What's Going On at Pacifica?
For those who harbor stereotypes about Pacifica as a holdover of sixties counterculture, those images are dispelled by a walk through any of the stations. Consigned to memory is the rabbit warren of dingy corridors and cramped studios where KPFA in its salad days broadcast "Street Fighting Man" as mood music for antiwar protests. All five stations have new or refurbished facilities, thanks to building campaigns over the past five years. Studios are Spartan but professional. Gone are the days when, at KPFA, flushing toilets could sometimes be heard on the air. Protest posters and the occasional gray ponytail on a 50ish male are among the signs that these are stations with political attitude. Each station broadcasts a varied mix of news and talk programs, along with lots of music. The idea is to provide programming that isn't available elsewhere on the dial. KPFA has been the news leader, producing a daily hourlong news program with three full-time staff members and two dozen volunteer reporters. It also produces a weekly program, dedicated to the music of the Grateful Dead, that is one of the station's most popular offerings.
At Washington's WPFW, where 50 percent of the audience is black, a four-hour block on Saturday of classic rhythm and blues is one of the station's most popular programs, and one that shows up high on citywide audience charts. KPFT in Houston has heavy doses of Cajun, blues and folk, and bills itself as "The Sound of Texas." ("But we don't do country and western," says station manager Garland Ganter, offering an unsolicited rebuttal to criticism from other Pacifica circles that his station panders to lowbrow popular tastes apparently considered incompatible with lefty politics.) The New York City station emphasizes news and also draws a dedicated following to its afternoon block of psychology and health--including Natural Living with Gary Null, author of bestselling alternative health and anti-aging books. And at KPFK in Los Angeles, the biggest fundraising success is a daily politics-culture talk show hosted by journalist Marc Cooper (Cooper also hosts the weekly RadioNation, a co-production of KPFK and The Nation Institute, which runs free on 120 stations).
A good share of Pacifica's hardcore politics--and attitude--is pumped out by the daily political interview show Democracy Now!, one of only two programs produced by Pacifica for mandatory airing on all five stations. The program is hosted out of New York's WBAI by Amy Goodman, an early and aggressive reporter in East Timor, and Juan Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist. Last year, Goodman was co-winner of a Polk Award for a Pacifica investigation of Chevron's involvement in attacks on civilians in Africa's Niger Delta; Gonzalez also won a Polk, for his newspaper commentary. The show's in-your-face advocacy style (it bills itself as "the Exception to the Rulers") creates devoted fans, and it is unquestionably Pacifica's marquee production. Stations are also required to carry the daily half-hour Pacifica Network News (PNN), which features news reports and commentaries from a network of freelancers and a staff of four journalists working out of the Washington station. The show is popular among Pacifica's affiliates (twenty-three stations run Democracy Now! and forty-two run PNN.)
There has never been a day when Pacifica was not a voice of dissent. A group of young Bay Area intellectuals led by Lew Hill, a World War II conscientious objector, created Pacifica in 1949 as an alternative to what they saw as the crass commercialism of American radio. Hill described the objective of Pacifica as promoting "a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors." KPFA was FM at a time when most radios were built with only an AM band; it refused advertising, and it asked its members to become "subscribers" and contribute money for the running of the station. Matthew Lasar, in his book Pacifica Radio, about the network's first three decades, described Hill as a pacifist anticommunist dedicated to providing a radio forum for the most diverse exchange of views, a haven of free speech in an era when dissident views on race, war and the emerging American empire were considered unpatriotic at best and un-American at worst.
The station, then as now, attracted people with a deep suspicion of authority, and internal disputes were frequent. At the time of Hill's death in 1957, he was involved in a wrangle with his board of directors over the firing of several employees, and one of the employees was picketing the station in protest. Pacifica's first battle was against the FBI's anticommunist investigations and McCarthyism. As American anticommunism emerged as the foremost threat to free speech, Pacifica's identification with the political left was solidified. Expansion into a network began with the creation of KPFK in Los Angeles in 1959 and WBAI in New York in 1960. KPFT in Houston was started in 1970, and the Washington, DC, station, WPFW, was founded in 1977 with the idea of establishing a predominantly black voice in that majority-black city.
Pacifica acquired a reputation for creative troublemaking and for broadcasting what others feared to touch. "Pacifica is high-risk radio," said a 1975 brochure quoted by Lasar. "When the theater is burning, our microphones are available to shout fire." Pacifica was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," was investigated by the FBI after WBAI interviewed a whistleblowing FBI agent, and it broadcast an interview with Che Guevara shortly before his 1967 execution in the Bolivian jungle. Pacifica sent a war correspondent to Vietnam in 1965, providing some of the first reports directly from Hanoi. Its uncompromising coverage of that war and its identification with the antiwar movement was the high-water mark of Pacifica's impact as a network and consolidated it in the affections and memories of a generation of Americans--most of whom are now in their late 40s to early 60s and still make up Pacifica's most avid group of listeners.