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KALW Welcomes New Executive Director

KALW Executive Director James Kass
KALW's new Executive Director James Kass

Following a national search, KALW Public Media’s board of directors announced the hire of a new executive director, James Kass. A writer, producer, educator, and cultural activist, Kass is best known for founding and leading Youth Speaks, an award-winning Bay Area-based organization that fuses arts education and youth development and helped turn youth-led spoken word poetry into an international social movement.

“James Kass has a way of investing the ideal of 'community' with authenticity and integrity and inviting everyone in," said Laura Saponara, Board Chair of KALW Public Media. “His deep love of the Bay Area and his extraordinary track record in growing organizations and nurturing talent make for a divine fit with KALW.”

“As a longtime fan, I’m honored to join KALW at this exciting time,” said James Kass, incoming executive director of KALW Public Media. “I was drawn to this opportunity because I deeply believe public media must play a role in helping a place define itself, and to build a trusted and welcoming cultural hub for the many of us who call the Bay Area home. I am excited to extend the great work KALW has already done on this front.”

Among other engagements, Kass has been a lecturer at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and California College of the Arts, has helped build national programs for The Redford Center and The Apollo Theater, and is currently a board member at LitQuake and The City Lights Foundation. During his 21-year tenure with Youth Speaks, Kass turned it from an all-volunteer grassroots group into an acclaimed organization committed to investing in and amplifying the true diversity of voices that make up the past, present, and future of this country.

Having helped to launch hundreds of young people’s careers, Kass is well positioned to continue fostering the next generation of public media talent, and push media conversations about equity, representation, and justice. Through programs such as KALW’s innovative and nationally-recognized journalism training program, the Audio Academy, emerging reporters and producers who graduate go on to work in broadcasting and podcasting at places including NPR, Gimlet Media, NBC, Snap Judgment, and Washington Post.

KALW is renowned for its in-depth, award-winning local productions, including Crosscurrents, Your Call, The Spiritual Edge, and Uncuffed, which is produced by men who are incarcerated at San Quentin and Solano state prisons. Also an esteemed part of the local music scene, the station amplified that legacy in 2021 by adding 20 new hours of new and eclectic music featuring six dynamic Bay Area DJs who broadcast from 25th Street Recording, a world class recording and multimedia studio in Oakland. It now offers a broad range of sounds including African beats, bluegrass, blues, folk, and world music.

“James has vision and he has drive,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who worked with Kass for 16 years and now serves as Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “He’s a great communicator and a strong voice for democracy and democratic practice.”

Kass takes the helm from Ben Trefny, KALW’s longtime news director, who has led the station over the past 18 months. As interim executive director of KALW Public Media and throughout his almost 20-year tenure, Trefny’s leadership grew the station and deepened a unique community of radio makers and listeners. Among other accomplishments, Trefny has played a central role in shaping the news department, creating KALW shows and podcasts, and developing the organization's nationally-renowned training programs.

In 2020 a new nonprofit, KALW Public Media, was formed and entered into a Public Service Operating Agreement with the FCC license holder, the San Francisco Unified School District. The station continues its important relationship with SFUSD, which houses KALW’s main facility, holds its broadcast license, and employs the station’s announcer operators who are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1021. This new structure effectively allows KALW to manage and operate independently of the district, an historic opportunity to help redefine the role of public media in the 21st century.

Kass began his tenure at KALW Public Media on August 14, 2023.