Sonali Kolhatkar

independent journalist, activist …

Certainly the route to becoming one of the country’s finest independent journalists was circuitous, bending from astronomy and Caltech to a passion for human rights, Sonali Kolhatkar has been the founder and host of KPFK’s morning show Uprising for the past 10 years.  Originally from Dubai, her academic career brought her to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago to study the mysteries of the universe, but soon after permanently settling in the Pasadena community she was offered the position at KPFK.

Independent Journalist Sonali Kolhatkar

photo by Brian Biery

Since that fortuitous moment, she has covered such wide-ranging issues as the South Central Farm, the BP Gulf oil spill, and the war in Afghanistan, and she has interviewed such modern-day luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie, Benazir Bhutto, and a multitude of others.

Her unwavering commitment to high quality and ethical journalism has created an extraordinarily loyal local base of listeners and a national reputation for “getting the story right”.  And with her husband, Jim Ingalls, she co-authored Bleeding Afghanistan, a real-world account of the impact that war has had on the Afghan people.  She has spoken numerous times on this topic at universities, town halls, conferences, etc. in order to provide a different perspective than has been found in our traditional media sources on this devastating war.

As a founding member of Afghan Women’s Mission in 2000, Sonali has since helped raise funds for, and awareness of, Afghan women-run health and educational projects by groups like RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) and activists like Malalai Joya (the first female member of Parliament).

Sonali is also an exceptional artist and chef, and is the mother of two small boys.

Conversation with Sonali about her craft and the media

What caused you to jump from analyzing galaxies and black holes to analyzing current events and politics?

I had an epiphany in early 2000 after reading about how Afghan women were suffering under the Taliban, and what some political activist women in Afghanistan were doing about it. It made me wonder that if these women who had so little were risking their lives to make a better world, why was I, a person with education and privilege, not doing more? My job at the time at Caltech working on a space telescope, while fulfilling, did not feel meaningful enough with so much else happening all over the world. So I began the process of changing careers – a step that in retrospect seems a bit crazy. But I got lucky and found a way to make a difference through public radio.

What story that you have produced/covered that you are most proud of and why?

It’s so hard to choose from more than a decade of work but perhaps one of my favorite broadcasts was the day that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak resigned right as my show went live. Luckily I had already planned an hour special on Egypt given the revolution that was in full swing. But a few minutes into the show I was able to announce live to my audience the moment that people had been waiting for – that Mubarak was finally out. It was exhilarating but also challenging because I had to really think on my feet. That’s the best part about live radio though.

In an age of constant media and news, what is the role of radio journalism today?

I think radio journalism has to reinvent itself as part of the new media revolution and for the most part many networks have done just that but there is so much more to be done. In addition to thinking of the internet as a crucial platform for delivering radio content, radio journalism today is something that ordinary people can be a part of – anyone with a smart phone that records voice or video can document their reality and post it for others to witness. At its most basic level, that is journalism. The challenge is for professional journalists to be a part of that type of emerging broadcast landscape.

Do you think that community radio can survive in this environment of enormous corporate media conglomerates?  If so, what does it need to do in order to remain relevant and prosper?

Community radio must survive and of course it does so at the whim of the community. If we don’t have community radio, we lose the independence that enables journalists to break stories that commercial media find too dangerous to report on. Often stories are broken by independent journalists and then picked up by the mainstream, sometimes after an embarrassing silence. That’s a crucial service. But as your question implies, it’s getting harder and harder to be financially solvent and remain competitive with commercial media. This question strikes at the heart of how we think of the role of the press – should it be a for-profit enterprise, or a publicly funded service that is essential to democracy? Of course I prefer the latter model.

What is your greatest concern in the field of journalism today?

I worry about the lack of resources and opportunities for journalists. More and more newsrooms are being downsized. There are far too many out of work journalists and not enough reporting being done. Sadly the career path of journalists has become similar to that of teachers or nurses – essential vocations that we all rely on but that are severely undervalued by our capitalist-driven society.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career as a journalist?

It’s no surprise – the lack of resources that affects independent journalists like me, working at a barebones community radio station, really impacts the quality of the work I do. I often fantasize about how much more I could do if I had an adequate staff and top-of-the-line equipment.

At this point in your career what else would you like to accomplish, i.e. where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

I would absolutely love to teach journalism at a local college or university. In my work at KPFK I have mentored dozens of interns, and it is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I really hope I’m not still at KPFK in ten years – the airwaves belong to the public and eventually other voices can and must be heard.

What is your relationship with the Pasadena/Altadena Community?

I LOVE Pasadena – it is my home for nearly 15 years now. While neither my husband nor I have close family members living here we have built up a small community of local Pasadenans who have become like family to us. Pasadena is also so self-contained that it’s rarely necessary to travel outside the city for much and avoiding LA traffic is a bit of an obsession for me. Best of all, if you live here long enough, you find out about the lovely hidden gems: the tiny underground farmers markets and the burgeoning food movement, the little independent coffee shops or quirky restaurants, and, the commons: our libraries, parks and other public spaces.

How would you describe the impact that an individual can have on his/her community?

I think people can make an impact if they have both the drive and the freedom. So many people have the drive but are burdened by externally imposed class/race/sex barriers. While I am a woman of color, I have also enjoyed the fruits of financial support from my parents that so many people are denied. That is why adequate public funding of the media, of schools, public health, and other similarly crucial institutions is so important. Think of how many capable people would be free to fulfill their potential! There would be justice and fairness for all 100% of Americans instead of for just 1% of Americans.

Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

I don’t want to think of myself as a journalist alone – that is too limiting. People ought to be defined by the fullness of their lives. I am a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a sister, a mentor, an artist, an activist, a fundraiser and a hell-raiser. I am a professional journalist and a citizen journalist. I am a social networker online and in person. I cook, I sew, I paint, I garden, I sing, I love, and I live.