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Smoke Signals at KPFT

Ahhh, nothing like the morning shift for a DJ. Drive the traffic-less streets to get to the studio at around 5:30. Make a cup of coffee. Dial 911 because the storage garage in the backyard is ablaze!Š

KPFT's storage garage behind the station on Lovett Boulevard in Montrose after it was set ablaze.
Anthony Mariani
KPFT's storage garage behind the station on Lovett Boulevard in Montrose after it was set ablaze.

That was the morning for Mary Ramirez, host of Mary in the Morning, last Friday at KPFT/90.1 FM. The station, located on Lovett Boulevard between Hawthorne and Westheimer in Montrose, is housed in a onetime residential structure built in 1915. About ten feet behind it is the garage, where, according to KPFT director of engineering Robert Cham, the station kept reel-to-reel tape machines, tape decks, noise-reduction gear, equipment casings and more than 6,000 mostly rare vinyl records, among many other things. Everything was destroyed, and the records were reduced to black gooey blobs. No final damage estimate had been reported by late last week, though Cham, a record collector since 1959, says replacing rare records can cost upward of $10 a pop. That's, umm, a lot of money for you fans keeping score at home.

The station was off the air for two hours starting minutes after the fire, and that was only because flames melted power lines. No one was injured.

Robert Kent, fire department senior arson investigator, says arson was definitely the cause. The fire started in two places, which, according to Kent, is a sure sign of deliberate devilry. Though a resident who lives behind the station's garage says he saw flames at around 3 a.m., the fire department didn't get the call until Ramirez picked up the phone at 5:43 a.m.

At that point, KPFT General Manager Garland Ganter says, the flames were visible above all the other two-story roofs along the street. Four pumper trucks, two ladder trucks and two district chiefs were on the scene within minutes of the call (Station No. 7 is literally around the corner from KPFT), and the blaze was extinguished by about 6 a.m., according to investigator Kent, though the structure was still considered unsafe by late afternoon.

The timing of the fire couldn't have been more apocryphal. It was the weekend of the Pacifica Radio Network's board of directors meeting here. Since its founding in California more than 50 years ago by Lewis Hill, who envisioned a spot on the airwaves where community voices could be heard, Pacifica has expanded significantly. In addition to KPFT, the network owns four other public radio FM stations across the country and many AM stations. But more important to its typically left-leaning listeners, Pacifica seems to have expanded beyond its public-service role, favoring a nonthreatening lineup of singer-songwriters to hard-hitting political commentary. In Houston KPFT hasn't broadcast a local news segment in nearly three years. Many listeners are not happy with this commercialization of the station.

"It's a dichotomy," says David Lopez of David T. Lopez and Associates in Houston. "It's a dichotomy between folks who want to maintain the principles of Pacifica and the people who have the emphasis on gaining an audience," he says.

"Each side has to meet the other, because you need both," he continues, meaning an audience to hear your messages and messages to attract an audience. "Right now," he says, "[radio] goes from conservative to ultraconservative."

Lopez knows what he's talking about. Not only is he an original KPFT board member and a roommate of KPFT founder Larry Lee, but he has also been nominated to an 11-member board that the media watchdogs of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting would like to install in place of the national executive board. FAIR ambushed Pacifica officials last week when it presented its proposal for change in Houston. At press time there was no word on whether Pacifica would bite at FAIR's bait.

Arson investigator Kent says he has ruled out Halloween pranksters as suspects. Others who remain on the suspects list include vagrants who reportedly had been using the garage as a place to sleep and KPFT/Pacifica radio protesters. "It's interesting," says Kent. "The day [Pacifica has] their meeting here is the day this happens. We'll definitely look into that."

KPFT has not been the target of vandalism since it was firebombed twice in 1970, the year it went on the air. The station has been in its current location since 1975.

"It's an eerie coincidence," says Ganter, who has been general manager since 1994. "But I don't knowŠ.It's kind of ironic."

Says Duane Bradley, head of the Houston Committee For People's Radio and former KPFT program director: "It's a shock. It's certainly not something that anyone should feel proud of. And it's an odd timing, the night before the beginning of the national board meetingŠ.I can categorically say that no one from our group has anything to do with it. I've known these [committee members] for a long timeŠ.I didn't sense any arsonist vibes or destructive drives in anyone in our group," which ranges from about a dozen to 15 members.

Bradley also says the fire, though a tragedy, might help attract attention to the fight. "We want to preserve Pacifica radio in Houston, and we want it to adhere to its basic charter as a 'voice for the voiceless.' It's drifted away the past ten years."

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