by JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information
Anita Johnson is a legendary journalist and talented audio engineer. While many in the Bay are unfamiliar with name, if they moved around in the Bay Area’s underground grassroots political or media scene in the last 25 years, then they will have come in contact with her work.
Most known as being the co-host of KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio along with Davey D, she has also worked with Prison Radio, which is where political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal’s commentaries come from and Freedom Archives which is an audio and video library of historical revolutionary and progressive speeches.
Although she likes to work below the radar, it is on us, the Black community, to give our front line journalists in this information age their flowers while they can still smell them. So salute to you, Anita Johnson, for all of the audio work over the decades that you have done on behalf of struggling Black and oppressed people.
JR Valrey: When was the first time that you can remember when you had the thought that you wanted to be a radio journalist?
Anita Johnson: After producing my first radio piece. It felt natural and I enjoyed the storytelling and advocacy connected to it.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about how you got into Youth radio? How did you get an internship with KMEL?
Anita Johnson: My radio introduction began with Youth Radio. I applied to the KPFA apprenticeship program and they referred me to you Youth Radio. The rest is history.
JR Valrey: How did you get into professional radio?
Anita Johnson: After producing a handful of pieces for National Public Radio, I began interning at KMEL and then later produced a show on WILD 949. Then I was invited by Jesse “Chuy” Varela (the former music director of KPFA) to produce an hour-long radio show with Davey D, Weyland Southon, and Tsadae Neway. Chuy had a vision that included all four of us. Collectively our politics were aligned. The goal was to produce informative, meaningful and transformative radio.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the work you did with Prison Radio?
Anita Johnson: I helped to co-produced Mumia Abu-Jamal 175 Progress Drive. 175 Progress Drive features rare interviews by and with journalist and 20 year Pennsylvania death row resident Mumia Abu-Jamal.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about your other sound design work? Who have you done audio work for?
Anita Johnson: I’ve worked with Freedom Archives based in Berkeley, Ca. The first project I worked on was Prisons on Fire: George Jackson and Attica and Black Liberation. I co-produced and I was the sound designer for COINTELPRO 101. Cointelpro 101 exposes illegal surveillance, disruption, and outright murder committed by the US government in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. “COINTELPRO” refers to the official FBI COunter INTELigence PROgram carried out to surveil, imprison, and eliminate leaders of social justice movements and to disrupt, divide, and destroy the movements.
Many of the government’s crimes are still unknown. Through interviews with activists who experienced these abuses firsthand and with rare historical footage, the film provides an educational introduction to a period of intense repression and draws relevant lessons for present and future movements.
I’ve done audio mixing for video projects that have aired on Nat Geo, Discovery, Animal Planet, History Channel just to name a few.
JR Valrey: The Bay Area is known as being a very left-leaning political place, why do you think after 20 years HKR is still the only HipHop political talk show on radio in the market, that is created locally?
Anita Johnson: I don’t know. It might be due to the fact that after 50 years Hip-Hop may still not be seen by the “powers that be” or the mainstream news entities as a viable educational resource worth putting money behind. Historically, as it relates to Hip-Hop and capitalism … record executives. It has been expected to entertain not educate. Perhaps it’s based on the educational awareness produced by a HipHop political talk show that centers voices of color and youth. There could be a myriad of reasons unbeknownst to me. However, I know that this work and this show or other similar shows like ours should be supported to the fullest extent.
JR Valrey: After doing a show for as long as you have, how do you keep yourself inspired when it seems like you have met everyone and did everything there is to do in radio and audio?
Anita Johnson: Good question. Basically, life inspires me and I’m constantly learning and growing. So, no I don’t think I’ve done everything there is to do in radio or audio production. I appreciate the ability to utilize this platform to not only educate but introduce new stories and voices to the masses. Voices that historically have been shunned or deemed unworthy. Through my work with Hard Knock we’ve been able to change the narrative of what an expert is or the importance of grassroots reporting in the context of a mainstream news agenda.
JR Valrey: What are you up to now?
Anita Johnson: I’m producing Hard Knock on KPFA. I also work with Making Contact and I do some contract audio work on the side. I’m working on writing a fictional book about queer Black life. I’m in the early stages of producing a podcast for a group of friends interested in sharing dating stories … good and bad.
JR Valrey: How can people keep up with you online?
Anita Johnson: People can follow me on social media at Anita Johnson on Facebook.
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.