An unvarnished blog that dips into the past and comments
on the present of WBAI-FM, a once significant, intelligent New York
radio station that has chronically suffered abuse from within and now
nears extinction. Your comments are welcomed and will not be censored.
It was 65 years ago, April 15, 1949, that Pacifica officially went on the air, but FM was new, so there were probably not many people on the receiving end when Lew Hill gave KPFA's first station break and introduced the country to the grand daddy of public radio.
Twenty-five years later, many thought it extraordinary that Pacifica was still on the air, broadcasting not only from Berkeley, California, but also Hollywood and New York City. From all appearances, the experiment had been a success, but Pacifica's stations were beginning to attract producers and hosts whose motivations were not quite as noble as the
original concept had called for. Great programs were still being produced and some of the country's most extraordinary movers, thinkers and artists embraced these voices in the wilderness.
Most listeners were unaware of the subtle shifts taking place in programming, because the daily offerings continued to be diverse, substantive and on a high intellectual level.
At WBAI, the most ominous change was the introduction of in-house "celebrities"—staff opportunists who engaged in disc-jockey styled chatter, often on a very low level. Shallow content and arrogant attitudes reflected the very kind of programming Pacifica was created to offer a contrast to.
Langston Hughes and Pacifica co-founder Eleanor McKinney.
As Pacifica grew older, its mission became more blurred and political agendas were thrown into a mix Mr. Hill might not recognize were he still around.
The deterioration has been a gradual process, fed by an influx of self-serving, turf-claiming lightweights and pseudo activists, a succession of mismanagement, and a "democratized" system of governance that has spawned feuding factions. Board meetings are disorderly free-for-alls that foster collusion and accomplish little that is meaningful to Pacifica. With all too few exceptions, the programming is so inferior that it has reduced listenership to an all-time low. To pay for this high cost of ineptitude, stations stoop to spending a disproportionate length of time pitching for money, offering as incentives bogus "cures" and other products of a kind usually found advertised on the back pages of supermarket tabloids.
Most readers of this blog will find all this redundant; they have heard for themselves what is bringing Pacifica to the brink of oblivion. I bring it up here, because it lends a sad perspective to the following audio, a program produced to celebrate Pacifica's 25th anniversary. The participants include Mr. Hill's widow and son, co-founder Eleanor McKinney, and others who helped bring KPFA through its early years.
I find listening to these reminiscences sad, because they really bring home how far the current Pacifica has drifted in its descent. Ironically, the narration is done by Larry Josephson, one of the people who contributed to the shattering of Lewis Hill's dream and played a major role in leading WBAI astray. I often wonder if he regrets that—I hope he does.