Pacifica's "glory days"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Feb 26 06:43:09 MST 2001

[from the save-wbai mailing list]

Dear All,

Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar hits the nail on the head here. Reading
this may be the best thing about your Monday. The debate about Arbitron
ratings has been a raging since this struggle, and takeover began, not only
in Pacifica but throughout community radio in general. To read the
consultant Giovannonni's full remarks which Lasar refers to see: To get an understanding
of what Arbitron ratings are, what they measure see the Arbitron tutorial:


Date sent:              Sun, 25 Feb 2001 22:15:43 -0800
From:                   Matthew Lasar <matthew at>
Subject:                 Ironies of the current arbitron/production debate at

> Tomas Moran
> Member, Pacifica National Board

February 25, 2001

Dear Tomas:

You asked me to give my perspective on the role of production value and
professionalism in Pacifica programming. It is obviously an issue on which,
like everything else, people have disagreed over the course of the
organization's history. But it is also a matter that has to be continuously
resolved and discussed.

Let me say from the outset that I believe that all Pacifica broadcasts
should be audible and clear. Beyond that, I must confess that what I hear
from Pacifica's governors today about the subject worries me.

It is the stated position of our present Pacifica's National Office that
the organization has "has crossed the line from 'under-performance' to
'irrelevance'." These are the words of public broadcasting audience ratings
specialist David Giovannoni, whose comments can be found on Pacifica's
website ( The
reproduction of Mr. Giovannoni's observations there signifies an
endorsement and so we should read them carefully. Giovannoni continues:

"Pacifica has lost its influence. It is a faded reflection of its proud
history. This organization that invented public radio journalism...that
brought provocative new voices and ideas to the microphone...that advanced
the art of radio, is today an anachronism on the FM band, arrested in its
development by a small group of people who are similarly stuck in time."

And then:

"In the last few years, several enlightened leaders within Pacifica have
attempted to rejuvenate its grand mission by applying proven broadcasting
practices. They have been only sporadically successful."

Here we have references to Pacifica's supposed glory days: the late 1960s
and early 1970s, when WBAI may have had as many as 25,000-30,000
subscribers and 600,000 listeners, according to some sources.

The irony, of course, is that back in that halcyon period, many of the
people who made Pacifica great had nothing but contempt for the "proven
broadcasting practices" for which Giovannoni stands. "We didn't take
surveys, audience surveys," declares 1960s Pacifica radio staffer Dale
Minor in *KPFA-on-the-AIR*, a documentary on the history of the station.
"We didn't ask people what they wanted to hear. We programmed what we
thought they should hear."

What they thought that Pacifica's listeners should hear violated every
proven principle of professional broadcasting. Most of Pacifica's great
broadcasting moments would displease any professional radio person--then or
now. There are so many examples that I can only reference a few.

Listen to Pacifica's earliest hit: the 1954 KPFA broadcast of four
marijuana smokers, extolling the virtues of the drug while talking (and
smoking) in KPFA's studios. It is a rambling, disorganized discussion. No
trained producer would approve of its flow. Yet it is great radio, and
brought on KPFA the wrath of the state Attorney General.

Audit KPFA's 1956 premiere broadcast of Allen Ginsberg's *Howl*. If
Ginsberg sounds off-mike, it's because he is off mike. Yet the power of his
presentation is unforgettable.

Would we have forfeited WBAI's unforgettable 1971 taped statements of
inmates in the notorious "Tombs" prison because they are sometimes a bit
scratchy? Should WBAI have not broadcast women's consciousness raising
sessions because they were difficult to moderate? Should KPFK and KPFA have
declined to broadcast Patty Hearst's taped communiqués because the sound
was flat? Should Steve Post's WBAI coverage of a "Fat-in" at Central Park
been nixed? Should Pacifica's coverage of the People's Park uprising in
Berkeley or the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Against the [Vietnam] War marches
in Manhattan have been curtailed because the staffers sometimes worked with
overused, outdated equipment?

I could go on and on. Interviews with PLO officials when most Americans
regarded them as terrorists; Julius Lester's uncensored broadcasts of the
angry poetry of Harlem teenagers; on air book reviews by Kenneth Rexroth
that were so charming and off the wall Berkeleyans scheduled dinner parties
to listen to them; day long "open mike" street sessions that even had KPFA
staffers chewing their knuckles; regular early KPFT programs such as "A
Musical Trot With Liselotte" and the "Cosmic Cowboy." The truth is that,
judged by the "upgraded" production standards I hear being bandied about
today, most of this wonderful stuff would never have made it to the
airwaves. Maybe that is the point. I certainly hope not.

Giovannoni continues:

"The diversity of Pacifica's voices demands multiple channels of
communication. The searchable, addressable Internet not only offers these
channels, it welcomes and nurtures voices in the minority. Internet
technology frees the listener and the speaker from having to meet at the
same place, at the same point in time. The Internet is the right medium for
Pacifica in the 21st century."

The irony here is that we all know who, within the Pacifica universe, has
excelled at internet audio experimentation: Pacifica's dissidents--the very
people Giovannoni decries. It is they who have pioneered in the multiple
delivery of streaming audio and video programs. It is they who have
constructed archival web sites where volunteers can send their own taped
programs for broadcast.  It is they who excel in the assembling of
interactive data collection websites. It is they, the very people whom
Giovannoni claims are "stuck in time", who represent the avant garde of
21st century communications, while Pacifica struggles to keep up, and
rarely does.

I am not ashamed to say that the healthy future of Pacifica radio remains
with those committed to keeping the organization parallel to the ground
floor of American life, where things are sometimes spontaneous, messy, and
real. I hope for the day when we have a National Board that recognizes that
truth, and seeks to unleash its power rather than keep it at bay.

Very truly yours

Matthew Lasar author, *Pacifica Radio: The Rise of An Alternative Network*
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
The University of California at Riverside

" . . . the music from all the radios whether bolero of Mexican or Italian
tenor of spaghetti eaters or loud suddenly turned-up KPFA symphonies of
Vivaldi harpsichord intellectuals performances boom blam the tremendous
sound of it which I then came to hear all the summer wrapt in the arms of
my love . . . "
        --Jack Kerouac, *The Subterraneans* (1958)

" . . . In a corner of her office was a stack of cardboard boxes, all
labeled *West Hollywood Inves*. Her radio was tuned to NPR, where a
Chardonay-voiced newscaster chuckled at his own mirth."
        --Michael Nava, *The Burning Plain* (1999)


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