Pacifica history and current turmoil

by Kamran Afary

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

Review of Jeff Land, Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Matthew Lasar, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of An Alternative Network. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

One of the most dramatic developments in independent media this decade has been the recent struggle at community-based radio network Pacifica. Started in 1949, Pacifica now broadcasts dissenting opinions from five of the nation's most important cities (Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, Houston, and Berkeley) and has seventy affiliates. Unfortunately, the national network has celebrated its fiftieth anniversary year with a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Berkeley station's staff and Pacifica's board of directors. By Apri12000, the turmoil had spread to Pacifica's News Bureau in Washington DC, where several veteran producers and reporters were fired after airing a news item on listener protests.

This still unfolding series of events began early in 1999 with charges that the board, led by U.S. Civil Rights Commission chief and African American scholar, Mary Frances Berry, wanted to commercialize Pacifica. Events quickly spiraled out of control. In February, the board took away local advisory boards' power. In March, they fired Pacifica station manager Nicole Sawaya. Next they fired host Larry Bensky for talking about this on-air. In July, they physically removed reporter Dennis Bernstein from the station for reporting that the board was discussing the possible sale of the Berkeley station for $50 to $70 million. Then they locked out the entire station staff. (Extra! October, 1999)

While the official anniversary celebrations largely fizzled out, unofficial "celebrations" of Pacifica's independent voice rang out with the protests of tens of thousands of KPFA listeners during the summer of 1999. Protesters gathered in front of the station, in the parks, and on the streets of Berkeley. One Berkeley resident of Iranian origin told me that when she heard Bernstein calling for support, she ran to her car and drove up to the station. There she found hundreds of other listeners who had also rushed to the station. "I have not felt anything like this since the Iranian Revolution," she said, referring to the women's protests against the 1979 imposition of Islamic laws.

The outpouring of support for KPFA staff and programmers triggered one of the most intense popular struggles in the Bay Area in many years. Within a few short weeks, protesters from Berkeley and other cities with Pacifica stations were pouring into the streets to "save Pacifica," "take back" the network, and restore input into the affairs of the station by the station's popular programmers, staff and volunteers. Protestors held benefit concerts and other events, raising over $150,000 to fund a national campaign of opposition to the Pacifica board's policies. Open letters were published in newspapers across the United States denouncing the board and calling for their resignation, letters signed by such left intellectuals, politicians, and labor leaders as Adrienne Rich, Jerry Brown, and Dolores Huerta. Finally, after the station was shut down for several weeks, it reopened in early August due to the massive protests. These events inspired a whole new level of commitment and community among Pacifica's listeners and contributors.

Two new scholarly books provide a comprehensive framework for understanding these events: Jeff Land's Active Radio: Pacfica's Brash Experiment and Matthew Lasar's Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network (Temple University Press). Both books detail Pacifica's interaction with the social movements that have shaped and determined its direction. They also historically contextualize Pacifica's accomplishments, offering a multi-faceted view of the organization's role in the struggle against corporate media. Pacifica radio has had a tumultuous but fertile history. The network has been the object of numerous external attacks: from Congressional witch-hunts and FCC rulings to Supreme Court cases and police seizures. At the same time, it has also been the locus of many disputes within the left on the responsibilities of non-commercial broadcast media outlets to their listeners and the nature of working relations among management, staff, and volunteers inside the stations. The different politics within the left are also reflected in the two books reviewed here.

The 1999 protests and demonstrations are not the first in Pacifica's history. They are, however, the largest and most sustained in the network's long history of struggles. Pacifica's unique mission, as articulated in its original founding document, has itself gone through several transformations, first in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The latest round of struggles began in the late 1980s. A series of major upheavals, strikes, and protests has marked each of these periods.

In Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, Lasar documents the 1950s struggles. These were strong enough to lead to the removal of its founder Lewis Hill for a short period in 1954. Two conflicting conceptions of Pacifica Radio characterized the views of its founders, Law argues. One view of Pacifica was for it "to attract a mass audience to their dialogue-oriented project." The other was for Pacifica to be

"a refuge for an educated audience deeply alienated from American politics and culture" (xi).

