Every Friday for years on KPFA, someone could hear Duke Ellington's “Theme Afrique.” Then a woman would greet her listeners with this saying: "Uhuru, brothers and sisters. Asalaam alacheim. This is Mama O'Shea and we are shoutin' out and fightin' back, in our common struggle to survive."
This was Mama O’Shea, whose real first name was Sharron. Born on International Women’s Day, she was a woman who loved the 49’ers, Billy Dee Williams, and my God, she loved to talk. When her radio show was canceled seventeen years ago, it creates a genuine outpouring of anger and sadness throughout the KPFA community. What are we going to do without Mama?
I never got to listen to Mama O’Shea live; I usually worked or was at school Fridays. Back then there was no Internet to listen to archived shows. Yes, I know that makes me sound pretty old. “Back then we were lucky to catch radio shows! And when we wanted to watch something on TV, we had to tape it on the VCR! Then... hey you whipper snapper! Come back here! Don’t run away from me!”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s obituary, Sharon O’Shea was a jazz singer back in the forties, known to sing a mean version of “Hard Headed Hannah.” When I saw an old photo of her, I thought wow, who is that beautiful woman. It was Mama! She looked like Betty Garrett, the best friend of the heroine in an old MGM movie.
It wasn’t always easy for Mama; there was a time she was homeless. She never said much about it, though she did encourage people that when they were at a thrift store to buy a thermos. Fill it up with coffee, soup, then give it to a homeless person.That way the person could have dinner or something warm to drink, then use the thermos again. One cold morning right after the first Gulf War started, she tried to give her listeners hope, for it could’ve been a whole lot worse:
“I love to walk on days like today... I can’t walk well... but it’s crisp and I love to look at the people and the trees and the things going on in this world...it’s a good world...count your blessings. It may not be the best, but it’s better than lying out in the cold. Remember the two ladies I had for Thanksgiving? Both of them from the streets? They came to my little one room studio apartment...they talked about as homeless women, the shelters are so frightening. And out in the street and the shelters these women...these women wear four or five pairs of pantyhose they’ve put on. Not for warmth; but someone’s always trying to jump on them, jump on their bones for sex. And it helps to not be raped with all this pantyhose. They left... to lay down on the street. And that’s heavy.
You bet it’s heavy. And twenty years later, it’s still heavy to think about.
She loved talking to her listeners, even the ones she disagreed with. Unlike some people (yeah I’m looking at you Bill O’Reilly) she let them talk, and while she disagreed with them, she tried not to sound condescending or rude. That was so rare, and it’s even more rare today.
In 1995 Pacifica (who owns KPFA) got rid of many programmers/DJ’s: Bill Mandel, a longtime activist; Phil Elwood who had a popular jazz show, and Mama. People were furious and protested. However, Mama became very ill and suffered a stroke. Her daughter had to put her in an assisted care home. Instead of KPFA, she listened to KGO for her news. She tried to keep positive. A week before her birthday, Sharon O’Shea died.
For years, KPFA had a tribute to Mama O’Shea on International Women’s Day. Her producers would share memories, and they would play clips of past shows. However the past couple of years there “hasn’t been enough” airtime to pay tribute to Mama. And then a sense of deja vu came to KPFA last fall: Pacifica got rid of The Morning Show’s anchors Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards Tigert. There was instant fury in the fact that Allison and Edwards Tigert are fantastic in what they do, plus it was KPFA’s most popular show on the station. For me I thought wow, you can’t get rid of senior citizens’ shows anymore, so let’s get rid of the excellent reporters! Sadly, KPFA still hasn’t resolved their issues with staffing-and the knowledge not to let a good thing get away (Although I still listen to their music programs every weekend)
I wonder what Mama would’ve thought of George W. Bush, Monicagate, the 2000 election. No doubt she would’ve been bothered by Hurricane Katrina and No Child Left Behind. I wish she could’ve seen Barack Obama become president. And I bet she would’ve had a field day with Sarah Palin. So Mama, happy birthday lady. I know I’m not KPFA and I can’t broadcast your words, but I hope whoever is reading this gets a sense of who you were and what you meant to be. Go on and treat yourself to a piece of pecan pie. I’ll dig you later.
Thanks to Chopped Liver Productions and the Sonoma Free Press for information on Sharron “Mama” O’Shea.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries