From Radical Poetics: Inventory of Possibilities, Issue One, Spring 1997



The Life and Death of Great American Radio


Free media everywhere are in chains. Pacifica Radio, America's uncompromising listener-supported, non-commercial FM network, now passes its programs through the fine mesh of the Arbitron rating sieve to make them more easily digestible. In Britain, the BBC's intellectually up-market Radio 3 is, like Pacifica, being made more "user-friendly" with personality-led "strip" programming which, unlike strip poker, removes the content and leaves the clothing. London's Guardian, which was the newspaper you turned to if you wanted to exercise your brain without assaulting your eyes, has added a tabloid section that dresses up hard news as soft porn. Even the Internet, which was structurally designed so that, in the words of John Gilmore, it "interprets censorship as damage and routes around it", is now being sucked inexorably into a maelstrom of commercial and political sewage. The Age of Aquarius is going down for the third time.




Pacifica Radio was founded by Lewis Hill, a poet, broadcaster, and WW2 conscientious objector. Driven by the awfulness of American radio, he created in 1949 an alternative somewhat similar to the old BBC Third Programme, which was going on the air at the same time that Hill was marshaling his forces. He intended to cut straight through the root of commercial corruption:

The purpose of commercial radio is to induce mass sales. For mass sales there must be a mass norm, and the activity must be conducted as nearly as possible without risk of departure from the norm....By suppressing the individual, the unique, the industry reduces the risk of failure (abnormality) and assures itself a standard product for mass consumption.... This is the first problem that listener sponsorship sets out to solve--to give the genuine artist and thinker a possible, even a desirable, place to work in radio.

It's hard to remember or even imagine how boldly ambitious Lewis Hill's concept was at its inception. Fifty years ago, all the avenues of communication, including newspapers and radio stations, belonged to established forces such as the government, churches, corporations, and universities. There were local media, but they were for the most part incorrigibly conservative. Alternative art and politics occupied the footpaths: small magazines and newsletters, often mimeographed, which were handed out at meetings and distributed by mail. No information superhighways in those days! Aside from a brief spasm of labor-supported broadcasting in the mid 1920s (WCFL, supported by the Chicago Federation of Labor but killed off with the connivance of the AFL), the only efforts at niche broadcasting had been made by a handful of radio evangelists such as Aimee Semple Macpherson, whose Los Angeles station, KFSG ("Kall Four Square Gospel"), had gone on the air in 1923 when there were only two other LA stations and 100,000 receivers.


The culture shock of tuning in to KPFA in 1949 was like hearing an atheist sermon preached from the pulpit of Grace Cathedral. The airwaves had never been available to iconoclasts, but now they were reaching not just a handful of people at a meeting or a concert, but an indeterminate mass of the general public. "Indeterminate" is the operative word. The Nielsen ratings, with their little boxes attached to consoles in a few living rooms, were already up and running for AM radio, but FM was still only a gleam in an ad man's eye. Lew Hill could ignore with impunity the size of KPFA's audiences because there was, mercifully, no way of measuring them.


The Bay Area's political, intellectual, and artistic avant-garde, long an embattled minority, now had a sense of instantaneous and simultaneous community. Pauline Kael was cruel but perceptive when she labeled KPFA "soap opera for liberals". Not only was it a source of in­formation and inspiration, but for those who were accustomed to fighting and losing, it was a Land of Oz (itself an IWW allegory) in which the good guys didn't always finish last. The listening audience included family, friends, and followers, and newcomers glued to their sets soon felt that they knew the protagonists as well as they knew the Barbours -- that imaginary San Francisco family living in Seacliff whose serial epic, One Man's Family, was locally launched in 1932 and soon spread throughout the NBC network. (Ben Leger, the left-wing actor whose autobiography occupied almost as much of KPFA's air time as Kenneth Roxroth's, once told me that his greatest career mistake had been to quit the cast of One Man's Family after a couple of episodes, convinced that it wouldn't catch on. It turned out to be the longest-running serial in the history of American radio.)


