KALW Audio Academy Tells the Sights and Sounds Stories of East Oakland
By Ben Trefny, News Director, KALW Public Radio and Bo Walsh, Audio Academy Fellow
About a month ago, I had the real pleasure of attending one of KALW‘s Sights & Sounds of East Oakland live shows. It took place over two nights at the Eastside Arts Alliance, and it was driven largely by work generated and supported by KALW’s Audio Academy.
Let me backtrack for a moment and tell you about the Sights & Sounds project. Several years ago, KALW managers thought the station could be a better public service if it spent time getting to know and reporting stories within some underserved communities around the Bay Area. We started in San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point back in 2014, putting together a community show with live storytelling, music, and dancing at the Bayview Opera House. It was a great time – really brought people together – but we realized as we held a second event that we weren’t working closely enough with the community to tell the stories that mattered most. Soon after, I met Martin Reynolds, former editor-in-chief of the Oakland Tribune, who had co-founded a community journalism program out of East Oakland called Oakland Voices. We worked together to develop a model in which East Oakland reporters could tell their stories with multimedia support at every level from KALW. We raised some money to help fund the work, and now we’re in our third year telling stories by and for people living in East Oakland, on the air, online, and in person at venues around town.
That brings us to the recent show at the Eastside Arts Alliance. I went to see the second show on a Saturday night, joining about 40 folks, most of whom were East Oakland residents. Eastside is a great venue, beautifully painted in earth tones, with lovely lighting, and galleries of rotating artwork. Our team took the stage led by Sights & Sounds producer, and East Oakland native, Ryan Nicole Austin as MC. She introduced Audio Academy graduate Eli Wirtschafter (’16), and we played an audio slideshow of his feature story looking into the major disruption caused by the building of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) down International Blvd. in East Oakland. It was a fairly long story, and I worried the audience would get bored, but they stayed engaged throughout (in large part, surely, because Eli is such a dynamic storyteller). They got especially interactive when Ryan and Eli conducted an open question and answer session after the piece concluded, which sparked a lively discussion with the audience. It was a great example of how residents and journalists can work together, build trust, and address problems constructively. Eli is working on a follow-up feature on BRT in East Oakland right now, and it will air within the next month or two.
The second story of the evening made me extraordinarily proud. It was generated by KALW’s crowdsourced reporting project Hey Area, in which audience members ask questions, and our reporters seek out the answers. We’ve been sending out teams to events throughout East Oakland, generating dozens of questions. One of the Oakland Voices alumni, Debora Gordon, chose a story that asked whether we could highlight the work of a youth activist from East Oakland. She worked on that story with our editorial and engineering team, along with Audio Academy alum Truc Nguyen (’16). Her piece profiled Ivan Garcia, a high school student who found his voice pursuing issues of social justice, ultimately centering on environmentalism. He went on to become a youth advisor to Oakland’s city council and an intern with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Seeing Ivan up on stage after the story, alongside Debora and Truc, talking about his work and what it took to bring his story to the air and the stage, was extremely fulfilling, made even more so by the fact that the story was requested by an East Oakland resident in the first place.
The third story was also audience generated, and it was reported by one of our current Audio Academy fellows: Bo Walsh. You’ll see what he has to say about it below, but I will note that when he took the stage for a conversation with Ryan, he nearly stole the show with his humor and humility, as well as the colorful anecdotes he shared about a real local character.
During intermission, two members of KALW’s Sights & Sounds team, Jenee Darden (also from East Oakland) and Jen Chien, talked with residents about East Oakland and KALW. One particularly wonderful moment came when three elementary school-aged kids, came up and talked with Jen and Jenee about an upcoming Hey Area question: “Who are the most famous people to come out of East Oakland?” There are quite a few people looking forward to hearing the answer to that one!
Altogether, put together with a spoken word and singing performance by M’Kala Payton, it was a real reflection and celebration of the local community. We’ve found, through several years of experience, building upon both failures and successes, that we can create experiences with tremendous depth and soul, like this one at Eastside Arts Alliance. That’s the same philosophy we hold for our training programs, conducted with high schoolers in the summer at KALW, with community journalists in East Oakland, and most especially with our Audio Academy, where our heavy investment in attentive training results in transformative education. It’s the power of close contact and care, and we’re very grateful for the opportunity to provide that for others.
Here’s what Bo had to say about his experience working on the story of an East Oakland legend:
The Audio Academy has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of really interesting people over these past months. Perhaps my favorite encounter was getting to talk to George Michael Henderson, known to the world simply as “Krazy George.” He was a professional cheerleader for several professional, minor league and collegiate sports teams for over thirty years.
I selected a Hey Area short to report on which was based on a question asked by a gentleman from Oakland. The question was: Did the “wave” originate in Oakland? The origins of the “wave” and Krazy George’s story have been reported on in the past by other outlets, so there was no big mystery to solve here. I went on the official Krazy George website, found his contact info, and within a day we were playing phone tag. His initial voicemail made me smile and I must have listened to it ten times. There was an extremely excited and very gravely voice proclaiming proudly that the “wave” had indeed started in Oakland, and that he was the originator. I knew off that voicemail that this was going to be a fun assignment.
When we spoke shortly after, Krazy George’s first words were that he would only participate in the story if I agreed to do a separate piece on his short-lived male modeling career. There was an awkward silence, and then he convincingly went into explaining how he really wanted to share his experiences in male modeling. He would then burst into laughter and poke fun at me for believing him.
Krazy George lives in the beach side town of Capitola in Santa Cruz, so I left the city early one morning and ventured off to meet this creator of the “wave.” George had told me on the phone that he would be bringing his signature drum which he is known to bang at sporting events to rile up the crowd. When I recognized the man in the car pulling up to be him, Krazy George hopped out with his drum and gave it a bang upon introducing himself. He handed me a signed copy of his self-published memoir “Still Krazy After All These Years” and told me he was so excited for the interview that he couldn’t sleep the night before.
We met at a restaurant where Krazy George knew the owner as well as everyone sitting at the bar enjoying their 10 am Tuesday morning cocktails. Five minutes into talking I could tell that there was too much noise in the restaurant, and I asked Krazy George if he would mind talking in my car. He told me we could use his friend’s apartment up the street, so we packed up and headed there. While walking on the street Krazy George must have said “hello” to at least five people who all addressed him by name. It was like walking with the mayor of the town, and he used the “face for radio” line in at least two of those interactions.
We got to his friend’s place and sat in a carpeted, sound-neutral living room. We joked about social media and how he didn’t know how to use it and proceeded to get into the night of October 15, 1981 when Krazy George famously introduced “the wave” to the world. He told me the second-by-second sequences of what led up to him starting this cheer that would go onto become a tradition in not just American sports culture, but for the world. He also shared stories about his run-ins with pro athletes and told me about the time when former football player Warren Moon first came to the NFL. Krazy George was working for Moon’s new team, the Houston Oilers, and also his previous team in Canada. Krazy George found himself playing the role of the messenger and tasked with delivering notes back and forth between Moon and his former teammates in Canada. Several times during the interview Krazy George would randomly bang his drum. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that I couldn’t use his drum bangs as they were making my recorder’s levels peak.
I collected my tape and said goodbye to Krazy George and put the piece together shortly after. About a month later I got the chance to share the story at the Sights & Sounds of East Oakland event which was pretty special. It was cool to pass along this wild man’s energy to a room full of people, and I got the feeling he made the same impact on them as he did on me.