KPFK was nothing like the WBAI I left two and half years earlier. The ticket to success at the Los Angeles station was personality radio. Elsa Knight Thompson’s old-fashioned journalism was out. Fewer and fewer people seemed to be talking to each other anyway.
I carved out a live three-hour mid-day show that ran from 11:00 AM to 2:00 pm called Free Lunch. The name was a reference to the famous journalist A.J. Leibling’s characterization of the news as the “free lunch” that newspapers gave out to sell advertising, just as bars used to give away free food to entice customers to buy beer. Most of my guests were musicians, writers and artists, but I occasionally got pulled into political stories.
One was an interview with Ron Karenga, the man who invented Kwanza. In 1969 Karenga was battling with Black Panthers for leadership of the Los Angeles African-American community. Everyone knew the FBI and local police were trying to destroy the Panthers by turning other black groups against them. I suspected Karenga was an FBI plant.
My station manager suffered from a severe case of radical chic and wanted his own black revolutionary friend. Karenga was the lucky one. Or more likely, Karenga picked my station manager up at some Hollywood party where celebrities of all kinds mixed together. I had no evidence that Karenga was an agent, but he was a cult leader with an unstable personality who advocated violence. My station manager didn’t care what I thought. I interviewed Karenga to keep the peace.
We talked at Karenga’s Compton headquarters, set up like a Hollywood movie set with heavily armed, unsmiling bodyguards and absurdly dramatic clothing. Karenga sat in a grander version or perhaps a parody of Huey Newton’s grass throne chair. (The African-American movement had come a long way from the modesty of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bob Moses during Freedom Summer 1964.) It turned out later that the guns, the stage set and Karenga himself were all supported in part by the FBI.
The distrust of other members of the movement that began in 1965 became full-scale paranoia by 1969. Everyone knew the FBI and CIA collected and dispersed inflammatory information to local authorities and planted informants and agents in movement organization to encourage violence and thereby discredit protesters. People found it hard to trust anyone they hadn’t known personally for some time. Who in this little group of people working to end the war, feed the hungry, watch the police or work for social change is the FBI informant?
I covered the trial of members of the Los Angeles branch of the Progressive Labor Party. One of their comrades had turned them in, a young man who had joined the party as an insecure, overweight, pimply, depressed teenager. Over several years his comrades had helped him lose weight, clear up his skin, gain self-respect and find a girl friend.
I was in the courtroom when the prosecution brought him out as their surprise chief witness. His comrades gasped as he accused them of plotting to violently overthrow the United States government. After the trial was over and the Socialist Workers Party members convicted, I went to interview the young man who sent them away. “It was my job,” he explained. “I was getting paid for it by the FBI. What else could I do?” His fee was tuition at a local community college.
Money was more important than loyalty or the loss of a girlfriend … probably more important than anything. That still seemed shocking to me in 1969.