The Pacifica

Some Thoughts on
The Present Imbroglio

Lorenzo W. Milam

As this is written, the Pacifica Foundation and its radio stations (KPFA, KPFK, WBAI, WPFW, and KPFT) are going through great turmoil. Those of us who have watched Pacifica over the years --- with affection, and with despair --- refer this to "Pacifica Upheaval #87a;" but still, we cannot help but be concerned --- fearing, as we all must, the potential loss of an important voice.

The author of this article, who has had some experience with Radio Uproar, sent the following to supporters of KPFA who were rightly distraught at what was happening.

Over the years, Pacifica has been a victim (and beneficiary) of the unwritten policies of the FCC between 1946 and 1972 --- a policy that did not allow alternative organizations to receive permits to broadcast except on the "commercial" portion of the FM band, 92 - 108 mHz. One had to have an "educational" operation (in the narrowest sense of the word) to be licensed for those frequencies between 88 - 92 mHz. The only reason Pacifica was able to receive permits in increasingly tight markets such as Houston, Los Angeles and Washington DC was because of the peculiar entity that is KPFB.

When KPFA received funding from the Ford Foundation in 1953, they were able to buy the transmitter and tower of a defunct commercial FM station in the Berkeley hills. The moment they moved, given the low-quality receivers of the day, many of the subscribers in Berkeley proper could no longer receive the station's signal.

Pacifica needed a low-power clone to reach their Berkeely subscribers. In those days, moderate power repeaters were not permitted on the commercial portion of the FM band. Because of general disinterest in FM, the Federal Communications Commission not only permitted but urged Pacifica to apply for, and get, a non-commercial frequency for KPFB, which became, in effect, a medium power repeater. The antenna used was a highly directional "bedspring" antenna that aimed the signal to the north.

The FCC is rather Darwinian: once one mutation is created, similar mutations are permitted. KPFB was the entrée that Pacifica needed and was able to use for subsequent applications. Pacifica-type stations --- as opposed to the very narrow "educational" stations of the day --- could thus go on the air between 88 - 92 mHz under the umbrella of Pacifica Foundation.

(KRAB in Seattle was another example of this policy. It went on the air on a commercial frequency --- at 107.7 mHz --- but once it had established credentials as bona fide "educational" operation, it was permitted to apply for what is now KBOO in Portland on the "reserved" portion of the FM band. The necessity for this round-about application process was changed in 1972, with what is now KPOO in San Francisco, licensed to a non-school, non-institutional, non-elite organization, Poor People's Radio.)

It is probable that had it been legal for the other Pacifica-type stations to go on the air with their own local boards of directors (not advisory boards as now, but actual licensees), then KPFK, WPFW, WBAI, and KPFT might well have been set up as independent entities. Larry Lee, who created KPFT, found no commercial frequencies available in Houston when he sought a permit of his own on the non-commercial band. It was only when he realized that the FCC's rules forbid such licensing that he contracted with Pacifica to come in under their umbrella.

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The Pacifica stations have not, at least since the 60s, been structured like the typical NPR stations --- with a strong operations manager, who reports directly to a board. Rather, each of the Pacifica stations has grown to be a confederation of on-the-air people and groups. Thus, the five Pacifica stations should not be seen as radio stations per se --- but, if you will, as condominiums.

It is a situation that has been evolving for the last thirty years. The programmers' power has been fed by management who have been content to let them go their own way, rather than get embroiled in a destructive battle for control. All on-the-air people know that station managers, program directors (and even the local and national boards) may come and go --- but those who produce the programs are the true owners of KPFA, WBAI, et al.

It's a reality that subsumes the myth of ownership and power --- and in this way, it is not unlike the myth of control of commercial radio and televison stations. The cant at the FCC is that commercial broadcast operations are owned by various publically documented licensees. In truth, the owners are the radio and television program sponsors. Commercial operators float new programs each year like trial balloons. If these programs are suitable for advertisers (through ratings, and general acceptability), they get bought up by the sponsors. This insures their staying power. If they fail to attract advertisers --- they are quickly replaced.

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The Pacifica programmers are a feisty bunch. They've tasted power --- the power of owning, several times a month, a potent radio signal in a top-ten market. They have gotten to where they are because of survivability, longevity, and powerful political in-fighting skills. They are usually highly committed, deeply involved, and very sophisticated in the ways and the use of media. Any attacks on their ownership of their particular time-slot will have a cascading effect --- because a threat to one programmer is a threat to all.

It is real power, but it is strange and idiosyncratic one, more akin to the anarcho-syndicalists of Barcelona of 1935, rather than Berkeley or New York of 1999. Since these programmers are skilled at communications (the stations have been their schools) they have come to be highly trained at urban warfare. Any who choose to tamper with their independence faces a formidible foe, for their entrenched position, along with their media know-how, make them a astonishing threat to any who might seek to rein them in.

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As we said at the beginning, this may be KPFA crises #87a -- but it has a difference. The stakes are higher now. The eruption in Berkeley is but a pre-cursor to other turmoils that will come in the future. It would be hoped that the board of Pacifica would come to see that this year's crises has come about before, in different guises --- and it will erupt again and again, in some equally astounding form, further on down the line. A solution to the present crises could evolve from this knowledge. The events of the last year should alert the present board of Pacifica to the fact that the opposition to their centralized authority is highly wily and sophisticated in the use of the media. We must learn from Viet-Nam the consequence of fighting guerrillas who know the territory, who are passionately committed, who fight using different rules, and who do not accept defeat.

One would hope that the Board of Pacifica could be convinced to go back to what might have been, if the FCC rules were written differently. This would involve their petitioning the FCC to allow the operating permits for each of the five stations to be transferred to its own local governing board. This would turn the advisory boards into actual operating entities. Since the travail at Pacifica commenced with a question from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting as to the actual role of the advisory boards, by giving them ownership, it would render the problem with CPB's funding directives moot.

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