KPFA put me to work writing on-air copy between programs. In my spare time I organized their tape library. That’s when I had my first run in with Elsa Knight Thompson. I had avoided her because of her famous temper. She confronted me in the control room demanding a tape to record an interview with writer James Baldwin. KPFA was broke, as usual, and there were no blank tapes. Elsa stormed up to me and in a venomous undertone, inches from my face, declared, “If Jesus Christ walked in here tomorrow there would be no tape to record him on.” I erased another archive and Elsa went on to do the interview.
Part of my job was reviewing audio tapes sent into the station. They came from all over the world. Most were unusable. Some were gems. Typical, a box from North Africa with a note attached by a rubber band. “I had a chance to interview Ben Balthazar on my office dictaphone. The quality isn’t too good, but this is one of the most inaccessible guerrilla leaders in Africa today.” I couldn’t hear a thing above the static.
My duties soon expanded to tape editing. I became responsible for trimming commentaries, book and movie reviews. They were supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but while some commentators adhered to their time limits, others ran over. The most egregious was movie reviewer Pauline Kael. I cut her work ruthlessly. She ranted and raved about “that tape boy.” But drama and literature director, John Leonard, stood up for me, telling Pauline she could come in on time or suffer the consequences.
In a few months KPFA hired me as Production Director. I gave up my house in El Cerrito and moved into a tiny four room cottage within walking distance of the station. We reduced our meat intake to one pound of hamburger a week and lived on beans, rice, lentils and vegetables.
Fred Haines gave me my first opportunity to announce a few months after I joined the staff. He sat me in the control room chair of studio B and explained: “When the music ends, turn down pot one, turn up the mike pot, stop the left turntable with your left hand, read the script while checking the mike level on that meter in front of you, use your right hand to start turntable two but let the record slide on the felt until you find the cue point and then turn up pot 2, then let the record go as you finish the script and turn down your mike pot.” And then he said with as much excitement as Fred ever revealed, “You’re on the air!” and thankfully guided my hands through the mechanics.
Elsa stormed into the studio moments later and gave me her terrifying look. “If you must speak on the radio, at least have the decency to learn how to talk properly. Come into my office.” And thereupon began my education in broadcasting from a woman who became my first and only mentor. Her reaction to my amateur voice was typical Elsa. Both the indignation and the generosity, the concern with professionalism and the willingness to teach. In about two and a half hours she taught me as much as any voice coach. Years later a friend who gave voice lessons to professional singers in New York City, told me she used the same exercises. The BBC had trained Elsa.
The BBC recruited Elsa when a programmer overheard her speak on behalf of orphan children being evacuated from England to the United States at the beginning of World War II. The line he overheard was pure Elsa. When asked if she was going to evacuate illegitimate children, Elsa responded, “There is no such thing as an illegitimate child — there may be illegitimate parents.”
Her intelligence, wit and tobacco/whisky voice helped her rise quickly in the BBC during the war. She headed the international affairs desk of a program called Radio Newsreel, which reached 20 million people in occupied Europe. Elsa broadcast the first documented stories on the Nazi extermination camps. The program and her work in general had a huge impact and she influenced many journalists. She worked at the BBC for 8 years, from 1941 to 1949 and got to know Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow.
Elsa’s principles were unflinching. She had watched the BBC use the communist left during the war to rally anti-fascist resistance in Europe and was appalled when they refused to have anything to do with the same lefties after the war. Elsa was no communist sympathizer. She refused to return to Hungary with her lover because the communist government there curtailed free speech. But she was unabashedly on the left.
Her break with the BBC came when a senior colleague told her bluntly, “Elsa, you’ve got the highest rating that any woman has held in the news division, but you’ll never go up any higher because the next move will put you over men and that they will not tolerate.” It was 1949.
Back in the United States, it took Elsa eight years to find KPFA. No American radio network would touch her on her own terms. She worked at WCFM, the first cooperatively owned radio station in the United States, in Washington, DC until it failed in 1953. She then sold sewing machines and worked as a clerk in Garfinkles in Washington to stay alive.
Elsa started at KPFA in April of 1957, when Pacifica founder Lew Hill was in his final struggle to retain control of Pacifica. As Lew became less active in day-to-day affairs, Elsa took over his vision, modified it and forced it on Pacifica by the sheer weight of her intelligence, professionalism and dedication. She shared Lew’s commitment to world peace, to understanding among people, tolerance and the importance of a vibrant, diversified culture. Unlike Lew, Elsa was no pacifist and I suspect would have fought in World War II if she had been a man.
Elsa did not believe that truth was found half way between two extremes, the “liberal broadcasters cop-out”, she called it. Gene Marine recalled listening from home to a documentary he had produced. It was followed by a discussion with Elsa and the station manager. The manager complained that Gene’s program had not been fair in giving equal time to both sides of the controversy. Without a beat Elsa replied, “Sometimes the facts are biased.”
For Elsa the truth usually lay to the left of center. She may have considered herself a socialist. She often explained that “A conservative is someone who wishes the world to stand still wherever it is that they have found it because it is satisfying to them in its present state. A liberal is a man or woman who wishes the world was a nicer place. A socialist is someone who is prepared to try to make it a nicer place. And a communist is a socialist in despair.”
This puts Elsa squarely in the deepest and richest tradition of American journalism. From its founding father Tom Paine who helped bring the common man through six and half years of brutal revolutionary war in the 18th Century, through Lincoln Steffens and the turn of the Twentieth Century muckrakers, to today’s Twenty-first Century investigative reporters and whistle blowers, our best journalists have had an instinctive distrust of authority, wealth and privilege. They are a Fourth Estate in the full sense of the phrase, viewing those in power with skepticism and extending compassion to the weak and helpless, fascinated by society’s outcasts and its mad geniuses.