Pacifica Radio
The Rise of an
Alternative Network
Matthew Lasar
(Temple University Press)
Pacifica Radio is a fine book. It outstrips anything that has ever been produced about not only the Pacifica experience, but about American cultural radio. Along with Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, Michael Arlen's Living-Room War, and Barnouw's History of American Broadcasting, it should be a required text for students wanting to know the true history of American radio. In contrast to most of the troglodytes that live in the dark university world of "communications," Lasar has the ability to communicate.

I opened this one expecting a dry recitation of facts of the birth, life, and death of Pacifica. In contrast, what I found was a perceptive book about a revolutionary idea in media. For instance, there's a fair amount of space devoted to the philosophies that guided KPFA's founding --- George Fox, Gandhi, Kierkegaard, and World War II U. S. pacifism. There were too --- what memories it brought back for me! --- rich descriptions of the personalities of the staff, the on-the-air gurus like Anthony Boucher, Alan Watts, Pauline Kael, et al.

We get the moves and the changes, too. Those of us who cut our political and philosophical teeth on KPFA watched it move from being the BBC Third Programme for the United States (a reference that Lasar doesn't pick up on, though it was much in the air in the early days), to an advocacy journal for the tired left, to --- now --- a splintered mess of independent programmers, people who are proprietors their particular hour or two a week --- and will destroy anyone, management or not, brazen enough to try to eliminate their fiefdoms. (These new radicals have Balkanized operations --- not only at KPFA --- but at WPFW, KPFK, WBAI, and KPFT as well.)

    Throughout Pacificana, stations began dividing into departments, subdepartments, and radio "collectives" divided to wide-ranging interests, from women's rights to Latin American revolution to union struggles in the United States. All produced original path-breaking programming, but the pervasive sense of fragmentation that permeated the network could not be denied. One station manager described it as "Bureaucratically managed individualism." KPFA more often represented a single room-occupancy hotel than a town hall meeting. Individual programmers fiercely guarded their programs, since the individually "owned" show now often represented the fundamental building block of the station's program schedule.

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There are a few errors in the book that Lasar might want to correct if Temple University Press ever puts out a second edition. First off, there may have been stables to clean out at Pacifica, but I doubt if they were Aegean. (I presume that he is speaking of the Augean stables, which were so stinky that it took Hercules thirty years to get them up to snuff. Not a bad image of Pacifica at occasional times in its life.)

Lasar has listed the Federal Communications Commission as "affiliated with the Department of Commerce." That was true with the old Federal Radio Commission which ran American broadcasting until 1927. The FCC came into being in 1934 as what they like to call "an independent regulatory commission" (which is handy for broadcasters. It makes it much easier for them to own it).

Like most radio historians, the author deplores the fact that in 1945-46, the FCC moved FM from 41-50 mHz to 88-108 mHz. What few consider is, as tragic as the move was for FM broadcasters and manufacturers of the day, it opened the door for far more radio stations to operate. The old band was not only limited in size, the stations' signals would have traveled much further, thus limiting competition. In addition, the move effectively killed FM for a decade, leaving that bandwidth wide open for low-budget experiments like KPFA, WBAI in New York, WFMT in Chicago, countless classical stations throughout the country, as well as the Jack Straw Stations in the Pacific Northwest.

In the chapter entitled "Palace Revolution," the author refers to Pacifica reaching out to

    their one surviving ally: liberalism, the liberalism of academics like...the ACLU, the Ford Foundation, and the FCC. These institutions sought not a pacific world but a "fair and balanced" world in their time --- a world without loyalty oaths...

No one in their right mind would refer to the Federal Communications Commission of that day --- or this --- as "liberal." And as far as loyalty oaths, your reviewer was forced to sign one, by that very same "liberal" FCC, in 1961, in order to be licensed for a Pacifica-type station in Seattle.

In fact, it seems to me that there must be files somewhere at the FCC that Lasar didn't or couldn't find --- or, more probably, that continue to be hidden in the secret bowels of the Commission. He claims that neither the FCC nor the FBI saw anything "disloyal" or any "communist" influence at Pacifica or its stations until 1960. But those who worked at KPFA during its first ten years report being investigated both by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Admittedly, these were paranoiacs trying to survive in a paranoiac time, but, according to some who should know, the IRS did conduct regular audits of Pacifica's tax returns, which --- as anyone who has gone through such a monstrosity knows --- are expensive, burn up a goodly portion of staff time, and were, in truth, a form of governmental harassment.

Furthermore, I suspect that sometime in the late 50s the FCC created its own loyalty division, under the supervision of a walrus-mustached nitwit by the name of John Harrington. It was his job to spot any potential disloyal or left-leaning broadcasters, and to generally gum up their application process. Since radio and television stations are dependent on the FCC not only for major permits (frequency, power) but for minor ones (changes in transmitters, or monitoring equipment), such delays can be a bitch.

I got caught up in this spaghetti starting in 1959. I had worked at KPFA as a volunteer, came genuinely to love the station, but, like many, feared for its future by its take-over by the Elsa Knight Thompson grobians. So I picked up, moved east, put together a board of directors from respectable local institutions --- and applied to the FCC for a permit to broadcast in Washington, D.C.

I waited for a permit. Then I waited, and then I waited some more. All around me, permits were being issued for FM stations around the country. The average wait was sixty days: evangelical stations, pure 18-minutes-an-hour commercial stations, stations proposing what they called then "E-Z Listening" and "Candlelight and Silver" and "Top Pops." While I cooled my heels, the bastards were being granted all around me.

I got the definite feeling that something weird was going on. After all, the only thing different in my application was that I obviously adored KPFA, and told the FCC that I would model my operation after the Berkeley station.

We should have named my proposed radio station K-FKA, after Franz. Several months passed. I got restless. So I went over to the Commission, and asked Ed Hackman, who ran the FM division, about my application, and he said "we're working on it." Then I went back to my tiny office and waited, and then, a few months later, went to see him again, and he said, "We're still working on it."

It was crazy-making, and there was absolutely no appeal. There had been an unannounced --- and highly illegal --- freeze, not only of Pacifica's applications, but on any application that sounded anyway close. Harrington who, I suspect, was in J Edgar Hoover's back pocket, buried any and all documents that came through the door that didn't fit his --- and the FBI --- qualifications. I found all this out years later when one of the assistants to E William Henry --- President Kennedy's man at the FCC --- admitted to me that my now-dead application had been purposely buried. The jerk told me that they were "very sorry," but he didn't offer to give back the time, the money, and the sad waiting that went into my would-be dream station.

Lasar makes much of the problems that Pacifica had with the House Un-American Activities Commission and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee after WBAI aired an expose of the FBI, "The Report of Former Agent Jack Levine." We would hope that he could do a more comprehensive investigation on the problems that KPFA (and others) were facing at the FCC long before that program came along to gum up the works.

Perhaps, in truth, Lasar's failing --- and it's a small one --- is that he's just a kid. He was born when KPFA was only five years old. Thus, he was on the scene too late to have lived with us through such an excruciating period in American history: when those of us who loved our country feared so mightily for its future. We needed an outlet not only to tell the world about how crazy-making the whole situation, but a place on which we could be heard, letting all know that we were no longer willing to be men and woman without a country. It was only with Pacifica that we were able to find peace, and a kind of home.

--- Lorenzo W. Milam