Who Stole My Country 59 – Staff Revolt

It came as a shock to staff and most listeners when the Pacifica Foundation announced that it would co-operate with SISS, despite its doubts about the legitimacy of the hearings and its belief that they constituted a threat to freedom of speech. The board said it would: “respect the rights of an individual compelled to speak under subpoena to respond to purely personal questions in the light of his own conscience and understanding of his constitutional rights.”

Pacifica’s leadership feared that it could not sustain the cost of the lengthy legal battle that would follow non-co-operation.  The staff believed that it was precisely Pacifica’s non-co-operation, its resistance, that would ensure public support. Dick Elman and I talked to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).  They agreed that Pacifica could make a good legal case for non-compliance.

The producers of the Levine show (Dick Elman and myself) and Elsa Knight Thompson, the person most responsible for Pacific’s programming policy, were not subpoenaed. Elsa said it was because they knew we’d refuse to testify and might even 2make a scene like William Mandel. The committee picked on the most vulnerable or those most likely to cooperate. After hours of testimony, Trevor Thomas, held up remarkable well, still insisting that broadcasting communists was protected by the First Amendment.

The Committee uncovered red meat when Jerry Shore testified. He offered a brief statement that he hoped would satisfy them: “I have not been connected with the communist party for the past nine years.” When the committee began to question him about his wife and friends further in the past, he took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

The hearings took place at a time when KPFA’s license was up for renewal and KPFK and WBAI were still operating under construction permits. On October 7, 1963 the FCC sent Pacifica a questionnaire to be completed by board members, general managers and officers. The questionnaire included, “Are you now or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”

The request was not unexpected. We had been talking about this possibility for a year. The board was split. There were motions to fire Shore and institute a loyalty oath.  There were rumors that SISS and the FCC wanted Pacifica to file a loyalty oath for all staff members.

The board prepared a statement refusing to file such affidavits.  It suggested instead a positive statement of support for the US constitution.  The FCC responded by asking to talk privately with two members of the board and the Executive Vice-President, Jerry Shore.   The “private conversations” were to be on the record and under oath and the principal question was going to be “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” One board member already had admitted brief membership. The other was willing to do so. Shore was not, because such testimony could set him up for a full inquiry into his friends and associations prior to 1952.  It seemed clear that if Shore resigned, our licenses would be granted.

The two station managers present as advisors urged the board to reject the FCC’s request as an unwarranted invasion of the Foundation’s privacy. A minority of the board asked Shore to resign.  After an acrimonious meeting the board finally issued a statement, which left the responsibility to each individual’s conscience. Although it affirmed its “support for any such person who refuses to answer such questions,” it qualified that support by adding that: “it will proceed as necessary to try to preserve its broadcasting licenses.”

The language was equivocal because the board was equivocating.  It wanted above all else to avoid confrontation.  Sensing the doubtful nature of the Pacifica Board’s support, Jerry Shore resigned. He said he had become “a source of embarrassment” to Pacifica.

On January 22. 1964, Pacifica received its licenses from the FCC. Fifty years later, I see the board’s argument for compromise more clearly. When Trevor asked our legal counsel how much it would cost to fight the committee and the FCC, he said $100,000 and we would surely lose.  Perhaps.  But times were changing and movement organizers had ignored liberal warnings about other impossible tasks like sending students to Mississippi in 1964, or opposing the Vietnam war, or believing that homosexuals could ever be included in our society or that women should have an equal place in our work force.  If people had listened to the doubters in the Sixties, nothing would have changed.

Those who compromised did not take into account the devastating effect the loss of Jerry Shore had on the foundation. First, it was morally repugnant to force someone to resign because of beliefs he may or may not have held nine years earlier.  More important, Jerry had management skills. He knew how to lead, inspire and protect a team. The Quakers, bless them, were nice enough, but they had no idea how to organize and run anything.

Fred Haines, then station manager of KPFK in Los Angeles, and Dick Elman, who did the Levine broadcast with me, resigned.  KPFA and KPFK in Los Angeles unionized and joined NABET (The National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians). Trevor Thomas fired Elsa Knight Thompson.  Thomas told the press that the strike was part of a larger fight  “which has torn Pacifica apart for a year and a half.”  It was, he continued, part of the “coercion from the left” which aimed at tying KPFA to a rigid “kind of orthodoxy.”

Elsa Knight Thompson eventually was reinstated, but it was a pyrrhic victory.  Pacifica stations went on to do some great programming in the sixties and Seventies.  However, the potential of Pacifica becoming an enduring institution of the highest broadcast and journalism standards was lost when the foundation accommodated SISS without a fight.  The compromise tarnished Pacifica’s integrity, drove out an Executive with a vision of growth (he was never replaced by anyone), and alienated the staff from management. The anti-Communist Crusade had done its job.

For a more detailed look at Pacifica and the SISS hearings, see a lengthy article I wrote in 1968. https://chriskochmedia.com/pacifica-radio/on-pacifica-1968-article-by-chris-koch/

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