After Hill's death, the latter view became dominant, Lasar argues, as Pacifica narrowed its initial goal of promoting full dialogue to one of presenting alternative dissenting views. It did so in order to maintain its source of support from liberal foundations, operate within the restrictive rules set by the FCC, and accommodate McCarthyism in the United States.

Land's Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment is a journey through the historic events and theoretical discourses that shaped Pacifica from its origins in the 1940s to its 1970s transformation into community radio, focusing especially on WBAI in New York. He argues that the strength of Pacifica's mission lies in its engagement with the culture and politics of its time, especially in the alliances it has made with liberatory movements of the past half century.

Land begins with two important background chapters that examine the early history of broadcasting in the United States and the history of the pacifist movement, which served as a major source of inspiration to Pacifica founder Lewis Hill. Land constructs a complex web of philosophical influences, from Kierkegaard to Gandhi and from Whitman to William James, as background to Lewis Hill's radical pacifism and his active search for the means to wage "a moral equivalent of war"(27-34). Out of his experiences as an organizer in a conscientious objectors prison camp during World War II, Hill (a Stanford philosophy major) would fashion the idea of a broadcast station that would serve as an effective means of communication for this movement.

Land's chapter on the early years of KPFA focuses particularly on Hill's theory of "listener sponsorship" and a viable concept of audiences for a principled broadcasting operation. Land writes:

"Hill never doubted that…ethical reciprocity between staff and audience was attainable, if only imperfectly. Although measured concretely in ongoing financial contributions, this relationship…would ultimately be grounded in the ineffable experience of 'creative tension' leading to 'mutual relevance.'" (48)

The dawn of the nuclear age and the beginnings of the Cold War, had aroused considerable antiwar sentiment in the country. The specific blend of radicalism found in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, combining labor radicalism, various forms of anarchism, and dissident scientists, helped create many adherents for Pacifica radio.

The uniqueness of Hill's theory, as Land points out, is in making that audience "not an aggregate…but a single individual"(44). Just as the programmer does not simply read copy paid for by advertisers and handed to him or her, so the listener acts as a discerning thinking audience. Kenneth Rexroth is said to have considered Hill's idea as simple, though couched in heavy philosophical jargon. But as Land points out the simplicity of Hill's idea contained a profound dialogical principle that would have tremendous ramifications for the future of broadcasting. There was, to be sure, much ambiguity in Hill's theories and many challenges yet to come. He would face charges of highbrow elitism, contentious struggles involving collective decision making and democratic norms inside the organization. Pacifica also had to face the challenge of confronting McCarthyite attacks. A series of upheavals in Pacifica ensued, resulting in the removal and restoration of Hill during the years 1954 to 1957. Land attributes Hill's tragic suicide in 1957 to the trial by fire which his highly dialogic views necessitated, to the "burden of keeping his radio station alive"(61).

The expansion of Pacifica into a network occurred in the late 1950s after Hill's death. Two new stations, KPFK in Los Angeles and WBAI in New York, were added in 1959 and 1960 respectively. Using tape archives of radio programs during this period, Land documents the accomplishments of Pacifica in opening up the airwaves to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the time The explosive growth of protest movements was met by a new genre of programming at Pacifica, one that would "place the listener directly in the center of events"(83) as was the case with the 1960 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco. It is during this period that the influence of Elsa Knight Thompson, a colleague of Lewis Hill and an equally important formative influence on the network, becomes more pronounced. But this was also the period of increasing attacks by the government, threatening Pacifica's operating licenses.

By the early 1960s the difficulties of maintaining the original 1940s principled opposition to the state through radical pacifism had become much more pronounced. At one point, under the threat of having its license revoked, Pacifica's board considered implementing loyalty oaths for its staff and board members. Elsa Knight Thompson and many staff members at all three stations threatened to strike if the board agreed to submit to FCC demands. During this period, many of the tensions prevalent today at Pacifica stations began to emerge. Many of these tensions arose over attitudes towards political and social developments.