It was this sense of "engagement", as Lewis Hill called it, quoting the French Existentialists, that not only made KPFA's audience intensely loyal, but gave them a significance in the community which a mere head count, had it been possible, would have grossly undervalued. (A moment's reflection makes it obvious that head counts reveal nothing of a group's significance, except as a standard for setting advertising revenue.)


Engagement typified the staff as well; they worked for peanuts and the shells were often empty. Idealists came to work, often unpaid, remained as long as penury would allow, and then went on to other employment where the skills they had acquired might lead to a distinguished career.


Then in 1985, after years of grinding poverty, the network was both saved and damned by the deregulatory policies of Acting President Reagan. The sub carrier frequencies of FM stations had become a valuable commodity which could be rented out as transmitters of commercial information, but non-profit public radio was forbidden to do so.


When broadcasting was turned over to "market forces," Pacifica struck oil. Having got into FM on the ground floor, it now owned half-a-dozen high-output transmitters on elevated sites in big urban centers, whose by-products were suddenly worth a modest fortune. In order to guarantee that the bonanza would not be frittered away on running expenses, the national board of directors quickly staked its claim to the sub carriers of all the stations. By the end of last year, the annual yield had grown from a quarter of a million to about $800,000. The income would be expected to fall off with new technologies, but David Josephson of Josephson Engineering tells me, "I think they have a new lease on life, as there will always be local data distribution needs that can be done on SCA's without any significant capital outlay."


Suddenly Pacifica had moved into the bottom of the Big Leagues. There was money coming in which one could actually control, rather than simply handing it over to whatever creditor happened to be banging on the door. There was scope for management, for planning, for financial rationalization, for serious fund-raising. These skills were in short supply within the network, so experts had to be invited in and the old dogs sent on crash courses to learn new tricks.


With the new tricks came delusions of grandeur. In 1992 A Strategy for National Pro­gramming was confidentially circulated which set forth a "five year plan" (its own unfortunate phrase) in order to "draw large audiences and generous subscribers". This was to be accomplished by scrapping an increasing number of locally produced programs which would be compulsorily replaced by "expand[ing] national programming from one half-hour nightly news program in 1993 to 28-30 hours by 1997".


The power structure of the American networks, which had motivated the creation of listener-sponsored local radio, was now to serve as its model. Like Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman, Pacifica was at the mercy of its new servants. Media professionals who genuinely admired what the stations represented were prepared to work for half what they had been paid in the commercial world; awkwardly, this was still twice the salaries of those already there. A gulf appeared between those who managed the money and made the decisions, and those who produced the programs and went on the air.


This was exactly what Lewis Hill had set out to avoid. In one prospectus after another, he had expounded the principle that the people behind the microphones should be collectively responsible for what they said and should all be paid the same salary:

The people who actually do the broadcasting should also be responsible for what and why they broadcast. In short, they must control the policy which determines their actions.... Whatever else may happen, we thus as­sign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio are normally denied him. KPFA is operated literally on this principle.

That policy was abandoned during a power struggle in the early nineteen fifties, and the way was open for the gradual centralization of power in the hands of the board of directors. For years the board steered with a relatively light touch; but as the pros moved in, they brought their modus operandi with them. Like all managerial cliques, their first priority was their own survival. Usually the conflict of interest between new administrators and old producers appears with the first adjusted paycheck. But Pacifica had an enormous pool of dedicated amateurs (in the original sense) who gave their time and talents for nothing. (William Mandel, a world authority on the former Soviet Union, conservatively estimates that he has given Pacifica a million dollars worth of his services.) Since half of nothing is still nothing, they were prepared to work for greatly reduced salaries.


