History of Pacifica Radio

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Feb 28 11:11:25 MST 2001


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-California at h-net.msu.edu (February, 2001)

Jeff Land. _Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment_ Minneapolis,
Minn:  University of Minnesota Press, 1999. xiii + 179 pp. Notes,
bibliography, and index. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8166-3157-3.

Matthew Lasar. _Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network_.
Updated Edition. Philadelphia, Penn: Temple University Press, 2000.
xvii + 304. Notes, bibliography, and index. $19.95 (paper), ISBN
1-56639-777-4.

Reviewed for H-California by Ted Asregadoo <asre at ssc.upenn.edu>
Program in American Civilization, University of Pennsylvania

"The Dialectics of a Pacific Ideal"

One only need to tune up and down the AM and FM band these days to sample
the current state of radio in the United States. As Bleek Gilliam (played
by Denzel Washington) in "Mo' Better Blues" stated: "It's amazing how many
KISS or B-103 radio stations there are. Jesus Christ! Did people run out of
call letters or what?" Not only have people run out of call letters, but
they have, since the 1980s, homogenized, or "run out" of creative radio
programming. AM radio is now dominated by talk radio, religious
programming, and so-called nostalgia radio (a variation of the muzak
stations that played orchestrated versions of popular songs). FM radio, on
the other hand, has become the most popular frequency for music -- due in
large part to high quality of sound.

However, commercial stations which occupy both frequencies have become
increasingly reliant on the trappings of niche marketing, strict
formatting, arbitron ratings (a ratings system that ranks stations by the
amount of time listeners tune into a station. These ratings are then used
to set advertising rates), controlling the "rap" DJs use to establish their
identity (and the identity of the station), and the importance of
commercial sales in maintaining a station's presence on the air. In a
thumbnail way, this is the economic structure commercial radio stations use
to turn a profit in the highly competitive market of radio. The other way
staying on top of the market is by buying up the competition.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, station owners can buy up to
eight stations in a radio market. This consolidation of money, power, and
content has an enormous effect on the communities these stations serve. In
their effort to consolidate, many stations have sacrificed thoughtful music
programming for a more standardized approach to formatting. Now when you
drive through the country, the chances that the music your listening to is
pulled down from a satellite and broadcast over a formerly locally owned
station is quite high. This cookie cutter format is not confined to music
programming.

Even in the so-called democratic formats of talk radio, which is
overwhelmingly represented on the AM band, callers are allowed roughly a
minute to make their comments -- barely qualifying as a conversation.
Commercials, traffic, weather, news, and even more commercials (they are
usually slipped in between traffic, news, and even weather reports)
severely cut into the time talk formats have for a sustained dialogue. I
would venture to guess that the majority of Americans -- even those who
fancy themselves intellectually enlightened -- conditioned by this kind of
radio formatting, shrug and say "that's the way things are."

It may come as a surprise to know that one of the early criticisms of
commercial radio came from Herbert Hoover -- who was Secretary of Commerce
in charge of federal regulation of broadcasting in mid-1920s. Indeed,
according to Jeff Land, in _Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment_, the
initial fear of commercial radio's power seemed to emanate from
conservative and corporate sectors of American society. Hoover was
concerned that the service radio provided would be "drowned in advertising
chatter." (p. ix). Others, like W.G. Cowles, who was the head of the Zenith
Radio Corporation, believed that advertising would open the door to
"Bolshevist propaganda" and would threaten not only national security, but
also "poison the minds" of the American public. (ibid.) Conservative
reaction to technological innovations that have a capacity to influence the
opinions of the general public are certainly not new, nor have such
critiques decreased over time (just revisit that "ancient" time when the
popularity of the internet threatened to undermine the moral center of
young folks with easy access not to so-called unAmercian ideologies, but
pornography).

Where there is a critique from conservative forces, there is usually an
equally forceful critique from progressives as well. Commercial radio can
certainly be faulted for being drowned in "advertising chatter" -- as
Herbert Hoover noted. However, according to Land, progressives feared that
the dominance of "mindless entertainment" in radio would close off the
possibility that radio could function in truly revolutionary ways (i.e.,
achieving personal transformation, social justice, creative expression, and
international solidarity in a post-war world).

