Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pacifica at 65

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
Lew Hill
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. 


  1. I listened to some of the Pacifica fundraising today. I'm glad they played some segments from the archives they're trying to save. But when you listen to interviews with James Baldwin or a speech from Coretta Scott King and contrast them with such as Kathy Davis and Geoff Brady, you realize just how far BAI--and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Pacifica--has fallen.

    1. Yes, Justene, and this 25th Anniversary broadcast offers even stronger (sadder) evidence of the decline.

  2. An interesting piece, thanks for making it available.

    There’s too much, by far, to react to meaningfully in the limited space of a blog, so I shan’t make the attempt.

    The principal thought, the principal sentiment, that occurs to me is the simple fact that this is, in every sense, a distant era – a very distant era.

    It’s difficult, too, not to be struck by the vicious factionalism that permeates the enterprise from its earliest days – what Josephson refers to as the gratuitous cruelty which tends to obtain within an organization of true believers.

    It may be worth noting, too, that Josephson produced this program at precisely the point that he was attempting to return WBAI to renewed focus on the life of the mind – a battle he lost as the politicos drove him out.

    There is much nostalgia, much romanticization in these reminiscences, as is to be expected, but a colder eye may note that in contrast to the view presented here it’s difficult to assign credibility to the notion that America had less integrity, had become more shallow, and more centered solely on the notion of greed and profit (as of 1949–1974) than in the past. Lew Hill’s family’s fortune derived, in that fabled nobler past, from his father’s negotiating deals with JP Morgan which made him rich, and his mother’s family was the Phillips (as in Phillips Petroleum). He was a child of wealth and privilege, and when he came hat in hand to beg for a loan it was forthcoming, family misgivings notwithstanding – not everyone is so privileged.

    There’s an eagerness to consider comparisons to the myth of Christ here, yet in that myth Christ is not a child of wealth and privilege, supported by a powerful and wealthy family.

    Lew Hill did good work, but let’s keep it grounded in something resembling reality rather than within a mythical space.

    Misty visions of better and earlier days aside, this is a time long past.

    There are infinitely better means of communication available now than there were when Pacifica was founded, and though one can make a case for attempting to ‘save’ Pacifica and its stations as the central locus and identity of a new network spanning the web, that needed to be implemented at least five or ten years ago.

    This is a network fading in the rearview mirror, and while it may be of interest to consider it historically, it has no place in the modern world.

    Could it be reborn and reinvented?


    The time, energy, and financial resources necessary for such an attempt are far, far better invested in contemporary means of communication.

    Let the dying die peacefully, if they can (sadly, they can’t) and let the dead rest in peace.

    Requiescat in Pace and all that jazz,

    ~ ‘indigopirate’

    ps: It was wonderful to hear, though, not least Irsay in pitch mode :)

    1. I'm glad to hear that Josephson may have seen the error of his ways/ He was bad, but never to the degree that Post was. "A network fading in the rearview mirror" is a good image, Indigo.

  3. Observation - there seems to be a refrain that WBAI has declined due to the presence of black and brown people and their particular interests. This may or may not be true, but stations do change and evolve. Many voices were not being heard in NYC for years due to exclusion. MSNBC has done a good job of including black and brown faces to their lineup without diluting quality. The world is changing and some people like Chris don't like it - get used to change!

    1. Not the "presence", the low level and predominance thereof. Many of these peograms would not have made it to WBAI's air back then, because they were of inferior quality and many ways, conducted by people with personal agendas and not much upstairs to work with.

      Look at the old Folios and you will see that black people were not ignored, nor did we broadcast programs by black people that would insult the intelligence of WBAI listeners, including people of color.

      As I have pointed out before, I found it amazing that there were no people of color on WBAI's staff, so one of the first changes I made as manager was to correct that. In other words, I integrated WBAI's staff—there were no complaints, because this was another time, one in which such inequality tended to be overlooked, even by people who actually recognized it as such. I should also point out that racist policies were as prevalent in broadcasting as they were in most other business environments—people of color knew this better than anyone else, so applying for a job at, say, a radio station was regarded by many as an exorcize in futility. Unless, of course, it was a black radio station, like the one in Philadelphia that I had recently resigned from. Guess why I left WHAT—because the owner, Dolly Banks, was a shameless racist who cashed in on prevailing discriminatory attitudes. Black people kept her in business and made her rich—she grossly underpaid and referred to her black employees as "them."

      May I suggest that you try to avoid making rash judgements. It can be ever so embarrassing, even to someone who hides his/her identity. :)