But half of nothing saved is nothing earned, and so other sources of income had to be explored. Pacifica's home base, KPFA in Berkeley, California, had long been housed in a hippie heaven of crumbling studios and deteriorating equipment. What better symbol of the new Pacifica (and magnet for money) than a new state-of-the-art center of operations, paid for by contributions from those grateful survivors who over the years had turned to KPFA for moral, intellectual, and artistic sustenance? Even those who had stopped listening in the seventies, when the station became a struggle pit of competing special interest groups, were prepared to contribute to the erection of a suitable memorial. So on September 26, 1991, KPFA moved into an attractive, modest (by commercial standards) new building with unobtrusive but effective security. They would need it.


Once housed in its mausoleum-with-a-mortgage, the administration had to take an even sharper look at ways of raising its operational income. Following their natural bias, the pros from the real world consulted the hour-by-hour ratings charts, extracted the figures for KPFA, lined them up against the daily schedules, and called in spin doctor David Giovannoni to turn their wheel of fortune. After a short day's examination of the programmers' entrails, he delivered his verdict: More pop music. No speeches. More chat. No big words. Same programs every day. Go down market. The minutes of the meeting reported: "Giovannoni thinks that in general for many listeners politics is not as important as being entertained." He submitted a hefty bill and departed.


The administration set out to follow his advice. The first to go, the bellwether of the flock, was William Mandel, who had been on the air for thirty-seven years. Ignoring the bullets whizzing about his ears, he had carried on through one palace revolution after another until, having dared to stray outside his narrowing brief, he suddenly found himself sacked last May for insubordination.


Mandel's supporters immediately rallied to his defense; articles appeared in the press and pickets appeared outside the door. Alexander Cockburn devoted a whole column in The Nation to Mandel's cultural-revolution-like ritual humiliation. As angry letters flooded in, the station followed up its hand grenade with a bombshell. In July, it announced that the rest of the Golden Oldies were to be forcibly retired without even a handshake. Out on the street, Bill Mandel now had a lot of company, including Phil Elwood, one of the greatest jazz critics and presenters in the world, who had also been around from KPFA's beginning.


The August-September Folio had become a bi-monthly, giving even less program information than you might find in your daily paper. Its original purpose was that of any good index: to guide the listeners to those programs they would be interested in. Now it was assumed that overnight they had become illiterate. The cover announced "an all new format with new voices." Inside, the station apologized that "our programming schedule has made it tough for you to find the programs you want to hear." Listeners were promised that the station would be more "user-friendly" with "many new voices and programs to help you cope with the troubled times ahead."


Troubled indeed. There was an instantaneous explosion of protest from those who feared that the station they had supported through all its vicissitudes had been put on auto-pilot. Major newspapers joined the hue and cry, including the San Francisco Examiner, which devoted the front page of its second section to an article headed, "Familiar voices disappearing from KPFA: Old Guard purged at alternative radio station."


One searched the new Folio in vain for a word of thanks to the old troopers for the thousands of hours they had put in. Instead, there were five pages of pictures and sound bites from the new/old presenters who would be taking over the airwaves, in which they attempted to outdo each other in banality. Even the programmers one knew to be intelligent seemed, like wrongfully imprisoned inmates in a madhouse, to have assumed a protective persona of babbling incoherence. No wonder. All had been warned, in a grimly threatening letter from station manager Marci Lockwood, that anyone publicly voicing dissent or discussing the new policies on or off the air would be subject to instant dismissal.


As Pacifica's management has become more authoritarian, such Mafioso tactics have become increasingly common. Board meetings of stations supported by the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) are legally required to be open, but Pacifica's controversial changes have been worked out in camera, interspersed with token public sessions devoted to trivia. The chambers are usually luxurious, such as the Grand Luxe Les Montrose Hotel on the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood border (minimum $160 per night, or an offer they can't refuse).


Over the years there had been many alterations to the programming. Political coverage had continued to win national prizes but cultural programming, under the guise of democratization, had slid steadily down market. Pop programs, which were introduced to champion the music of underrepresented minorities, had come to include more and more of the super-labels you could hear anywhere. The music of elitist white males and females, dead or alive, was finally relegated to a Sunday morning ghetto for its non-church-going acolytes.


