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Bay Area radio listeners critical of utility during heated segment

by Amanda Bartlett, San Francisco Chronicle |

Though PG&E’s widespread power shutoffs have finally come to an end, that didn’t stop floods of San Francisco radio station KQED’s Forum from voicing their rage over the radio. While power has been restored to 426,000 customers, a staggering 900,000 California residents remain in the dark.

“Everybody has a theory about why PG&E is doing it,” said Judy Campbell, a producer with Forum.

That might explain why the public media outlet was inundated with an astronomical volume of nonstop calls and e-mails during Thursday morning's 52-minute long segment.

It posed a seemingly simple question: “How are the blackouts affecting you?” The answers came from a variety of respondents, ranging from disgruntled former firefighters to individuals without power already considering a different question: What does this mean for the Bay Area when an earthquake or similarly catastrophic event hits?

Led by longtime host Michael Krasny, a panel of experts moderating the subject included Lily Jamali, co-host and correspondent of KQED’s “The California Report,” and Lauren Sommer, a science and environment reporter also at KQED. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo weighed in on the challenges posed for his city, where he said 60,000 people were affected by the outages.

Many were concerned, others were fuming, but all wanted their opinions to be heard.

“The minute I’d hang up the phone, someone would call us again,” Campbell said. New callers were instantaneous, each one prepared with an opinion, question or outcry.

The first call came in from a woman named Patricia, who worriedly disclosed she was living in a complex of low-income residents, some of whom were elderly and/or disabled. She expressed her concern about the food in her refrigerator going bad without power, especially because she had already visited her local food bank, and is unsure if she can go back more than once a month.

Patricia also told KQED two of her neighbors had fallen in the night while without power and were required to be taken away by an ambulance.

“For old people, carrying a lantern and a cane and a walker trying to get to the bathroom it ... it doesn’t work,” she said in the segment.

Other callers took on a much angrier tone. One man, Kevin, accused KQED and the media of being “just like PG&E” for “normalizing” the investor-owned utility’s practices in their reporting.

“This is unprecedented,” he told KQED. “I’m 52, and PG&E has never turned off all of this power.”

Another important topic discussed was the cost of basic needs for powerless people, from ice to food to childcare. Many residents have been forced to spend money on power outage preparedness kits without the promise of a refund.

PG&E does compensate residential customers who have gone without power for over 48 hours, though the reimbursement payment under their Safety Net Program is just $25-$100.

“This really feels kind of like a corporate robbery, in a way,” one caller, Dave, said in the segment. “Though PG&E is making the right decision for this moment, they’re only making that decision because they’ve been paying out dividends and bonuses for a very long time rather than reinvesting in their infrastructure.”

Other callers included a former PG&E lineman who speculates the utility could have better addressed the issue without cutting off as much power. Another woman, a Santa Rosa resident whose home had burned down two years ago, described her incredulity when two men were seen cutting tree branches touching high-voltage wires above her neighbor’s home – on the same day they were cutting power.

It was too little, too late for the caller, who shared the resounding opinion of many customers around the Bay Area as the segment came to a close.

“People are feeling held hostage by PG&E,” Campbell said.

In spite of the rampant distress, she’s glad Forum was able to provide a space for people to air their grievances. In times like this, she said such discourse is crucial.

“Talk radio is a public forum for people to vent, ask questions and share what they’re experiencing and thinking about. There was a variety of opinions, concern, anger and arguments. I love being able to hear that on air.”