Heightened security: White Citizens Council bans popular KPFA host JR Valrey from Pacifica radio network

Editorial by Dr. Willie Ratcliff

On Friday the 13th, Sept. 13, 2013, the 17th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s assassination, Pacifica Radio Interim Executive Director Summer Reese emailed this memo to the staff at 5 p.m.:

Pacifica memo to KPFA staff banning JR Valrey 091313

Who is this terrorist, this big bad JR Valrey who poses some sort of threat to the whole Pacifica network of five major radio stations around the country? First, he’s my friend and comrade at the Bay View, where we’ve worked together for over a dozen years, all his adult life. JR is our associate editor.

Black Media Appreciation Night Willie Ratcliff, JR Valrey smiles Yoshi's 112612 by TaSin Sabir, webDuring the same period, he’s also volunteered at KPFA radio, where his hard and highly acclaimed work finally won him a prime time show – Wednesdays at 8-9 a.m. – starting in May 2011. Immediately, listeners flocked to KPFA to hear this exciting new show, where voices from around the block and around the world, everyday people and celebrities, engaged in fascinating conversations with JR, responding to his provocative questions.

One of the few points that everyone in the often dysfunctional KPFA family – listeners and staff – agree on is that the station needs a larger audience, one that matches the power of the station’s 59,000-watt signal, an audience that can use the information broadcast on KPFA to influence the course of events, locally and globally. JR was doing that better than any other broadcaster, and within months was KPFA’s second or third most successful fundraiser.

Voices from around the block and around the world, everyday people and celebrities, engaged in fascinating conversations with JR, responding to his provocative questions.

Nevertheless, he was abruptly suspended in March of this year. For 26 weeks, substitutes have hosted JR’s show every Wednesday morning.

But his passion for reporting stories other journalists ignore or don’t understand was not entirely absent from KPFA. When an astounding 30,000 California prisoners kicked off the largest prison hunger strike in history on July 8, 2013, JR requested time for what became a four-part series of one-hour specials. The series has been widely praised as the best coverage anywhere of the 60-day hunger strike. Here are the four hour-long shows:

California Prison Hunger Strike Special, Part 1, Aug. 3, 2013

California Prison Hunger Strike Special, Part 2, Aug. 11, 2013

California Prison Hunger Strike Special, Part 3, Aug. 26, 2013

California Prison Hunger Strike Special, Part 4, Sept. 2, 2013

Praise for the hunger strike specials came from inside as well as outside KPFA, and the series appeared to be opening the door for JR’s return to his Wednesday morning show. That’s what the following email to JR from KPFA Interim General Manager Richard Pirodsky seems to say:

Richard Pirodsky email to JR 090713

The transformation of JR from valued broadcaster to terrorist took only six days and came with no warning. He had never even been told why he was suspended, but it may have been his mention on air during his Feb. 6 show of the White Citizens Council, referring to the handful of paid staff who constitute both management and union leadership at KPFA.

In “Davey D: JR’s voice is indispensable to KPFA’s conversation on race,” JR’s long time comrade and host of the 4 p.m. weekday show Hard Knock Radio on KPFA writes: “According to the reports, JR has been suspended because he talked station business on the air and said some things that were unflattering about some of the on-air folks.

Free Wheelin' Franklin, Sinista Z, G1 of Rebel Diaz, JR, Rod Starz, Deanna, Holly Works at KPFA Oscar Grant special 0608“First, let’s put this into context. What JR did was not the first time in the long history or recent history of this station that dirty laundry was aired and particular individuals made to feel uncomfortable. What’s ‘dirty laundry’ to some is truth and clean sunshine to others.”

Davey lists numerous examples, then writes: “But when dirty laundry is aired about racism and unbalanced practices resulting in people made to feel uncomfortable or toes stepped on, then it’s a problem. When that happens, a second set of rules gets applied. That’s unfair. …

“Things have got to change. Everyone has got to play by the same set of rules. That’s one of the first things we must do to eradicate institutional racism at KPFA.”

Davey emphasizes JR’s role at KPFA: “We must make a commitment and find ways to include marginalized voices in the community. … JR was a part of that, was doing great work and bringing new voices to the forefront. To have him suspended for 20 weeks [altogether 26 weeks] is not only about having the individual gone, but also the community he holds it down for.

“At KPFA, we as a station should be growing, not shrinking down. We as a station should be adding more voices – especially as we have this Trayvon Martin case, a hunger strike inside the California prisons and increased incidents of police terrorism.

Rally to Save Hard Knock Radio Flashpoints and Full Circle at KPFA JR speaking 111110 by Lisa Dettmer, web“More space and airtime is needed to highlight the voices and perspectives of those most afflicted. JR has played a key role in doing that and must be supported. It’s time he be allowed back on the airwaves. It’s time we draw up a new set of rules that are transparent and fair to all,” Davey concludes.

My own suspicion is that the White Citizens Council – JR’s term has now come into general use at KPFA – see JR as a competitive threat. As I observed in “Bring JR back to KPFA now!” in March, three weeks after JR’s suspension: “Getting punished for doing ‘too well’ happens to Black folks much too often. … JR, a volunteer, unpaid host at KPFA, whose show costs the station nothing, has raised $50,000 for the station’s paid staff during his short stint as a drive time host.”

JR is by no means the first Black broadcaster to be driven from KPFA. Those who preceded him read like a who’s who of media giants, including several whose work you often read in the Bay View – Kiilu Nyasha, Wanda Sabir, Donald Lacy, Leroy Moore. And whether it happened recently or decades ago, it’s still too painful for them to talk about.

“In my six years on the KPFA Local Station Board, I heard countless complaints of racism. Racism, practiced with impunity by some of the paid staff, has lost KPFA many excellent broadcasters of color. Like theirs, JR’s complaints have been ignored, while the complaints filed against JR by the Communications Workers of America, the union representing KPFA’s mostly white paid staff, are the excuse for his suspension,” I wrote, speculating about the reason JR was suspended.

The damage that memo does to JR’s career prospects and his ability to support his family is enormous. And his three beautiful little children – like JR himself in my estimation – did nothing to deserve it.

I encourage you to read the outpouring of support for JR by the many, across all demographic lines, who agree with the headline, “Bring JR back to KPFA now!” Their comments demonstrate a passion for the news and information JR presented them that’s as great as JR’s passion to report it. If those supporters were to vote with their feet, KPFA, already in perilous financial condition, might suffer severely.

Cartoon JR & White Citizens Council 'I'm ready for our conversation on race' by Signe WilkinsonRumor has it that the bizarre letter from Summer Reese posted above and the investigation it apparently culminates were prompted by KPFA’s insurance company, which reportedly refused to renew its policy unless better management and policies could stem the many lawsuits filed against KPFA, mostly by staff whose complaints, like JR’s, were ignored.

If that rumor is true, Summer Reese’s Friday the 13th memo is evidence of KPFA’s racist and classist blind spot. The use of such inflammatory language must assume that the alleged terrorist JR Valrey is too poor and too Black to fight back with a lawsuit charging libel. I don’t agree, and I urge attorneys to contact him, at blockreportradio@gmail.com or (510) 338-8219.

The damage that memo does to JR’s career prospects and his ability to support his family is enormous. And his three beautiful little children – like JR himself in my estimation – did nothing to deserve it.

Bay View publisher Dr. Willie Ratcliff can be reached at publisher@sfbayview.com or (415) 671-0789. To tell Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer Reese how you feel, email summer@pacifica.org or call (510) 333-1965.