Nevertheless there had been continuity. For almost thirty years, two of the most distinguished names in cultural broadcasting, Charles Amirkhanian and Erik Bauersfeld, had struggled to sandbag their respective areas of music and literature/drama against the rising flood of mediocrity. Around the world it was hard to find an avant-garde writer or musician of any importance who had not appeared on KPFA. Even after their retirement a couple of years ago, programmers whom they had brought onto the air continued in the same tradition. They were assisted by the fact that KPFA listeners had, from the very beginning, been accustomed to consult their Folios and write into their diaries the times of programs they didn't want to miss, however irregular and unpredictable they might become.


A few old names survived, as familiar as the curves of a Stradivarius—William Mandel, Phil Elwood, Mama O'Shea—that indicated you were still tuned to the right frequency. Now they are gone, and many of their supporters with them. The station's management is determined to improve "the ratings," those guides to daily living that tell the commercial stations how much they can charge their advertisers, but which reveal nothing of KPFA listeners' loyalties and motivations. Ironically, the uncommitted listeners the station has set out to attract are those least likely to pay voluntarily for something which is free.


The ratings-led policies that Pacifica has now embraced are in themselves responsible for the lowest-common-denominator approach to broadcasting that drove Lewis Hill to launch his revolutionary station. At KPFA's inception, the quality of an audience was more important than its quantity. But now, each move down-market justifies another lowering of standards to bring in still more casual listeners; by the time they work through to the logical conclusion, everybody will be listening to Pacifica but no one will know it. Since last August, what serious political programming is left has been relegated to the daytime slots, shoulder-to-shoulder with the soaps. The new improved evening programming is wall-to-wall yuppie music, while weekend time is for NPR-type entertainment, such as a trivia quiz show and Bob-and-Ray re-runs.


But the heavens may yet swing in Pacifica's favor. This fall we're being treated to a new series on "astrology as a tool for liberation" - a direct quote from a recent three-and-a-half hour in-depth program on the subject. The seven stars go squawking like geese about the sky, and Lew Hill has gone into orbit.


Today, programmers are offered short contracts, while administrative employment at KPFA is the nearest thing in broadcasting to a job for life. "Nothing changes except the faces," public affairs director Elsa Knight Thompson used to say. But in difficult times there's no cure for the wanderlust like a secure salary. A new marble frieze honoring the station's senior staff would hardly be out of date by the time it had crumbled into dust.


As Pacifica bolted its doors and shut down its interactive page on the World Wide Web, former supporters set up their own Internet forum to exchange ideas and suggest responses. Within days, a file had been amassed which might send a small computer to bed with acute indigestion. Along with the usual wrangles over ideology and procedure, there were many pages of carefully assembled information. As the files poured in, the exchange echoed the moral excitement of KPFA itself in its early days. The forum soon brought down the wrath of the Pacifica establishment who, through their attorneys, threatened its organizers with legal action.


Today the future of KPFA begins to look like ancient history. The house holds all the trumps, and nothing could break the bank except a massive withdrawal of listener support. Even then, the corporate worth of all those powerful FM stations is such that, one way or another, they could probably stay in the game.


KPFA's survival under such conditions could be even sadder than its demise: imagine Black Mountain College still kept alive today by the sale of spurious doctorates. Tom Lubbock, writing in The [London] Observer on the emasculation of Radio 3, posits "...the (strangely merciful) law of institutional demise—by which, when an institution's had it, it so alters itself that scarcely anyone who might once have minded, does mind when it goes..."


