Larry Bensky, a Fixture of Left-Wing Radio, Is Dead at 87

A self-described activist-journalist, he was for many years the national affairs correspondent for the community-focused Pacifica network.

A black-and-white image of a man holding a copy of The New York Times smiling up at a camera as he sits in a radio DJ booth.
Larry Bensky in 1988, while he was working for the Pacifica Network of public radio stations. His coverage of the Iran-contra congressional hearings won him a Polk Award.Credit…via Current

Trip Gabriel

Larry Bensky, a radio journalist whose reporting on major political events made him the signature voice of Pacifica Radio, a network of progressive, listener-supported stations, died on May 19 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 87.

His wife, Susie Bluestone, said he died in home hospice care.

Mr. Bensky’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the congressional Iran-contra hearings of 1987 put the Pacifica network on the map, earning him a prestigious Polk Award for radio reporting.

Mr. Bensky, who called himself an activist-journalist, brought leftist views to reporting — often on people and issues under-covered by other news outlets — which he hoped would, as he often put it, “stir things up.”

That was hardly a fringe view in the progressive ethos of the Bay Area, where he was based, though he still managed to transgress the boundaries on a regular basis. The free-form rock station KSAN, the voice of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, threw him off the air for interviewing workers who had been fired by one of the station’s sponsors.

He was later dismissed from his longtime home, KPFA, in Berkeley, for on-air criticism of decisions by the station’s owners, though he was reinstated after broadcasting over a pirate radio signal from the street outside. He was known to colleagues as cantankerous, but he was also so knowledgeable about history and politics that he could broadcast for hours without notes or a script.

KPFA, founded by pacifists in 1949, was the nation’s first listener-supported radio station, the first to broadcast Allen Ginsberg reading his poem “Howl” and the first to open its airwaves to Patricia Hearst, who denounced her parents as “capitalist pigs” during her kidnapping.

For 38 years at KPFA, Mr. Bensky offered listeners live accounts of major local and national events. “Larry had this incredible ability to bring you there and hold space and let you know how it felt,” Aaron Glantz, an investigative journalist and former colleague of Mr. Bensky’s, said in a tribute broadcast by KPFA last week.

Working out of a broadcast van called the Green Weenie, Mr. Bensky narrated confrontations between protesters and National Guard troops at People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969. A decade later, he reported from a phone booth on San Francisco’s so-called White Night riots after the lenient sentencing of Dan White for the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.

From 1987 to 1998, Mr. Bensky was the national affairs correspondent for Pacifica, a group of community-focused and often economically tenuous stations with more than 200 affiliates, including KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York and WPFW in Washington.

There, he covered the confirmation hearings of four Supreme Court justices, presidential nominating conventions, the 1990 elections in Nicaragua and the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, which some Democrats claimed was marred by voting irregularities.

During the Iran-contra hearings, Pacifica carried weeks of testimony live; during breaks, Mr. Bensky would host an impromptu talk show from the hearing room, complete with expert commentary and listener calls.

He was later the host of “Sunday Salon” on KPFA, a weekly two-hour public affairs show, and an anchor, with Amy Goodman, of Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!,” a popular daily hour that covered the news from a left-wing viewpoint.

Image

Mr. Bensky broadcast over a pirate radio signal from outside the KPFA studio in San Francisco in 1999. He was fired from the station, but the decision was overturned after protests from staff members and listeners. Credit…Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle, via Getty Images

But the internal politics of Pacifica and of KPFA were often aboil, reflecting the factionalism of the left and the stresses of community-supported radio. Mr. Bensky was fired twice in 1999, the first time over criticism of President Bill Clinton because, he later said, the views he expressed conflicted with “the Democratic Party liberal line.”

He was soon back on the air, but he was dismissed a second time after reading a statement supporting KPFA’s station manager, whom Pacifica executives had ousted as they sought to broaden the station’s audience beyond the small cohort of Berkeley activists and militants. After a 30-day staff lockout over the dispute, listener pressure forced management to back off, and Mr. Bensky was reinstated.

“It was the most gratifying thing in my life to see how people came forth,” he told The Berkeley Daily Planet in 2007.

Lawrence Martin Bensky was born on May 1, 1937, in Brooklyn. He was one of two children of Eli Bensky, a lawyer, and Sally (Davidson) Bensky, who managed the home.

Raised in a Jewish household, he became interested in becoming a journalist when he read newspaper accounts of the Nazi genocide, he said on a 2007 retrospective broadcast on KPFA.

“I was one of those kids who taught himself to read from newspapers, because 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,” he said.

He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1954 and, in 1958, from Yale, where he was managing editor of The Yale Daily News.

He was briefly a book editor at Random House, where in 1962 he read a manuscript that Cormac McCarthy had mailed over the transom. He recommended the work for publication and spent a year working with Mr. McCarthy on what became his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper.”

In 1964, Mr. Bensky moved to France to become an editor of The Paris Review. Two years later, he returned to the United States to work at The New York Times, as an editor at the Book Review and an occasional writer. But both he and his bosses found it was a bad fit.

A Sunday magazine article he wrote about the anti-Vietnam War movement was never published. “I worked on this for weeks, and I wrote it, and they killed it because they said I didn’t have sufficient criticism of the antiwar movement from the other side,” Mr. Bensky said in the 2007 retrospective. “I could see that I was not really cut out to be there.”

He then took a job as managing editor of Ramparts, an unrestrained New Left magazine based in San Francisco, which delivered him to the epicenter of the country’s anti-establishment upheavals. He had found his home.

Mr. Bensky’s brief first marriage ended in divorce. In 1997, he married Ms. Bluestone. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughter, Lila Bluestone Bensky; five grandchildren; and his sister, Joyce Silverman.

When not broadcasting, Mr. Bensky taught journalism at Stanford University and political science at California State University, East Bay.

After retiring from daily journalism, he nurtured other longtime interests: He hosted a Sunday morning classical music program on KPFA called “Piano” and refreshed his love of the French language and French literature by hosting a website, “Radio Proust,” dedicated to the life and work of Marcel Proust.

A correction was made on 

June 3, 2024

An earlier version of this obituary erroneously credited KPFA with a distinction. It was the nation’s first listener-supported radio station, not the nation’s first public radio station. (There had been noncommercial radio stations run by educational institutions before KPFA was founded.)

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Trip Gabriel is a national correspondent. He covered the past two presidential campaigns and has served as the Mid-Atlantic bureau chief and a national education reporter. He formerly edited the Styles sections. He joined The Times in 1994. More about Trip Gabriel

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