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Radio Chaos

[whitespace] Dennis Berstein
Dissenting view: KPFA's Dennis Bernstein is yanked off the air and placed under arrest by Berkeley police.

'Active Radio' tells the story of Pacifica's brash experiment

By Patrick Sullivan

SOME STORIES demand to begin with the language of legend. Once upon a time, a farsighted young pacifist named Lewis Hill and a quirky group of collaborators founded an organization called Pacifica and a pioneering public radio station named KPFA. The Berkeley station, which began broadcasting in 1949 with a tiny, second-hand transmitter, went on to become one of the most influential left-liberal cultural institutions in the country.

Today, intense controversy swirls around the Pacifica radio network and its flagship station (94.1 on the FM dial). In the past few months, a series of dramatic events has unfolded at KPFA. First, the Pacifica board fired several staff members; then, show host Dennis Bernstein was literally pulled off the air during a live broadcast; and now, crowds of protesters and riot police periodically surround the KPFA building. As activists gear up for a demonstration in Berkeley on July 31, many pundits are speculating that Pacifica is about to sell off the station.

Amid the dramatic headlines, it's easy to lose sight of one fact made extraordinarily clear by a new book: internal conflict has been a part of Pacifica since day one. The history of the network, which now operates five stations across the country, is chock full of management disputes, forced resignations, strikes, and lockouts.

Active Radio: Pacifica's Brash Experiment (University of Minnesota Press; $16.95) began life as an academic dissertation, and it shows. But readers patient enough to endure the bone-dry prose of the first chapter on the rise of corporate broadcasting will find that author Jeff Land rewards them with a fascinating history of a unique cultural institution.

Among the book's most interesting stories is the tragic trajectory of the network's talented founder. The Pacifica dream of a revolution against corporate control was born in an American work camp for conscientious objectors in which Lew Hill and many like-minded pacifists spent part of World War II. Hill, an intellectually gifted young anarcho-pacifist, went on to found Pacifica at the tender age of 26, labored mightily to ensure its growth, and then, 12 years later, after a series of bitter conflicts over control of the network, committed suicide in his car up in the Berkeley hills.

But Pacifica survived. The network, founded on idealism, overcame financial difficulties and government repression through the blood and sweat of its staff and overwhelming support from its listeners. A pioneer in the practice of listener-supported radio, Pacifica frequently found itself under attack for that very practice, which some red-baiting opponents called a "method of operation so unusual as to be revolutionary in itself."

Indeed, congressional foes launched frequent attacks on the network's determination to offer airtime to points of view that seldom made it into corporate media. For instance, a 1962 investigation of Pacifica by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was prompted by New York affiliate WBAI's stunning exposé of illegal activities at Hoover's FBI.

Land's book closely follows the many battles over free speech associated with the network, including the legal fight in 1973 over comedian George Carlin's famous "Seven Dirty Words" monologue, which was fought all the way to the Supreme Court.

Perhaps the story in the book most relevant to current events is Land's account of the titanic struggle waged at WBAI in New York. Conflicts between the Pacifica board and station staff escalated into a strike in which a group of programmers locked themselves into the broadcasting booth and occupied the station's transmitter in the Empire State Building.

Land's book, written before the Berkeley boil-over, doesn't offer obvious solutions to the current impasse, although his penetrating analysis does afford some clues to the roots of that struggle. But Active Radio does an excellent job of explaining how much is at stake. The quirky 50-year history of Pacifica and KPFA is clearly filled with both bold triumphs and grave mistakes. But by the end of the book, most readers will feel that this "brash experiment," warts and all, deserves to survive into the next century.

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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