One in five people in America lives within reach of the FM frequencies of the Pacifica radio network, which consists of stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Houston. Indeed, the Los Angeles station, KPFK, has the strongest signal of any FM station west of the Rockies. It’s one of the last institutions of even vaguely radical pretensions we have. So, for the past five years the core mandate of Pacifica has been under attack by establishment liberals, who have silenced many of the network’s most original voices under brutish conditions that would delight any corporate axman. Pacifica’s bosses have imposed gags, brought in unionbusters and jimmied the rules so its governing body of fourteen can preside over the $200-$300 million in Pacifica assets without accountability.
The directorate doesn’t like anything that smacks of the unmanageable. It doesn’t like radicalism. It wants respectable NPR-type stuff. One can construct a decently plausible scenario that if push comes to shove the directorate would fire its listeners, thus flashing a final contemptuous finger at Pacifica’s founder, Lewis Hill, who wrote half a century ago that listener sponsorship was the foundation stone of Pacifica’s notion of freedom. “Since values and expressions as fundamental as this,” Hill wrote, “are what we must have to improve radio noticeably, there is no choice but to begin by extending to someone the privilege of thinking and acting…. Whatever else may happen, we thus assign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio are normally denied him. KPFA is operated literally on this principle.”
Oh no it’s not. Pacifica is operated like a prison run on Benthamite principles, in which the directorate levies ever-thickening slabs of money from member stations, most particularly WBAI in New York and KPFA in Berkeley; issues hire-and-fire commands; stipulates silence and obedience. When Pat Scott was installed as Pacifica’s national executive director in 1995, she speedily threatened all dissenters, hired unionbusters and made her longer-term goal the removal of Pacifica’s governing board from any accountability. Her successor, Lynn Chadwick, has been just as bad. With the active connivance of the governing board, headed by Mary Frances Berry, she is now trying to flush out the last vestiges of resistance. Berry herself has played a despicable role. This professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania has all the best liberal credentials. She chairs the Civil Rights Commission. But she reminds me of another showcase liberal, Marian Wright Edelman, whose collusive career with power reached shameful climax with her failure to denounce Clinton’s welfare plan when it first emerged in all its awful contours. At a meeting this past February in Berkeley, Berry presided over the alteration in structure that places her and her thirteen co-directors beyond such accountability to the network’s listeners as still remained. Gently urged to reconsider the reorganization by stalwart supporters of Pacifica Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Berry pooh-poohed their demurs, suggesting that Zinn was misinformed and didn’t know what he was talking about.