernstein, Bonnie Faulkner, Philip Maldari, Jennifer Stone, etc. relate to him. As they heard that relation, Laufer was no longer the "stranger," he would become part of the family.

The way KPFA largely works is someone dies or they retire and only then is their slot open. Listeners are well aware of that. Bensky himself has complained about that publicly. So when a high profile slot opens up, attention will be paid to who it is given to.

Had they gone within the 'family,' there still would have been skepticism for many. But you cannot hand over a slot to an 'outsider' and not be aware that you are begging for a hostile reaction to them from listeners.

Laufer, going to the roots of KPFA, did free-form radio and did it well. Each hour had a different topic. Each week you got two different topics. This worked for Bensky because he was a legend and a known personality. For anyone new to the station, it will continue to be a nightmare. When a new host is appointed, the bulk of listeners are no longer tuning in for a host. Skipping around the political topic landscape -- going national or international one hour, local the next -- is not going to work. Each topic will find some people bored with the choice and you can't afford to run off listeners from what is a new program. Management should have said, "One hour each week will go to ___." For us, obviously, that would be Iraq. But regardless of what that one regular topic was, it needed to be selected and it needed to be followed.

Listeners of NPR's The Diane Rehm Show know that every Friday they will get two hours of roundtable. There are listeners who tune in on Fridays only and do so just for that regular programming. When you are new to a program, listeners need to know what to expect. "Lively" isn't enough.

Management should have grasped when Bensky announced his intention to leave that they were (a) replacing a legendary host and (b) that this would be a very difficult task. Nothing on management's end indicates that they grasped anything other than they had to fill two hours.

Peter Laufer did the job he was hired to and did so with no guidance. He is to be congratulated for his performance. However, he was instead fired.

Why was he fired?

He was fired for the reasons listed above.

Peter Laufer believes he was fired for because of complaints from one vocal segment of listeners. He believes that based on what Lilley did and did not tell him.

Firing is hard, no question. But you do a disservice when you don't make it clear.

Lilley's explanation has led Laufer to believe that a group -- the same group Lilley trashed in The Berkeley Daily Planet -- is responsible for his firing. That isn't reality.

Lilley doesn't give a damn about those listeners as was obvious from her published remarks.

What happened was that she (and others) needed a big profile hiring to prove that Larry Bensky's departure wasn't a huge blow to the station. Laufer was and is a name. He was a feather in the cap. His hiring was used to give the appearance that management was strong and knew what they were doing.

From introducing him on air to 'explaining' the firing, management did a lousy job. Laufer only made one mistake throughout his hosting and that was assuming that the title could wait and not grasping that what was genuinely intended as a relationship building excercise between the listeners and himself would be seen by some as an indifference/lack of appreciation for the slot he'd been given.

There were problems with listeners. That was from the group Lilley rails against. That was also from other listeners who felt detached from the program and the host. Those problems stem from management not grasping the huge undertaking replacing Bensky would be. (Though there are many at KPFA who argue it was grasped and that Laufer was always intended -- without his knowledge -- to be nothing more than a stop-gap measure.)

Laufer could have successfully replaced Benksy. Many people could and can. The reality is Bensky was not interested in continuing the program so Bensky wasn't going to be on air.

Who was going to replace Bensky was always going to be an issue. Laufer thinks, due to the 'explanation' he was given, that a great deal of the firing has to do with the fact that he is not a person of color. That was an issue before his hiring was announced. It's an issue management ignored despite the fact that the Bay Area is far more diverse ethnically and racially than KPFA on air demonstrates. Gender's also an issue that should have been factored in before hiring anyone. But no one was fired due to race or gender. (Women and people of color can make the case that they haven't been hired due to race and gender.)

What happened was that the "outsider" was an "outsider" to the end. Laufer should have been made aware of the issues arising. He had an audience and he didn't need to rally them to his defense but he needed to be made aware of the fact that he wasn't connecting with many other listeners. That feedback is a basic and that it wasn't provided goes to management. Had he been provided with the feedback, he could have had time to ponder it and address it.

But at the root the problem wasn't what he did or how he did it, the problem was his "outsider" status. As a guest host for Bensky, he was brought in by Bensky to do Bensky's program. He wasn't a 'known' from those fill-ins. When it became his own program, it was incumbent on management to get across that he wasn't just the 'new hire,' he was a part of the community. They failed to do that and, by refusing to give Laufer feedback, they failed to clue him in that there was a problem. Instead, the problem was left ignored and grew until the only answer management had was to fire him.

There were other answers. This wasn't a case where a host was running off listeners with what he was doing, this was listeners just not feeling vested in a host. Instead of ignoring the situation, management should have said, at the very least, that the second hour was going to be a roundtable for the next four weeks where Laufer would interact with various on air 'knowns' such as Bonnie Simmons and others listed. Laufer could select the topic but the fact that the KPFA 'family' would be present would have given his new show exposure to listeners who were wary of him (as they would have been by anyone brought in). Instead of addressing what was a minor issue (one they will have again), the decision was made to fire Laufer. That was a huge mistake.

Laufer hasn't 'bounced back' -- he hasn't needed to. His life goes on with him doing the same show on San Francisco's Green 960 at the same time each Sunday. He continues to co-host the national program Washington Monthly Radio each week. Sundays, on 960 a.m., he will no doubt continue to grow and improve along with his program.

But what does this say about KPFA management? After less than six months on air, a high profile hire is fired. Has anything been learned from the experience?

That's an important question and one that management needs to explore seriously. The high profile hire got KPFA attention (including a write up of Laufer by legendary journalist Ben Fong-Torres in The San Francisco Chronicle). The station now has attention for their firing of Laufer. The next person to fill the slot (if it's not eliminated) will be watched even more closely. Exactly how does KPFA management intend to work with the person to ensure a smooth transition?
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