Indeed, the belief that radio could initiate social and political change
was taken seriously by Lewis Hill, founder of Pacifica radio, son of a
wealthy oil family from Oklahoma, Stanford student, and conscientious
objector during World War II who worked in the Civilian Public Service
camps in Coleville, California during World War II. In Coleville, Hill was
able to explore his commitment to pacifism, and eventually took not only
his commitment, but also an ideology of pacifism to the Bay Area where he
and others would attempt to transform the world by introducing people to
innovative radio programming that centered around democratic ideals.

Using novel techniques like listener sponsorship, live audience call-in
shows, and using the FM band as an alternative source for information,
music, and discussion, Hill was able convince a group of like-minded
individuals to help realize his vision of a pacifist radio station in
Berkeley, California. Land's account of Pacifica's experiment in social
transformation chronicles the rise of the network from one station in
Berkeley to five across the nation (there are over 60 affiliate stations
now) in a general way, and he includes many important innovations in radio
journalism. Among them was the reporter as "participant- observer" in the
1960s.

KPFA, the Pacifica station located in Berkeley, was arguably the leading
alternative media outlet during many social protests of the early 60s in
the Bay Area. For example, KPFA provided uninterrupted, and sometimes,
unedited coverage of the (San Francisco) anti-HUAC demonstrations in 1960,
the anti-Vietnam protests in 1963, and the Free Speech Movement in 1964 at
U.C. Berkeley. In many ways, C-Span, and the 24 hour news channels on
television owe a debt of gratitude to KPFA. Nowadays, unedited coverage of
an event is a ratings grabber. During the 60s, however, KPFA was, at times,
a megaphone for mobilizing groups and individuals who rebelled against
restrictions on their freedoms of speech, political expression, or opinion
of war.

Prior to the 60s, KPFA attempted to change the world not though direct
action, but through dialectics. This dialectic had a democratic thesis
wrapped up in a kind of platonic "revolution from the top" antithesis.
Bringing these two opposing forces into a synthesis was the radio host who
attempted to decrease conflict in society through dialogue with individuals
who represented opposing political and social viewpoints (p.6). However,
this dialectical method of reducing conflict in society gave way to a
one-sided critique of American foreign policy -- especially the Vietnam war.

The effect the war had on KPFA's (and its sister station in New York, WBAI)
programming was quite profound. Much of its success as a fledgling network
is due in large part to the Vietnam war -- as were changes in its on-air
content. The staff was split between the more "elitist" broadcasters, who
adhered to a more analytical style of broadcasting, and the politicos, who,
according to Land, were "political agitators... generally less concerned
with the formal elements of broadcasting than with the righteousness of
their message" (p.125).

This new breed of broadcaster signaled the beginning of Pacifica's third
incarnation: community radio -- defined as representing "un and
underrepresented groups in the metropolitan area" (p. 129). Despite the
periodic conflicts and the changes in programming style, Land has a clear
admiration for the public service Pacifica provides for left-leaning and
politically progressive individuals. However, Land's admiration may have
caused him to overlook some factual and theoretical problems in his book.
There is one mistake that demonstrates that Land did not research
California history as thoroughly as he should have. Land mentions S.I.
Hayakawa was a "professor of linguistics in Berkeley" (p. 78) who helped
start a group called Friends of Free Radio. While the latter part of that
sentence may be accurate, the former is not. Hayakawa was a professor of
semantics who taught at San Francisco State College and lived in Mill
Valley in 1963. Later, of course, he became president of SF State during
the student and faculty strike in 1968/69.

My theoretical concerns occur toward the end of the book where Land states:
"war grips the human imagination with the horrible thrill of participating
in a massive, brutal contest of...the battlefield. Pacifism must
demonstrate equivalent brashness to galvanize the passions."(p. 145). These
passions will presumably be channeled through the voices of dialogue.
However, if our violent instincts (i.e., passions unleashed during war) are
sublimated into the realm of speech, then will not dialogue (however that
is defined) become a new weapon for the expression of our violent urges?
Would speech become more unrestrained, partisan, or inflammatory, thus
undermining the nature of a pacific ideal?

