Pacifica Radio
The Rise of an
Alternative Network
Matthew Lasar
(Temple University Press)
In 1952 or 1955 or 1959, those of us who lived in the San Francisco Bay area had a home. Berkeley and Palo Alto and San Francisco were united in the world of words and music which was Pacifica Foundation's KPFA. And for those of us who worked there as volunteers, or as staff, we had died and gone to heaven, for KPFA was a paradise of music, and thought, and commentary, and ideas --- all of which assured us that we were not alone in the cold world, the cold war world.

In Pacifica Radio, the writer Matthew Lazar refers to it as "a culture of refuge." But it was more. For those of us who felt dispossessed, there was a center transmitting a message (which became our message), binding us to others who felt our pain and isolation. Those of us who cared greatly about American radio, and media, and what it could and should do for the world, were given a feast.

We had grown up on radio trash, Top 40, elevator music, Pat Boone, "Rock Around the Clock," and breathless five minute newscasts. With the coming of FM, there was a chance, it was thought, for an American-BBC type of radio to emerge. It was not to be, because even on FM, in most of the U.S., there was a wasteland of background music and simulcast AM stations. (Public radio wasn't created until 1968. There were mostly "educational" radio stations, whose programming was just as gripping as the name implies).

With Pacifica, there was, for the first time, for most of us, communication as art. It was not unlike the rare teacher that you and I had --- one who could take chemistry, or English, or history, or even math, and make it interesting and exciting. Those of us fortunate to be able to hear KPFA in the 50s had the chance to hear great minds, engrossed with the great cultural and philosophical questions of the day, talking, playing music, radio drama and poetry and politics from all over the spectrum --- talking to us (a voice in the silent room), telling us what they had learned, and what they had learned to love.

These were people who lived their art and their philosophy, and instead of our having to seek them out in the lecture hall or the wine cellar or the concert hall, we found them all in one place --- the center, an enlightened vortex --- at 94.1 mHz. There was Pauline Kael going to the movies with us, Anthony Boucher letting us hear "El Pastor Fido," Phil Elwood visiting the jazz joints and sharing the forgotten greats, Alan Rich offering huge draughts of great music (Lieder by Wolf! Chant and Plainsong! Cantatas by Bach!)

Too, there was Robert Schutz teaching us the art of questioning with his don't-let-them-get-away-with-a-thing interviews. There was, most of all, Alan Watts with his easy, casual descriptions of Zen:

    Cherish both the angel and the animal --- to connect with the universe through bodily experiences as well as through zen study and practice. The saint-sinner and the mystic sensualist is always the most interesting type of human being because he is the most complete.

People who obviously knew what they loved, and loved what they knew were coming right into our living rooms and showering us with the joy of their ideas and musics: gagaku, Shakespeare, "Ich Habe Genug," Charlie Christian, Rilke, Noh, pacifism, Monteverdi, existentialism, Erik Erikson, Cervantes, Jung, Dylan Thomas, Blind Willie McTell, Ravi Shankar, Ramito, kayagum, Camus, Moondog. We learned, for the first time, that there were alternatives to commercials for Marlboros, and Paul Harvey five minute newscasts, and 18 ads an hour and those dratted Public Service Announcements for the Boy Scouts.

And we responded not just with money, but with love --- lots of it: we came to hold precious this precious medium of communication. KPFA gave us mentors, men and women who came to us out of the cold (we the unwilling Cold Warriors) to tell us what we always suspected: that the propaganda about China and Russia and Viet-Nam and Iran and Central America and South Africa was just that: propaganda. They offered a choice to those of us who thought we had lost control of our lives and the lives of our families and our children --- those of us who had unwillingly surrendered our futures to the hands of a man named Stalin (12,000 miles to the west) and Dulles (3,000 miles to the east) who both, apparently, wanted to bomb us out of existence.

We didn't care for either of them, nor their politics (which would certainly not destroy them in their lead bunkers --- but would burn to atomic ash those of us who lay between the two of them.) Our helplessness lay in our isolation from the hearts and minds of our presidents and Secretaries-of-State and the CIA and our senators and representatives. They never seemed to hear us, never heard our real dread that sometime soon the bombs would go off without our specific permission --- and that, then...we would all of us be as nothing.

What was most embittering was the knowledge that our refusal to accept this dangerous political stalemate was considered to be disloyal. If you and I despaired of the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and vowed to do something about it (picketing, publishing pamphlets or books, speaking out) we were automatically considered disloyal, and well might find the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the House Un-american Activities Committee and the FBI destroying our lives. It was the mad-making paranoiac destructive interface that every psychiatrist sees a thousand times in his practice --- but this one was on a national level. We nationals were being treated as children, and this child knew (as children often know) that the family situation had gone mad and wrong. This knowledge, ignored, created further madness. Our world was a looney-bin, but no one could tell if it was the keepers or the kept that were more balmy.

How wonderful, then, it was, to find this communality on the radio dial. Those of us who had a love for Joyce and the Beats and Marlowe and Bach and Dallapiccola and Telemann and Louis Armstrong and Blind Gary Davis and the Music of Macedonia had, at the same time, an antidote to the world that had suddenly gone off the track. Here was a voice of reason, one beamed at us with gentle calm, telling us that it was, indeed, wrong to destroy the country that we loved for a single, dark, knock-'em-dead world view.

--- Lorenzo W. Milam


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