Tue 20 Nov 2007
Many of us in West Marin have gotten to know radio newsman Peter Laufer although his homes are in Fairfax and Bodega Bay. Ten years ago he was part of Víctor Reyes’ Spanish-language classes that meet every Tuesday evening at Susan Sasso’s home in Olema.
Photojournalist Ilka Hartmann of Bolinas found herself traveling part of the way with Peter when both rushed to Germany in 1989 to document the fall of the Berlin Wall. I first met him roughly 29 years ago when he interviewed my former wife Cathy and me about the Synanon cult for KNBR radio in San Francisco. Three years later I ran into him again in El Salvador. I was covering that Central American country’s civil war for the old San Francisco Examiner while Peter was reporting for NBC News.
Over the years we’ve kept up contact, and when we had lunch together last August in Fairfax, he told me how lively his Sunday morning radio show on KPFA had become. Subsequently listening to his show, I realized that while Peter did not shy from closely questioning his interviewees, he was invariably polite to them. A true professional.
So I was startled yesterday at a news release Peter sent to the press. Without warning, KPFA had dumped him. The firing came only two days after Peter had moderated a fundraiser that collected thousands of dollars for the non-commercial FM station. It was a case of a legendary radio station firing a legendary talk-show host.
And Peter is a legend in his own right. He has authored more than a dozen well-received books of social and political criticism; his most recent works probe the lives of soldiers opposed to the Iraq War and promote open borders with Mexico. (This photo is from his book Iron Curtain Rising.)
Peter created the National Geographic World Talk radio show and is co-anchor with publisher Markos Kounalakis of the program Washington Monthly on the Radio. Ironically, Peter noted, “the firing came on the eve of a feature article in The San Francisco Chronicle by Ben Fong-Torres about me and my talk-radio career.”
In the article, Fong-Torres cites Peter’s book Inside Talk Radio: America’s Voice or Just Hot Air? and comments, “Laufer knows his stuff. He’s qualified to offer an update on the state of talk radio — albeit from a decidedly left-of-center viewpoint.” As the article notes, Peter founded talk stations in Berlin and Amsterdam, and has a talk-radio career that dates back to the first-ever talk station.
So why was Peter taken off the air? To quote his news release: “Laufer believes — based on letters and email, along with op-eds in the alternative press — that a group of malcontent KPFA listener-activists orchestrated a smear campaign against him because he is, as these critics wrote, ‘not a person of color’ and because his credentials are ‘too mainstream.'”
Peter’s radio career has been mainstream in the sense that he has won virtually every prestigious award in broadcast journalism. His worldwide reporting, for example, resulted in a Polk award for a documentary on Americans in prison overseas. Here in the Bay Area, he shared a Peabody award as a member of the KCBS news department when he co-anchored the station’s coverage of the 1989 earthquake that devastated the Bay Area.
As for his not being a person of color…. This criticism seemed so off the wall that I asked Peter about his ethnic background and was surprised to learn he comes from Gypsy stock. His father was, in fact, born in Hungary.
Hitler’s death camps, of course, gassed Gypsies — along with Jews, homosexuals, and Communists. And Slovakia is currently barred from entering the European Union because of its mistreatment of Gypsies. These days, however, to be able to understand oppressed minorities, it apparently isn’t enough to belong to an oppressed minority. You also have to look the part.
“If you can’t count on KPFA for tolerance of a diversity of views, what can you count on?” Peter asked. “Of course I harbor no desire to return to their airwaves after being treated in such a shabby fashion.”
So what’s a fan of progressive radio to do? Personally, my donations to non-commercial radio are going to KWMR 90.5 FM, community radio for West Marin.
Update announcement from Peter late Tuesday: “Peter Laufer and Bob Agnew, the program director of Green 960 — the Clear Channel, progressive, talk-radio station for the San Francisco Bay Area, have agreed to test Laufer’s Sunday morning talk show on the AM dial begining Sunday December 2. Laufer expects to lure his loyal KPFA listeners over to the wild world of commercial radio.”