The WorldFifty years ago, I enrolled in a Quaker university. There I was taught that 1] War --- the killing of people --- is not A Good Thing. I was also taught that 2] Each of us is responsible for helping to bring peace to the world.When I got out of school, I went off to figure out how I, personally, could do something about this killing business.Let me set the scene. It was the late 1950s. The United State and Russia had been rattling nuclear swords at each other for almost a decade. Anyone with more than a pea-brain knew that sooner or later --- either by error or on purpose --- the two countries were going to be sending off the missiles.Most of us were scared shitless. I remember the nuclear nightmares, dreams of the bombs going off, children dying, nothing left of our cities but ashes and radioactive dust.
Our peace of mind was not helped by the fact that when the missiles began to fly, the President, all members of Congress, the FBI, the CIA, the ranking generals and admirals and other officials would be whisked away to safe underground bomb-proof shelters in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Thus while the rest of us were knee-deep in blood and radiation, the powers that be would be safe to someday emerge and rebuild a brave new world in their image.
My thought was that these political types hadn't thought things through. If someone were to convince them of the folly of their ways, they would come to their senses, make peace with the Russians, and most of all, drop this idea of murdering the world in a massive wave of destruction.
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I ended up in Berkeley, working on my degree in English, married (with child), doing part-time volunteer work for the Pacifica station, KPFA. KPFA regularly did programs on the ghastlies of nuclear holocaust. There were weekly readings of Soviet periodicals, interviews and commentary from every point of view possible, music from all over the world. The station had been put together in 1948 by several pacifists, and thus was right up my alley.
"There should be a station like this in Washington DC," I thought to myself. "A radio station that could show people the alternatives. Alternative approaches to racism, poverty, and most of all, war." In those days, there was nothing like Pacifica anywhere else in the country.
I was so swept up by that vision that in the spring of 1959 I resigned from my studies at the University of California, resigned from my marriage, and took a jet to Washington. I went directly to the Federal Communications Commission, to the man who handled FM allocations for the United States. I told him that I wanted to start a free-forum radio station there in Washington, DC.
This isn't as crazy as it sounds. In those days there were FM frequencies in most of the major cities to be had for the asking. Still, I suspect that the FCC operative, one Ed Hackman, thought I was a bit touched, especially with that "free-forum" business. "You need an engineer," he told me. "And a lawyer."
I didn't know anyone in the city, but I knew damn well what I wanted. I started asking around, got to meet a few people, set up a board of directors by appearing at people's houses or offices, telling them about my dream. Since Washington radio was even worse than it is now --- no public radio in any form --- many of them signed on. I found a lawyer and engineer both of whom agreed to work for free.
On October 30, 1959 I personally delivered the application for an FM station in Washington, D. C. to the FCC. I stayed long enough to watch the secretary (Ben F. Waple was his wonderful name) certify it. I then went back to my dingy $35/month office down on F Street, the one I shared with a retired attorney by the name of Abraham Rockmore. There I awaited my permit to make a station that would address the issues of the day, perhaps save us all from international mayhem.
So I waiting. And waited. And waited some more. When I wasn't writing soulful poetry and reading the newspapers, I read the weekly releases from the FCC. Before long I noticed that FM permits were being granted to almost all those who had applied for stations the same time as I did. People who wanted to do mood music. People who were applying for fundamentalist religious stations. People who wanted to do rock. They were walking away with their permits: average waiting time, two to three months.
I went over to the FCC to ask if they had misplaced my application. "No," Mr. Hackman told me. "We're working on it. We'll let you know."
And there I was, nine months later, still waiting by the telephone. I asked my lawyer what the hell was going on, but he couldn't figure it out, because no one at the Commission would talk to him either.
In May I inveigled an invitation to have lunch with the congressman from the district where I had grown up. Charles Bennett was an important congressman, was on many committees. He was on crutches (polio 1942) and I was on crutches (polio 1952) so we made quite a pair as we crutched together down to the House of Representatives Dining Room where they served us ham pot-pie and black bean soup.
We chatted about this and that, and then I launched into my speech: "I want to build a non-commercial radio station here in Washington. It'll be a station with music from all over the world and commentary from every point of view. It'll have interviews and recordings of important speeches and documentaries and news programs that will look at all sides of all the issues. Most of all, it will respect the audience." This was the same speech that I had used when I met with the professors and social activists and educators and union people, the people who I talked into being on my board.
"There's a station just like it on the west coast," I told Bennett. "You may have heard of it --- KPFA in Berkeley. I want to do one just like it here in Washington, but the FCC is sitting on my application and I don't know why."
"After I got your call," he said, "I made contact with the Commission. They told me about your application." He paused, a long pause.
"We live in a wonderful country," he said. "We have freedoms in this country. Many other countries in the world don't have the same freedoms that we do."
"I know what you mean," I said.
"But there are people in this country who want to hurt us, to use the freedoms we give them to do damage to the political system, to try to destroy the government. We have to protect ourselves against these people who want to use our very freedoms to destroy what has taken so long to build up."
He went on in this vein for another fifteen minutes, paused, and then, having nothing more to say, finished his pot-pie, stood up, thanked me for visiting, shook my hand, and crutched off. "What the fuck is he talking about?" I wondered. "What in God's name is going on?"