How was Pacifica to respond to the intensification of mass struggles in the South, and the emergence of a new generation of activist youth? How could it expose the rise of the national security state and respond to the increasing repressive surveillance of the network by the government? What should be the specific responsibilities of department heads, station managers, staff, and volunteer programmers? How could it maintain its openness while producing well-supervised programs? Who would decide on priorities for programming and on the editorial views propagated by the stations?

Both Lasar and Land take up many of these issues. Lasar identifies two broadcasting philosophies in Pacifica that have shaped the contours of its developments. One emphasizes "humanist intercommunication." The other

"champions the fundamental right of the individual to speak and to hear certain ideas"(229).

There are wide differences between these two approaches. While the former has a mission to promote dialogue, the latter focuses more on protecting the right to dissent. Neither approach has proven sufficient, but both have been used at different times in Pacifica history to serve its continued existence. Land argues that Pacifica is particularly strengthened by its commitment to an Anglo-American libertarian tradition which propagates dissent:

"rebellious instincts as the lifeblood of democracy"(4, 91-112).

Pacifica's programming translated this ideological strain, dating to the English Revolution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, into a belief that no state policy lies beyond media scrutiny. And this commitment to dissent accounts for Pacifica's unique development and its limitations as well as for its achievements. This ethos has brought the network into a number of head-on conflicts with the state throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Land also speculates on the possible effect of KPFA in Berkeley on the formation of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1965. Whether or not KPFA served as a catalyst for the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement, it is a fact that the detailed live coverage of the student sit-ins on the UC Berkeley campus by KPFA reporters helped to spread that movement far beyond the confines of academia and into the hearts and minds of thousands outside the campus. Land's chapter on this period ends with another historic achievement by Pacifica in the Supreme Court's landmark ruling over the WBAJ broadcast of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." Although the court ruling led to the imposition of strict limits on what can be broadcast, the case exposed the limits and the paradoxical position of the concept of "free speech," situated as it is between individual expressiveness and collective sensibilities.

Land's discussion of the emergence of "community radio" at WBAI in late 1960s and early 1970s forms one of the most original parts of his work, and his book here provides some clues to today's conflicts. Land devotes an entire chapter to the many transformations that took place inside WBAI during this period. New Third World, feminist, and gay and lesbian collectivities arose that had not been foreseen in the original structure of Pacifica, which was divided into news and public affairs, drama and literature. This development of new constituencies of producers and listeners was not a welcome development for many of the original Pacifica participants, including Vera Hopkins, a Pacifica archivist.

Land argues that the definition of community for earlier Pacifica managers was immensely different than for those who came around in the late 1970s and 1980s. How would the earlier divisions and the antiwar, pacifist mission of the earlier generation relate to later developments, which reflected a major change in the character and content of U.S. protest movements? What were some of the internal developments of the very concept of community as it evolved in Pacifica?

Many new groups emerged demanding to be accommodated into Pacifica's programming schedule. Again Land poses an underlying dilemma faced by Pacifica program directors in the face of multiculturalism and the proliferation of new identities. Who belongs? Who is outside? Who is accepted inside? As Land points out, this transformation not only took place in Pacifica but reflected the larger transformations taking place within the U.S. left and liberal communities. The stage for community radio to emerge was set in the 1960s.

Pacifica achieved one of its largest listenerships in the late 1960s and early 1970s through New York's WBAI. Free-form radio programs pioneered by Bob Fass helped to nurture a counterculture movement. Freeform radio offered, in Land's words, an ineffable sense of immediacy, so that Bob Fass' "radio unnamable" became a way of life for many of its listeners. WBAI also offered the most extensive antiwar coverage and was concretely involved with the anti-war movement on a daily, nuanced basis. Other Pacifica programmers, such as former Communist Party leader Dorothy Healy, today see those programs less sympathetically than Land, calling the whole scene "an obsessive childlike silliness."

