In October 1962, radio reporter Chris Koch was working in his office at Pacifica station WBAI in New York City when his colleague, journalist Richard Elman, dropped by to introduce him to someone. “I’d like you to meet Special Agent Jack Levine, Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Elman said. “Oh God, here it comes,” Koch thought—the police raid he had anticipated for years. “Former special agent,” Levine interjected. Appalled at what he had seen at the bureau, Levine wanted to tell his story. Koch and Elman sat down with him at a tape recorder and listened to every word.
“Do you suppose that if we broadcast this program,” Elman asked after the interview, “that we’ll be investigated?” Levine offered a nervous laugh. “I think that it’s a thought that should be considered, and I mean that seriously,” he said.
WBAI aired the interview some weeks later. Listeners in Manhattan and Brooklyn sat stunned as Levine described a vast, rogue operation dedicated to illegally wiretapping and invading the homes of thousands of Americans. Residents in high-rise apartment buildings walked into the halls to alert neighbors about the show.
A month later, the FBI sent orders across the agency to create dossiers on every Pacifica employee, board member or programmer (on-air host) in the network.
That did not intimidate Pacifica, which had run an unapologetic pro–gay rights documentary at the height of the homophobic 1950s; questioned US involvement in Vietnam long before any other broadcast media; and pioneered the spontaneous tradition of free-form radio, its stations serving as incubators for influential comedy programs like Firesign Theatre. Pacifica’s tradition of tough, independent news reporting continued through the 1980s, with Larry Bensky’s influential, live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iran/Contra hearings. As late as the mid-1990s, WBAI was forging ahead with a unique schedule that celebrated New York City as an Afro-Caribbean crossroads and gave birth to what is probably the most successful radio show in the history of the American left, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! By then, Pacifica had acquired five listener-supported radio stations and built an affiliate network.
That was then. Today, Pacifica radio is widely regarded as something akin to the late Ottoman Empire of public broadcasting. Haven to conspiracy theorists, HIV skeptics and dubious health-cure infomercials, the network has for the most part financially abandoned Free Speech Radio News, a crucial daily news service for community radio stations across the country. Alan Minsky, a program director for Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles, has warned that “continuing to rely almost entirely on over-the-air fund drives that feature journalistically and scientifically questionable ‘gifts’ destroys whatever’s left of our reputation and can’t possibly do anything more than keep us from drowning.” (In 2011, WBAI listeners expressed outrage after programmers promoted a fund-drive premium called Double Helix Water as a cure for cancer.) In New York, WBAI has gutted its paid on-air staff. Pacifica station WPFW in Washington, DC, has struggled through a difficult headquarters move. KPFT in Houston is striving to raise money to fix its transmitter, and the station is operating on a Special Temporary Authority Federal Communications Commission permit.