Witnessing the struggles at Pacifica and KPFA, in which on July 13 the network’s national directors called in goons to haul out staffers at the Berkeley station, claiming insubordination, my mind cast back to the early 1970s and to The Village Voice in New York City. The Voice was founded in the mid-1950s as a bohemian counterattack against the Eisenhower Zeitgeist, the cold war, conventional Main Street journalism. By the time I began to write for it, the Voice was already embroiled in a process of “modernization,” essentially a constant upward movement in its assessed commercial value.
At the start of the seventies the Voice was bought from its founders for a couple of million dollars by Carter Burden, an ambitious City Councilman and Vanderbilt heir. Scarcely more than a decade later, Rupert Murdoch sold it for about $50 million to Leonard Stern, a New Jersey property speculator who had made his pile from flea collars. Along the way, as it moved into ever-sleeker premises, the Voice was purged of raffishness and quirks. Writers who had volunteered years of ill-paid work were dropped, even as the Voice marketed itself as the epitome of bohemian voice-ishness. Indeed, the whole memory of the Voice‘s destruction came back to me when, having ousted the disobedient broadcasters and padlocked the doors, Pacifica began playing archival tapes of…radicals like Eric Mann, David Grossman and even me denouncing vested power! Same game.
KPFA, founding flagship station of the Pacifica string of five FM stations, is even older than the Voice, having been established by Lewis Hill in 1949. Hill was a pacifist with noble ideals. He saw KPFA as a sanctuary from the iron heel of absentee corporate ownership. FM frequencies weren’t worth much in the 1950s, any more than were alternative newspapers like the Voice. KPFA was a rendezvous for cultural and political contrariness, a place where young Pauline Kael discussed movies and Bill Mandel gave his own radical insights into what was happening in the Soviet Union; where “Howl” was read, along with Che’s speeches.
The process of “modernization” began at KPFA in the early 1990s, and at first many of those who would themselves later be trampled–Larry Bensky, for example–were complicit. Yes, it was time to clean out cobwebs, winkle out relics of the olden time. The national directorate embarked on a makeover designed to match the network to its value, estimated at $300 million. A postmodern headquarters rose up on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. But even as the donors’ names were etched into the walls of the glamorous new structure, purges were being conducted with chill zeal. Take my friend Opal Nations, an English transplant and one of the world’s great authorities on gospel and blues. After fourteen years of unpaid, brilliant programming, Opal was fired on the phone, half an hour before he was due to go on air with his weekly show. He still doesn’t know exactly why he was dumped. Meanwhile, the directorate lied to thousands of distraught listeners, saying Opal would soon be back. He never was given another slot.