[Marxism] Re: [PEN-L] The Crisis at KPFA and Pacifica

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 19 18:06:36 MDT 2004

Within a year after its victory over the NPR-lite board of directors that 
had hijacked the network, Pacifica Radio became embroiled in internecine 
struggles over democratic control, programming, leadership and overall 
direction. I would receive email from a faction in NYC dedicated to 
reforming the local station WBAI, but paid little attention to it. Now it 
seems that the Bay Area affiliate is being torn apart by some of the same 
issues. Sasha Lilley, who hosts Living Room Radio (an interview program 
geared to leftist celebrities like Zizek and Ellen Meiksins Wood) 
circulated an open letter from a number of on-air hosts about how the local 
board is "deeply divided" and "devolved into factions where extreme and 
constant mistrust, maligning, and infighting have spilled over into 
attacking KPFA staff to such a degree that the workplace is rife with fear, 
anger, compromised productivity, and the lowest morale since 1999."

The entire letter can be read at:


My eyes tend to glaze over when one of these accusations or 
counter-accusations shows up on my radar screen. Unlike debates on the 
left, I find that Pacifica squabbles tend to be couched in highly personal 
terms, which is no surprise given the fact that the stations are 
collections of deeply atomized and often antagonistic "personalities" who 
often have no experience working in a mass movement. When your whole 
mission in life is to draw some listeners into your own particular passion, 
whether it is bluegrass music or who killed JFK, it is unlikely that you 
will see the big picture. Trying to move the station forward is a little 
like herding cats, I suppose.

I first stumbled across Pacifica in the early 1960s when WBAI was producing 
some incredible music shows. For example, composer Henry Cowell hosted an 
ethomusicology show in which he played field recordings and offered 
commentary that was often breathtaking. I have vivid memories of him 
playing Roma violin selections of the sort that inspired Bartok. There was 
nothing like this on radio before or since.

I stopped listening to WBAI sometime in the 1970s when the station began to 
sound too earnest and didactic. My friend Nelson from the SWP urged me to 
give it another try and to tune into Mike Feder in particular. Feder hosted 
"Hard Work", a show that consisted of a sixty minute recollection of some 
traumatic incident in his life--either his own nervous breakdown or his 
mother's suicide, etc.--all delivered in a kind of whining, neurotic, 
Jewish, verbally agile style that I find immensely engaging for obvious 
reasons. I also enjoyed listening to an economics professor named Leo 
Cawley who hosted a show called "Fearful Symmetry". Cawley was a Vietnam 
Marine veteran who eventually succumbed to a cancer very likely brought on 
by exposure to Agent Orange. He was one of the most brilliant minds I ever 
encountered on the radio. I also looked forward to Station Manager Samori 
Marksman's "Behind the News" interviews with a wide range of establishment 
figures such as ex-CIA director Stansfield Turner who always appeared 
plodding next to the erudite and articulate Afro-Caribbean interviewer. He 
had a way of dismissing some guest's stupidity with withering scorn.

Key to the success of WBAI in this period was strong leadership, coming 
especially from Samori who died of a heart attack largely accountable to 
running such a fractious station. After his death, things fell apart rapidly.

The biggest problem at WBAI and other Pacifica stations, I assume, is a 
lack of professionalism. Since the on-air hosts are all volunteers, there 
is no pressure to strive for excellence. The general ambience is local TV 
cable access, the kind of shows that feature some spaced-out "expert" 
speaking about flying saucers or assassination conspiracies in a dimly lit 
studio. It doesn't have to be this way, of course.

The only thing that can move Pacifica forward is strong leadership, which 
unfortunately does not seem to be on the horizon. I had high hopes for WBAI 
after Don Rojas, the former press secretary to Maurice Bishop, took over. 
If anything, the station has slipped in quality under his dismal stewardship.

I suppose one of the biggest challenges for Pacifica Radio is competition 
from the Internet. I used to rely heavily on the station for leftwing 
alternatives to NPR or CBS. Now I can read Counterpunch or Marxmail for 
that matter to get my information. In addition, call-in shows that allow 
the caller to ventilate on some hot question for 2 minutes or so no longer 
have a lot of appeal, when you can write lengthy opinion pieces on a 
mailing list or blog. You might not have as large an audience, but you 
won't get cut off either.

I find myself listening less and less to radio nowadays. In the morning I 
listen to Don Imus since it allows me to hear what scumbags like John Kerry 
and John McCain have to say but without the insufferable self-importance 
that you get on Sunday morning television. When commercials get too thick, 
I can always switch to Howard Stern and hear a farting contest. At nights I 
listen to the John Batchelor show on WABC for as long as I can stomach him. 
He is an arch-reactionary who has interesting guests, including Katrina 
vanden Heuvel and her husband Stephen Cohen who seem partial to his dubious 
charms. I might tune in Hasidic radio for a few minutes as well, just for 

I have doubts whether the Pacifica crisis can be resolved any time soon. 
You are dealing with a sea change in communications technology that exposes 
the soft underbelly of "community" radio like the Pacifica stations. It may 
be resolved through exceptional leadership materializing somewhere down the 
road, but unfortunately I don't see many voices from within the network 
that can rise to the occasion. Perhaps a massive political awakening might 
shake things up--that would certainly help to focus things. In the 
meantime, I continue to be amazed by the vitality of the Internet which is 
the most democratic and *entertaining* communications technology that has 
ever been invented. If you don't agree with that, you can put me in a killfile!

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