With the subsequent involvement of distinct ethnic, racial, or gender program collectives, new imaginative concepts of community began emerging. Various communities that were being forged began demanding a voice at the station and their own programs. But after the Vietnam War, WBAI subscriptions plummeted from 30,000 in 1971 to 8,000 in 1978. That plunge in listenership coincided with a major strike at WBAI. Two key demands of the strikers were more programmer participation, a voice in running the station for programmers who did not get paid, and a more gradual revision of programming. However, the development of Pacifica's complex system of free speech, allowing voiceless communities access to the airwaves, did not necessarily coincide with widening its audience base. Who is to blame for the tremendous fall? According to Land it is for the most part the waning of the 1960s zeitgeist that deflated the innovatory zeal which WBAI had experienced for almost a decade (128).

Land's strength is in showing the tremendously difficult translation of new movements' political developments into radio programs. For example, many of the lawsuits brought against Pacifica or attempts to revoke its licenses have been initiated by rightwing watchdog groups, and a disproportionate amount of Pacifica's resources has been used in court battles over the use of offensive language. But this does not explain the reasons many listeners were turning away from Pacifica stations. Two recurring themes in WBAI and KPFK also alienated large segments of listeners at these two stations. These themes were the stations' uncritical Third Worldism and their anti-capitalism that sometimes evoked anti-Semitic themes or that played up Jewish-Black tensions. In such cases the station management has often had to rethink the principle of airing various viewpoints. The emergence of a feminist movement also added to the complexity of stations' changing from a staff that was largely white male to one that included more women programmers with feminist and radical viewpoints. On the other hand, in the development of community radio Pacifica has played a key role in providing training and apprenticeship programs to thousands of community programmers, including those from the newer political constitutencies who wanted a public voice.

Lasar, in his concluding chapter, sums up his book's detailed historical account of early Pacifica Radio by pointing to the inadequate views of many first generation Pacificans. In Lasar's view they were

"addicted…to a constitutional right to speak…within a framework of liberal individualism inherited from the foundation's struggle with McCarthyism"(228).

Their overreliance on dissent ideology, Lasar claims, while aiding in the fight against McCarthyism and in empowering new voices, ended in accommodation to a legalistic system of individual rights in a fragmented "community." The dissent ideology prevented them from developing

"a general theory of noncommercial broadcasting that prioritized listening over talking, recognition over declaration, and mutual obligation over individual rights"(228).

In the chapter entitled "Beloved Community," Land raises provocative questions about how "communities" are shaped and formed, how mythical dimensions of social movements can be elaborately created at one moment only to collapse into myriad other dimensions at another moment. "Communities," Land argues, do not comprise empirically quantifiable entities out there for radio producers to mirror. Rather, radio shows are created, shaped, and held together by the force of personality, the artistry, the timeliness of programmers, who are or are not able to interact with an audience's complex series of affinities, of "shared ideals and enthusiasms" (135). Community is a shared space created by the audience and the programmer, not reducible to attempts to develop rigid systems of judging a program's worthiness.

The two authors draw different conclusions about the broader lesson of Pacifica's experience with alternative media. Lasar is dismissive of Pacifica's transformation into an alternative network. Although his historical study stops in the period of early 1960s, Lasar echoes more loudly those voices from the 1970s who blame Pacifica's fragmented programming on the rise of "identity politics." Land, though critical, applauds the shift in programming as the beginning of a brash experiment that ultimately opens the airwaves to new creative voices. Both Land and Lasar find that Pacifica's real worth lies in its addressing issues of genuine communication, creativity and popular access. These two books — considered together with the latest struggle over the future of Pacifica's programming, sources of finding, and management structure — show once again the complex responsibilities involved in developing alternative media outlets to can meet the challenge of the times.

The new chapter in Pacifica struggles opened during the summer of 1999, and it has many ramifications yet to come. As with previous Pacifica crises, what is often seen as chaos and dissolution or the death of the utopian community, in fact, expresses the quintessence of that community in action.


Afary, Kamran. "Communication and Community in an Alternative Media Organization: An Ethnographic Study of KPFK Radio in Los Angeles." Masters Thesis. Cal. State University Los Angeles, 1998.

Land, Jeff. Active Radio: Pacifica's Brach Experiment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Lasar, Matthew. Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.