THE MOST ALTERNATE OF THE ALTERNATE MEDIA
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - There's night and day, there's yin and yang and there's commercial radio - and then there's Pacifica.
A network of five American radio stations, Pacifica Radio provides airtime to minority viewpoints and arts. Unlike your standard drive-time oldies radio station, Pacifica broadcasts long public speeches on serious topics, music you won't generally hear on commercial radio, and grants thinkers with deep ideas time to develop their thoughts on the air without commercial interruptions.
Here in Los Angeles, KPFK has provided a podium for Malcom X, Angela Davis and otherts who were reviled and rejected by the mass media .
Still, the station's fare is a mixed bag at best. Pacifica Radio has both an intellectual vision and also something of a dreary stronghold of the far left, a cross between fascinating lectures and a Viet Cong re-education camp.
The brainchild of journalist Lew Hill, the forerunner the Pacifica Radio network began back in 1949 as KPFA ( 94.1 FM) in Berkeley, Calif. Framed from the beginning as an alternative to commercial radio, KPFA was followed closely by its sister station in Los Angeles, KPFK (90.7 FM). These were later joined by stations in New York City (WBAI, 99.5 FM), Washington, D.C. (WPFW, 89.3 FM), and Houston (KPFT, 90.1 FM).
To the first-time listener, Pacifica Radio stations may sound like they're run by amateurs. Announcers may have strongly accents, or in one case, a pronounced speech impediment. Some, but not all, programs are done in languages other than English. Program hosts chat with each other, hesitate, switch topics, or drop in the occasional gibe at the President or gratuitous sneer at genetically modified foods and globalization. Sometimes KPFK sounds like a conversation between your Aunt Sadie and her friends over the breakfast table, if your Aunt Sadie is retired from the Symbionese Liberation Army. What it doesn't sdound like is an an ad for hemorrhoid preparations, or commercial radio in general.
All of a sudden there will be a recorded talk that is played and - miracle of miracles, important ideas are allowed to develop, facts and anecdotes are recounted in depth, and thought - good, simple though - fills the airwaves. It is amazing thing to hear a genuine thought on a car radio in these days of conglomerate radio played to the lowest common denominator.
I love to listen to lectures by Zen philosopher Alan Watts with their soothing harmony of sound and thought, even if to my Western mind they make little rational sense. SomeWatts lectures are an art form in themselves, absolutely unique in form and style.
All in all, there is a method in this madness that goes back to an idea propounded by Pacifica founder Hill in the late 1940s.
Hill was a World War II conscientious objector who broke into open rebellion against the limitations inherent in the commercial media. His novel solution was "listener-sponsored" radio. This way, he believed, people with ideas, artistic and musical talents, political courage and other uncommon qualities (such as fellow objectors) to come to the microphone directly and broadcast their ideas.
Just as with today's listener-sponsored shows, those ideas may or or may not succeed, but only by allowing failure can the hope of creating a better idea than commercial radio ever truly prosper. On KPFK and other Pacifica stations, program directors, give new ideas a chance, give new voices a microphone, and let them fly.
Hill wrote an essay on listener-sponsored radio (at www.KPFK.org) that I commend to readers; it is fascinating even as it helps us understand what Pacifica Radio is about.
The discerning will notice that Hill proposes a moral choice, because "there is a moral dimension to radio as in any other form of media: I imagine we can agree that if a sound is worth passing through the magnificent apparatus of a microphone, a transmitter, and your receiving set, it ought to convey some meaningful intelligence. There are innumerable ways of wasting time and generating nonsense, and there are also uncounted ways of making money, many of which may be pursued in broad daylight.
But the elaborate machinery and the peculiar intimacy of the radio medium have better and more basic uses. The theory I want to discuss rests on two particular assumptions: first, that radio can and should be used for significant communication and art; and second, that since broadcasting is an act of communication, it ought to be subject to the same aesthetic and ethical principles as we apply to any communicative act, including the most personal."
Obviously Lew Hill had intelligence and a sense of humor.
Later in that same essay, he writes: "We seem generally to ignore, when we criticize radio, the moment and situation in which someone actually broadcasts. I refer to the person who actually opens his mouth or plays his fiddle. I mean to include also the individual who holds the stop watch, the one who writes the script, and perhaps the man who controls the switch. And I am definitely referring to these individuals as individuals - for after all, willing or not, they have that dimension. Now these are the people who actually start the production that comes out at the other end. Even if someone else has decided why there should be a broadcast and what should be in it, these are the people who make it. Yet we never hear these people mentioned in any serious social or moral criticism of American radio."
To summarize the rest of the essay, Hill explains that creative artists and thinkers are subservient in commercial radio to the need to generate mass sales for advertisers, which requires that the performers suppress their own spontaneity. "Yet if we want an improvement in radio worth the trouble," he observes, "it is these people whose talent the medium must attract.
"The basic situation of broadcasting must be such that artists and thinkers have a place to work - with freedom. Short of this, the suffering listener has no out. It may be clearer why I indicated at the outset that listener sponsorship involves some basic concerns. This is the first problem it sets out to solve - to give the genuine artist and thinker a possible, even a desirable, place to work in radio."
So Hill's listener supported radio is a place that artists and thinkers are in charge, replacing soap companies. From this is supposed to come truth and beauty. That is the theory. Does it work in practice?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
The positive contribution to the art of radio is the idea that commercial production values can be relaxed so as to allow something approaching real thought to poke through. The time limits that dog commercial entertainment are relaxed, programs are not interrupted by advertisements every few minutes, and the commercial requirement for keeping all opinions within anarrow radius is gone. Out of this, brash opinions and great ideas can be and are expressed.
The problem is that the Pacifica universe is by and large a Left Wing place. There is little if any room for what would be called balance in the normal journalistic sense. The possibility of an idea emergting that is not an us-or-them proposition is remote. In this sense, Pacifica resembles its newer cousin, Right Wing talk radio. One wonders if there would ever have been a Rush Limbaugh if listener-sponsored radio was not so dogmatically Left.
Unfortunately, the discourse is characterized by terms that seem to have come out of 1960's radicalism, terms such as "the collective" (referring apparently to program producers and announcers), "capitalism" (as a dangerous thing), "revolution" (referring in glowing terms to whatever its "heroes" are doing) or "guerilla poster artist" (as if putting posters up in an American city in the middle of the night were akin to crawling through the jungle carrying a rifle and a handful of rice). The intellectual heroes referred to again and again are Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
To listen to KPFK here in Los Angeles for any length of time is to recognize that it carries some of the revolutionary fervor of the Old Left unmarried to modern science or economics. The commentators who pontificate so authoritatively about globalization or genetic engineering seem blissfully unaware of post-Keynesian economics or what the DNA nucleotides actually do. In this they are no better nor worse in their ignorance than Right Wing talk radio hosts.
These are legitimate criticisms, but they do not negate what may be a unique and meaningful contribution to our society.
There are two striking and commendable differences between Pacifica and Right Wing talk radio. First, the teasing promos that commercial radio uses to hold onto us for another 60 minutes are absent ("Next hour: The judge is a pervert.")
Secondly, at least at KPFK, commentators manage to maintain a pleasant tone even as they make their lefty pitches. We may agree or disagree with the material, but at the very least it is delivered in an amiable way.
In the era iodf shock jocks, that is a contribution to civilization.