Another War Breaks Out In the Pacifica Radio Network

By | March 20, 2014

...and then wash it down with a nice cool copy of THE UNITED STATES OF PARANOIA.Pacifica, a five-station
radical radio network that periodically goes through angry internal
convulsions, is going through another round of angry internal
convulsions. The network
Executive Director Summer Reese last week, and she is

refusing to go
. Activists are mobilizing both online and off,
and the dismissed director and a dozen allies have occupied the
network’s national office. Elsewhere in the organization there have
been layoffs, protests, and rumors, rumors, rumors.

“Of course, this being Pacifica, there are many claims and
counter-claims about the motivations behind Reese’s firing, and
what this move portends,” Paul Riismandel
at Radio Survivor. “At this point,” he adds, “I
must admit that it is difficult for me to find the energy to parse
them all and do the kind of due diligence reporting necessary in
order to knit some kind of plausible narrative. Please note I am
not saying this is impossible, nor that it is useless, but rather
that I have little interested in doing this myself.”

I sympathize. I spent the late ’90s and early ’00s embedded in
the last great Pacifica war. If you’re curious about what I saw,
you can pick up a copy of my radio history Rebels
on the Air
, which devotes many pages (in retrospect, maybe
too many pages) to that eruption. Various friends continue to tell
me about events in Pacifica-land, but I really haven’t been on that
beat in more than a decade, and I’m not eager to return to it. (The
last substantial piece of writing that I recall doing on the
subject is an article Salon
published way back in 2002.) But if you want to try to get a grasp
on what’s happening—or just to figure out why any outsider would
care—here’s some background you may find useful:

1. Pacifica was founded by libertarians, sort of. The
people who created Pacifica were men and women of the left, but
this was a more individualist and anti-statist left than listeners
familiar with the network’s current incarnation might expect.
Pacifica founder Lewis Hill and his closest collaborators were
pacifists whose
formative political experience
was refusing to fight in World
War II. Their opposition to violence led many of them to oppose the
organized violence of the state and to identify as anarchists.

Or wash it down with this. It's good too.As you might expect, being a dissident
during that particular war made the early Pacificans deeply
distrustful of both Communists and liberals. So did the Communists’
behavior toward rival radicals, which Kenneth Rexroth (a Pacifica
regular) describes here. The
Marxists didn’t get a strong foothold in the organization until the
McCarthy era, when the free-speech-conscious broadcasters went out
of their way to give the Reds a venue. All the same, Pacifica
continued to air other points of view, with William Buckley, Caspar
Weinberger, and others providing Pacifica programming from the
right throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and to some extent
afterward. Tibor Machan, later to serve as editor
of Reason, had a show on Pacifica’s Los Angeles
outlet in the late ’60s.

Also worth noting: The network used to get by not just without
commercials but without any government support. (Indeed, at times
it had to deal with
government harassment
.) That absence of public subsidy ended
after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
came along
, but some of us like to remember that this once was
the norm for noncommercial radio.

2. There is no single model of what a Pacifica station
should sound like.
In Berkeley in the 1950s, “Pacifica” meant
a highbrow station devoted to ideas and the arts—sort of what the
old BBC
Third Programme
would be like if it were run by radicals. In
New York in the late 1960s, Pacifica was the home base for the
Yippies and ground zero for freeform music programming. (If you
hear a recording of Bob Dylan being interviewed on the radio in the
mid/late ’60s, it’s probably from Pacifica’s WBAI.) In Houston in
the 1970s, Pacifica meant a lot of cosmic-cowboy music and
satire. (When Willie Nelson spent a day playing virtually his
entire catalog into a radio microphone, it happened on Pacifica’s
KPFT.) For most of the D.C. Pacifica outlet’s history, the
station’s schedule has been dominated by jazz. And then
there’s the less appealing stuff that’s gotten a foothold on the
network, from the familiar alphabet soup of Leninist sectarians to
an assortment of New Age quacks.

So when people talk about getting Pacifica back to its roots,
they have any number of roots to choose from. What looks like a
united movement in an internal war is often an alliance of
convenience between people with very different visions.

Also a good book. Max out those credit cards, people!3. The network has always been
plagued by in-fighting.
Oh, God, I don’t even want to get into
the details here. If the stuff in my book isn’t enough for you,
check out Matthew Lasar’s two tomes,
Pacifica Radio
Uneasy Listening
. They’re thoughtful, thorough, and
well-written catalogs of all the ways a bunch of eccentric
geniuses, eccentric assholes, and eccentric genius assholes can get
into scraps.

4. But this time might be different. The network’s
finances are in really
dire shape
. There’s a good chance it’ll end up keeping itself
afloat by selling or leasing WBAI, which occupies some valuable FM
real estate in New York. (Unlike most noncommercial stations, BAI
isn’t located at the far left end of the dial.) But there are
plenty of people who’ll lie down in front of tanks (figuratively
speaking) to keep such a sale from happening, so who knows?

There is, at the moment, just one national Pacifica program—Amy
Goodman’s talk show Democracy Now!, which is a
successful brand in its own right and finds a lot of listeners (I
suspect a majority of its listeners) on non-Pacifica stations and
on the Internet. [CORRECTION: While Pacifica
sometimes refers to
Democracy Now! as the network’s “flagship program,”
it was spun off as an independent entity in 2002. So technically,
there isn’t even one national Pacifica show these days.] It doesn’t
really make a lot of sense for one entity to own all five outlets,
and in a sane world the network would break up into five
independent community stations plus Goodman’s syndicated show. But
it is extremely unlikely that this will happen.

5. Yeah, you should care what happens. I do, anyway.
There was a time when Pacifica was practically the only place on
the radio that aired non-mainstream opinions and obscure but
vibrant varieties of music. Now we’ve got the whole damn Internet
for that. And there are still a lot of community and college
stations around the country that do Pacifica-style programs, both
the good kind and the bad kind. Does it really matter whether this
network survives?

Most of the people I know who once cared deeply about Pacifica’s
future have moved on to other things. (One of them, the last time I
spoke to him, muttered some vague warnings about “deep corruption”
in the institution’s leadership and swore that he was gonna get
out.) Still: Maybe it’s just nostalgia for all the time I spent in
the late ’80s listening to bluegrass and psychedelia and Cajun
music and great weirdo call-in shows on Pacifica’s Houston station,
but yeah, I think it matters. Not that the network per se
survives—as I said, I think we’d be better off if it broke up—but
if the old spirit of experimentation and strangeness and variety
that drove Pacifica at its greatest moments manages to keep, or
regain, a foothold on the FM dial.

And if all else fails, for God’s sake, make sure someone
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