But Pacifica Director Pat Scott, who had once helped to officiate at the funeral of the Berkeley Co-op, is unlikely to get her vestments out of mothballs; instead, she has herself come out of the closet. Having dismissed Lewis Hill, the Patron Saint of Pacifica, as an "elitist", she has declared herself to be a "populist". Well, at least we know where we are. Way back in 1963, Richard Hoffstadter summed up the populist ethos:

Intellectuals, it may be held, are pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive. The plain sense of the common man . . . is an altogether practical substitute for, if not actually superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools. Nor surprisingly, institutions in which intellectuals tend to be influential . . . are rotten to the core. . . . The discipline of the heart . . . is a more reliable guide to life than an education, which aims to produce minds responsive to new trends in thought and art. . . . [There is] a running battle between the eggheads and the fatheads.

But as Hoffstadter goes on to explain, the mass of the populace are outside this battle:

The greater part of the public . . . is simply non-intellectual; it is infused with enough ambivalence about intellect and intellectuals to be swayed now this way and now that on current cultural issues. It has an ingrained distrust of eggheads, but also a genuine yearning for enlightenment and culture.

It is this amorphous mass of the uncommitted which the New Pacifica, with mixed motives, is attempting to reach. However, the newly-laid foundations of Pacifica's national programming are already slipping. One of the "compulsory" national flagship programs, the daily Julianne Malveaux Show out of Washington DC, was dropped by WBAI in New York for being too slick and sound-bite-structured, and its home station, WPFW, refused to support it. No wonder! The annual cost of this single program was $200,000. Julianne set about trying to raise $350,000 to cover the show plus its overheads and "a full-time sales and marketing person". Pacifica has thus moved into a cost bracket in which spontaneously intelligent and uninhibited communication is almost impossible. The New Improved Pacifica is expensive even to think about.


The overwhelming advantage of writing was always the fact that you could sit down with cheap technology and bring together the results of your knowledge and intelligence. Lew Hill's KPFA was established to provide an environment at a minimal fixed expense in which people could communicate over the air with the same economy and autonomy--you wrote your own script, recorded your own raw materials, and put the program together with perhaps a bit of help from Production. It sounded real because it was real.


You can't have it both ways: either you run a station in which direct, inexpensive, accessible communication is the sine qua non, or you establish a self-supporting, self-justifying hierarchy in which the preservation of your professional and personal life-style must necessarily take precedence over all other priorities. Following the latter path, KPFA has changed from the station many people listened to but didn't support to the station some people still support but don't listen to.


In the massive fund drive for the new building, it was obvious that, the larger the contribution, the more likely that it came from someone who had stopped listening years before but felt an obligation to honor the dead. Observing the relative fall in support and listeners, the administration has chosen to ignore the possibility that this may have resulted from a drift down market. Instead, they have decided to move even further away from the standards that made the stations viable. They proudly associate themselves with such names as Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel, and Jessica Mitford, but gradually squeeze off the air those programs which the readers of their books, let alone the authors themselves, would be likely to listen to.


At a time when standards of public education are imploding from lack of state support, it is suicidal for Pacifica to attempt to reach its prospective audiences by following them into the pit of ignorance. That abyss has been staked out by the Liddys and the Limbaughs, those archetypal populists for whom no spirit is too mean, no fury too hot, no greed too gross to be excused and even applauded.


The Pacifica stations gained their listeners, their supporters, and their reputation not by following public perceptions, but by leading them. It's not enough merely to declare itself to be progressive; Pacifica must demonstrate that it is still prepared to put programs on the air that the public isn't ready for. It must stop putting out trashy Folios, circulars and press releases that readers of The Nation or The New York Review of Books would throw in the wastebasket along with the rest of the junk mail. If it's now "elitist" to challenge the listener's conscience, intelligence, and attention span, the Board might as well sell out to Murdoch and award themselves share options.


©1996 John Whiting


In the 1960's John Whiting was a volunteer and then Production Director/ Program Producer at KPFA, where his happy memories include technical production for Erik Bauersfeld's legendary series, Black Mass. In 1993 he published the first installment of KPFA's history, which he is struggling to complete before it becomes an obituary.


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