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Unpaid staffers make up a political block of significance at KPFA and have the support of some paid staffers, including Dennis Bernstein, who has taken Valrey under his wing by giving him airtime on Flashpoints. As a member of its volunteer staff association, Valrey has been critical of KPFA management for some time.
Last year, station manager Lemlem Rijio curbed the influence of the often-unruly unpaid staffers. Rijio changed the rules to reduce the voting power of unpaid staffers, who for years enjoyed the same voting rights as paid staff members when it came to selecting board representation. Since around that time, Valrey has zeroed in on Rijio and other station managers.
Last August, while interviewing filmmaker Iana Jones about her documentary on black radio, Valrey used the topic as a platform to criticize Rijio. "Even today," he said, in an implied reference to KPFA, "there are black puppets put there to keep the status quo in place." He also said that the repression of black viewpoints at KPFA is being enforced "by black face, from the top." And Valrey made a point of noting with apparent disapproval — as he has done numerous times in his Bay View articles — that Rijio is from Ethiopia.
The interview was one of many times that Valrey has called for a black public affairs show on KPFA. "That has been one of my major campaigns," he said. "There's black music shows on the radio, but there's really no regular black public affairs show. KPFA has these types of programs for Asians, for Latinos, but not for black people. I would like to see The Block Report as a weekly or daily, or even a biweekly program," he said. "This really came to a head when the Nadra Foster thing happened."
Just three days after Valrey's interview with Jones, the long-running conflict between some of KPFA's volunteers and management once again came to a head when volunteer staffer Nadra Foster was arrested and removed from the station's studios by Berkeley police. Foster had reportedly been banned from KPFA for making long-distance calls on KPFA phone lines. However, she continued to work in the station's studios, coming in about three times a week. She claimed that she didn't think the ban was official, as she had never received anything in writing. When a staff member confronted her for using one of the studios, a manager called police to remove her. Foster, who had a prior criminal record, resisted her arrest, allegedly biting one of the officers during the melee. After more officers were called, Foster was forced to the ground, put in restraints, and hauled off to jail.
The Foster incident prompted Valrey to call for Rijio's resignation. However, a supporter of Rijio, who asked to remain nameless, said she was dealing with a family emergency at the time of the incident and played no role in calling the police.
More recently, Valrey again called for Rijio's resignation after several paid and unpaid staff members were reprimanded for supporting him on air after his arrest. Those reprimanded include paid staffer Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, and volunteer Nina Serrano of La Raza Chronicles, who both read the following announcement: "We believe JR to be innocent of setting fires and causing physical damages, as he was professionally occupied covering this important story. ... People are showing their support by coming to his hearing Monday, February 23, at 9 a.m. at 661 Washington Street in Oakland."
Hanrahan defends her actions. "Management doesn't understand the tradition of Pacifica and why it's so important that we support and defend it," she said. "The guy is out there, and when you're out there as a journalist you get blowback, and you have to be supported. If the DA comes down on him, that probably means he's doing his job." Speaking of Valrey's call for Rijio's resignation, she said, "I want things to change at KPFA, and I support JR's right to say what he said. JR is a serious journalist doing important work. In my opinion we need ten JRs."
On the day after her announcement, Hanrahan said, she was given a formal notice of misconduct and asked to take a leave of absence. The notice, obtained by the Express, claimed violation of station policy in three regards: making a "direct call to action" over the air, broadcasting information without authorization from management, and neglecting to indicate that the information was "not the opinion or position of KPFA." Serrano said she was not given a written reprimand but warned verbally about her transgression. KPFA staffers were also given a memo reiterating these three rules and noting that their violation would lead to disciplinary action, Hanrahan said.
Valrey responded with an article in the Bay View. "KPFA was the first listener-sponsored station in the country when it went into business in 1949 and was seen as a beacon of audio resistance in Northern California. Sixty years later, East African-born General Manager Lemlem Rijio has had broadcasters reprimanded because of their support for me and the Oakland 100. All of this is some bullshit, considering that KPFA is constantly begging for money. Isn't that a 'call to action' or 'advocating action on the air'? ... We are urging everyone to call KPFA and tell them that you will not give them another cent until the General Manager Lemlem Rijio is fired or steps down. We need a constant inundation of calls to kick off this part of the campaign."
On March 21, three Oakland police sergeants were shot and killed by parolee Lovelle Mixon. Another officer was severely injured and died the following day. Mixon, who had a warrant for his arrest for parole violation, had been pulled over on MacArthur Boulevard in what was described as a routine stop. After shooting Sergeants John Hege and Mark Dunakin, Mixon apparently walked over to the officers and shot them both again, execution-style. He then fled the scene and hid out in a nearby apartment building. Police raided the building after receiving a tip as to his whereabouts. From inside a closet, Mixon shot and killed S.W.A.T team members Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai with an AK-47 assault rifle. He was then killed by another officer.
While most of Oakland reeled in shock over one of the deadliest attacks on law enforcement in California history, JR Valrey wrote an article for the Bay View that essentially justified Mixon's actions.