We certainly see this happening in the realm of talk nowadays, where
so-called dialogue formats are often forums for individuals to vent the
"frustration du jour" with commentary by the host in support or opposition
to the caller's perspective. Reason, dialogue, and an ability to come to
some conclusions are rarely invoked in a talk format. And if "community
radio" -- really a variation of identity politics -- is to be the beacon
for social justice, personal transformation, international solidarity, and,
ultimately, a pacifist utopia, then shouldn't such a dialectic or dialogue
be more cosmopolitan rather than serving this or that community in the
course of the programming day? Pacifica has certainly understood this to a
degree and it is reflected in programming focused on analyzing news events.
However, Land does not include examples of contemporary Pacifica programs
that do not fit the "community radio" mold in his concluding pages, and
that is unfortunate, because programs like "Democracy Now" and newscasters
like Larry Bensky on KPFA do not fit neatly into a particular community
format.

However, this is a mild criticism of what is generally a good survey of
Pacifica's fifty year history. Land has clearly laid the groundwork for
future studies that examine a particular era of Pacifica's programming
evolution. One of the subtextual strengths of Land's book is the way in
which he chronicles how the structural changes at KPFA and WBAI (and its
on-air content) are more a reflection of the democratic movements and their
collective critiques of our world than the failures of one or another
method of achieving the pacific idea for which founders of these stations
strove. Perhaps that is why Land is so optimistic and filled with
admiration of Pacifica's history. In his hands, it is clearly the story of
the inextinguishable flame of left-leaning progressive ideals.

If Land's book is a paean to Pacifica's history, Matthew Lasar's _Pacifica
Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network_ is a critical assessment of
Pacifica's early years. Lasar was a reporter for KPFA in the 1980s and one
would expect that he, and not Land, would write a love letter with
footnotes to the Pacifica network. However, this is not the case. Lasar has
written a much more balanced account of the Pacifica network than his
counterpart, and, on the whole, his work represents the kind of detailed
scholarship that provides historical narrative with a theoretical
underpinning. Most historians find the word "theory" an anathema in their
vocabulary, but by and large most engage in a kind of theorizing when they
reconstruct the past. Whether it's a hero driven narrative, or filtered
through categories of race, class, and gender, or, like Lasar's account of
Pacifica radio, a dialectic history, historians are not always the strict
empiricists they claim to be.

Lasar's tale is actually a hybrid of dialectic history and a hero driven
narrative. The time period he focuses on is primarily the 1950s, and it is
that period where this kind of history can be effective. After all, this
was an age where a kind of Manichaean division of the world -- reinforced
through social and political pressures -- created rigid ideological
barriers that clearly illustrated that there was not only good and evil in
the world, but to exercise free speech rights or to take a dissenting
opinion resulted in a large scale rejection of what Lewis Hill
metaphorically called "the Man at the Door." That is to say, "a person with
a different point of view or a deadly 'alien enemy.'" (p. xiv). To prevent
people from completely retreating into their fears, Hill believed that
dialogue with what was considered a threat in society could save the world
from destroying itself-- or at least decrease the occasions for war.
Dialogue would breakdown ideological barriers to understanding and decrease
the level of violent conflict in the world.

Lasar nicely illustrates the way in which this counter ideology was cobbled
together from elements of Ghandian pacifism, anarchism, and cooperativism,
and filtered into the programming of KPFA in the 50s. Hill and the other
founders believed that given a forum where creative exchanges, free speech,
and individual rights could thrive -- in other words "unpopular ideas" --
they could counter the politically and socially oppressive effects of
McCarthyism. Lasar points out that Pacifica's founders were not liberals,
or communists as some had charged. Rather, they were strictly
anti-authoritarians who had sympathy for New Deal liberalism but were
critical of the growing power of the military and bureaucracy in the United
States. They were also on guard against a Communist Party take over of the
station, and their vigilance against the CP was noted by the FBI in their
report on communist influence in the station's programming and operations
(p. 4).

