Larry Bensley

Activist-journalist Larry Bensky, 87, died Sunday in Berkeley
Bensky worked for decades at KPFA and Pacifica Radio, covering historical events including the Iran-Contra hearings and the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.

By Nathan Dalton
May 23, 2024, 11:20 a.m.

Larry Bensky, the veteran Pacifica Radio broadcaster whom the New York Times once called the “signature voice” of KPFA, died on May 19 at his home in Berkeley. He was 87 years old.

Bensky, a self-described “activist-journalist,” began working at KPFA in 1969, and served as Pacifica’s national affairs correspondent from 1987 to 1998, covering many prominent national and international stories, including the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 for which he won the prestigious George Polk Award. He also covered the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, and four Supreme Court hearings. He anchored Pacifica’s coverage of the 9/11 Commission hearings, and co-anchored coverage of several presidential debates and nominating conventions. He was also one of the original co-hosts of Pacifica’s flagship program, Democracy Now! in 1996.

Larry Bensky was born in Brooklyn on May 1, 1937, and became interested in journalism at a very young age.
“I was one of those kids who taught himself to read from newspapers,” said Bensky in a 2007 retrospective of his work on KPFA. “My father used to bring home six or seven of them a day, and it was during World War II, and Jews were being exterminated and I was very interested in that issue, being Jewish myself.”

Bensky attended Yale University, where he served as the managing director of the Yale Daily News, then attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota while working for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He briefly worked as an editor at the book publisher Random House, where he offered author Cormac McCarthy his first book contract, before moving to Paris where he worked for The Paris Review.

In the mid-1960s he moved back to the U.S. and became an editor in the book section of the New York Times, and also became more involved in political activism.

“When I got to the point where I realized that I was in journalism and had the skills to do that as a print reporter and writer,” said Bensky, “I wanted it to be for good.”

He soon realized that his brand of activist-journalism would not fly at the Times, and left the paper to work for the leftist magazine Ramparts in California.

This was in 1968 when San Francisco and the Bay Area were rife with political activism, which Bensky called “tremendously inspiring.”

Bensky got his start in radio at KSAN-FM in San Francisco before joining KPFA in 1969. He soon became the station’s production director and in 1972 produced the station’s first live national broadcast, “The Siege of Miami,” which covered the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Florida, and the political protests surrounding them.

Despite technical difficulties and a “telephone type” sound quality, there was an “urgency” to the broadcast, said Bensky.

“We’re the only people doing this, and the only people covering the demonstrations, and the only people doing the kind of street reporting we were doing,” he said in the KPFA retrospective. “And it was a tremendously exciting moment. And it put us on the map.”

Bensky served as the station manager of KPFA from 1974 to 1977. In 1978, he applied to accompany Congressman Leo Ryan on his trip to Guyana to visit Jonestown, the settlement founded by cult leader Jim Jones, but was unable to make the trip. Congressman Ryan and four journalists in the press corps were murdered during the trip just before the mass-suicide that claimed some 918 lives and became known as the Jonestown Massacre.

Just nine days later, San Francisco Supervisor Dan White murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, both of whom Bensky knew and covered.

The two events impacted Bensky deeply and made him question his career.

“Even though I knew my role in it was to try to make such things better, I was still a part of it in a way that hurt me,” he said in the 2007 retrospective. “And I actually left broadcasting for a few years.”

Bensky soon made his way back to journalism and in 1987 began his role as national correspondent for Pacifica. Later he hosted the KPFA show Sunday Salon for several years, retiring from the station in 2007, only to come out of retirement to host the Sunday morning classical music program, Piano.

Bensky also taught journalism and political science courses at several Bay Area institutions, including Stanford University and California State University, East Bay, and encouraged many of his students to take part in KPFA’s robust apprenticeship and training program.

Even at a politically left institution like Pacifica, Bensky still stirred up trouble. He was known to hang up on callers he disagreed with, and often questioned the leadership of the network. He was fired, and rehired, twice in 1999. Once was during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which he called a “disgrace to the Constitution” before adding that Clinton himself was “a disgrace to the office.” The second time was for discussing internal network matters on-air during an episode the New York Times called “The Battle for Berkeley’s Airwaves,” when KPFA’s general manager, Nicole Sawaya, was abruptly fired, triggering protests inside and outside the station.

But for Bensky, this was all part of the job of being an activist-journalist.

“Mainstream journalists tend mostly to care about their career and to protect themselves from any adverse results that may come from whatever their work is and to work inside the format and the mold,” he said in the 2007 retrospective. “An activist-journalist cannot put their career first. You have to put the issue first. And you have to try to reach people in a way that they will understand parts of an issue that they haven’t understood before and hopefully work to change a condition that is very disturbing and, in your mind, unjust.”

“Larry was always someone who was proud to be part of KPFA, but never seemed completely happy with KPFA,” said station host Brian Edwards-Tiekert in a Facebook post after his death. “He always wanted KPFA to be better and bigger. And because of him, we are.”

Bensky is survived by his wife Susie Bluestone, daughter Lila Bluestone Bensky and five grandchildren. A funeral for Bensky was held on May 20. Arrangements for a public memorial will be announced soon.