NYTimes TV Section - August 15, 1999
How a Little Antiwar Station Turned Combative
F or the last few months, it has looked like old times on the streets of
Berkeley, Calif. Protesters have been camped outside the studios of KPFA,
Pacifica Radio's 50-year-old flagship station of listener-supported peace,
freedom and cultural diversity. Many wear gags to represent violations of
free speech, proffer "Free KPFA" T-shirts and operate their own 50-watt
It began on March 31, when the station's general manager was dismissed.
There were other dismissals (for discussing the situation on the air); one
host was dragged out of the studio, protesting loudly, in the middle of
his show. The issue: Management said it wanted more listeners and broader
appeal; the staff said management really planned to sell the station and
betray its original community-service goals.
Last month KPFA was boarded up, its employees locked out and put on paid
leave. There were marches, benefit concerts, armed security guards and
shots fired. Management relented, and on Aug. 5, the station (94.1 FM)
went back on the air -- with what the staff calls crisis programming. The
situation changes daily, but at press time the turmoil seemed far from
over. A free speech rally was set for yesterday, and legislative hearings
on Pacifica's practices were scheduled for this Friday, both in Oakland.
Charles Shere, a San Francisco composer and critic, worked as KPFA's music
director in the mid-1960's. Here are his thoughts, originally sent as an
E-mail to friends, on what went wrong and what might still be done about
HEALDSBURG , Calif. -- The situation at KPFA is sad, because we are
deprived of something that might have been wonderful. It was inevitable,
because it grows out of forces set in motion by its own evolution. And it
is representative, for those forces and that evolution have been general
in the American fabric these last 30 years.
The KPFA situation is complex, of course. But it can be analyzed and could
therefore have been foreseen -- and prevented. When I worked at KPFA in
the 1960's, all programming was determined by the program staff, who also
produced nearly all of it. The programming was scheduled two weeks at a
time, a week or two in advance, and fairly detailed descriptions of each
day's broadcast were published in the program guide, The Folio, which went
out every two weeks to the station's 7,000 or so subscribers.
The station's operation was extremely frugal. In 1965 I was making $75 a
week for what amounted to six or seven 8-hour to 10-hour days. We made no
long-distance telephone calls. We copied memoranda on gelatin copiers. We
took pride in accepting no money at all from sources other than our own
listeners, knowing that any money from the outside would obligate us to
I would say nearly half the program time was devoted to music: carefully
programmed concerts of commercial recordings, live concert recordings of
our own or from European and Japanese sources, interviews and discussions
about music, and music-appreciation-type programs about specific composers
or titles. This was all done by a full-time music director, a half-time
assistant and a number of volunteers who worked in specialty areas,
including jazz, historical opera recordings and folk music. The other
departments were programmed similarly: drama and literature, children's
programming and public affairs.
Much of the nonmusical programming came from the public affairs
department, run by Elsa Knight Thompson. Hers was a keen and critical
intelligence, but she was dedicated to fairness. She felt that the truth
would out and took steps to give truth that opportunity. Those steps
included allowing every part of the political spectrum its access to the
airwaves and refusing to allow KPFA or its staff to advocate any public
position except fairness and equality.
When I joined KPFA, its broadcasting was concerned with the active
intelligent culture: events of the day, whether political, literary or
musical, and "of the day" as informed by the past and by events in other
parts of the world. We left the vernacular and the commercial to other
media, other radio stations: there seemed little need for us to provide
jazz or rock-and-roll or sports news and commentary when such could easily
be found elsewhere.
The various departments trusted and respected one another, often working
closely together in such exceptionally difficult moments as the free
speech movement demonstrations.
The KPFA I have described had evolved, as far as I know, fairly
straightforwardly, though not without occasional crises, from the vision
of its originator, Lew Hill. Hill was a pacifist, a conscientious objector
during World War II, a man whose sympathies for the worker class did not
mitigate his respect for intellectual activity, even academic and
I say "as far as I know." I have no extensive knowledge of the KPFA that
existed before 1959 or so, when I first began listening to it; even in the
first five years of my listening to it, I listened primarily to the music
programming. Indeed, I might say I owe most of my musical education and
formation to that programming, so extensive, interesting and clearly
By the time I left, things had already begun to change. Already in 1965 or
so, when I dedicated much of a two-week period of music programming to the
music, thought and influence of John Cage, Alfred Partridge, the station
manager, worried lest we offend too many listeners.
The major change, I think, was the abdication by the KPFA staff of its own
programming responsibility. Realizing that we did not know the immediate
position of much of the community from personal experience, we found
spokesmen from within those areas to speak for themselves. Sensitive to
charges of censorship and reluctant to impose our own standards of public
address on others, we increasingly allowed them to advocate their own
platforms in increasingly partisan tones.
We had among ourselves always believed, quaintly perhaps, that in the long
run social justice and cultural richness would inevitably emerge from
rational discourse courteously managed. But we failed to maintain those
standards on our own programming. (Elsa Knight Thompson was one of the
first victims of this failure. When she tried to point out what was
happening, she was judged autocratic and elitist by special-interest
apologists, and was ultimately sacrificed by a management too weak to
maintain its own standards, too ready to give in to vociferous numbers.)
Escalating partisanship inevitably shoulders open-minded discourse aside.
KPFA was soon transformed into a number of special-interest groups, each
speaking to its own membership.
Even the formatting of the station gave in to this, as detailed
descriptions of the content of programs gave way to generalized program
"slots" dedicated to generalized specialties concerning sexuality, race or
By then I had lost interest and so had a good many others. A new
generation, though, grown up among cultural divisiveness and
splinter-group loyalties, was attracted to the sound of KPFA's programs.
Contentiousness is attractive to the young, and the rhetoric of the by now
ironically named Pacifica stations resonated with such diverse
contemporary fingerprints as popular music and the prevailing mood of
entitlement. It is now the national mood, whether you speak of music or
movies or makeup, to be provocative. And so the pacific quality of
Pacifica has given way to militancy.
In my own opinion the powerful transmitter at the commercial frequency of
94.1 megahertz is wasted on Pacifica as it now operates, and they would be
right to sell it and use the money to encourage the development of a
number of smaller stations, locally programmed, locally responsible,
The more powerful station should be returned to the sort of programming
that first attracted me: well-rounded, reasoning, discursive, inquisitive
-- but not advocative, not even primarily political, since commitment to
political activity, however pressing its need, must rest on informed
investigation and discussion of the issues involved. Such programming
requires even-tempered and open-minded directors, who will need security
and trust to go about their work.
The less powerful stations should be more immediately available to their
communities, providing public platforms to every segment of the populace.
There is little chance of any of this. Pacifica seems to have gone another
way. Its structure has detached itself from its constituency, withdrawn to
neutral and national headquarters, turned its energies to perpetuating its
own bureaucratic growth and safety. It recalls the old Consumers' Co-op,
another fine Berkeley institution that killed itself in liberal growth
rhetoric rather than tend its own garden.
At this point it seems clear that the national board and direction should
step down. It isn't clear what kind of board could take its place while
satisfying both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which requires
separation of management from local programming, and the northern
California audience, which resents its loss of representation on that
board. Perhaps it is time for Pacifica to dissolve as a national presence,
and return its stations to the communities that have paid for them.
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