In an attempt to come to some sort of synthesis of ideological
perspectives, Pacifica's founders tried to reconcile the Tocquevillian
tension between liberty and equality in American democracy. To do this,
they recruited individuals who represented libertarian or anarchist views
and programmed folk music to appeal to recent transplants to the Bay Area
from the American southwest. By using culture as a means for social change,
Pacifica attempted to offer their listening community a real example of a
pacifist world in a post-war suburban experience. Thus, they focused on
linking their programming to the communities the station served and the
daily lives of people.

By showcasing diverse viewpoints directed toward a large demographic (i.e.,
from small children to adults), KPFA endeavored to demonstrate how
dialogue, careful and reasoned thought, and authentic musical expressions,
could reassure people that there was an alternative to a world where
demagogues and fools essentially controlled the national microphone (p.
108). This, and many other examples like it, demonstrate how Lasar is able
to identify a theoretical notion that Hill, et al. were trying to address
and then connect it to some concrete data from Pacifica's archives. Lasar
offers enough detail in sections dealing with, say Pauline Kael or Alan
Watts, to satisfy the empiricist and the theorist alike.

However, despite the deftness with which Lasar organizes his narrative, the
history of Pacifica's rise from a loose collective to a national radio
network was not as smooth as this ascent suggests. While individuals like
Hill, Elenor McKinney, Richard Moore, Alan Watts, Felix Green, Pauline
Kael, and Elsa Knight Thompson set about to change radio with their unique,
erudite, and critical perspectives on American culture, having all these
individuals under one roof did not result in the pacifist utopia envisioned
by the founders of the station. Fearing that reasoned criticism was being
replaced by showmanship (exemplified by Alan Watts' becoming a cult figure
who attracted groupies and followers), Richard Moore, Lewis Hill, and
Elenor McKinney moved to reform the structure of the station by giving Hill
the authority to organize the staff and operate the station. This power
grab was met with a good deal of hostility by the staff as they saw their
pacifist/anarchist collective become just another top-down corporation. The
"palace revolution" that ensued resulted in a number of resignations, but
after the proverbial carnage (i.e.,firings, resignations, and
self-terminations) Hill's corporate designs triumphed over pacifist and
anarchist ideals -- although his triumph was short-lived.

By the early 60s, the station transformed itself into a forum where
sexuality, race relations, drugs, nontraditional lifestyles, and critiques
of the national security state were presented as an alternative viewpoint
in the Bay Area. By the end of the 60s (and into the 70s and 80s), this
kind of post McCarthy freedom, where individuals articulating their
individuality in terms of humanness and creativity fostered in conjunction
with other like-minded individuals, evolved into identity politics where
authenticity was found in solidarity with ones' separate community.

Despite the excess of dissent, and Pacifica's movement away from the
dialogical foundations of their ideology, Lasar ends his book on a sanguine
note. Believing that the communities that comprise Pacifica's staff reflect
the "complexities of life," Lasar is heartened that the diversity
represented on the airwaves demonstrates that life "cannot be contained or
explained by one philosophy or political system of thought" (p. 228). On
some level, I'm sure the pacifists and anarchists who founded Pacifica
would be pleased with the way in which the network is centered around the
complexities of life. However, they might not be too thrilled with the way
these communities have attenuated dialogue and understanding with "the Man
at the Door" in favor of an authentic (but uncritical) experience of a
congeries of particular communities. Although, given the recent protest by
KPFA employees against Pacifica's plans to institute another top-down plan
for managing the network -- which Lasar explains n a postscript in the
updated edition of his book -- Hill and company might not have frowned upon
the efforts of Mary Frances Berry [Chair of the governing board at Pacifica
radio] to over-centralize Pacifica's authority in an effort to expand its
listenership.

Now that radio programming is essentially niche-programming (that is to
say, programming directed at a particular community - even if that
community is defined by material tastes), the time seems to be right for a
kind of radio that provokes and prods individuals not to be outraged by
this or that turn of events, but one which engenders dialogue, analysis,
and understanding of those things that are considered threats in society.
This may be the alternative that left-leaning progressives need; an
alternative that can be located KPFA's past.

     Copyright (c) 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
     is given to the author and the list.  For other permission,
     please contact H-Net at h-net.msu.edu.



Louis Proyect
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