On Pacifica – 1968 article by Chris Koch

[ From: http://www.radio4all.org/fp/koch.txt ]


by Christopher Koch

“In radio broadcasting operations to encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community; to conduct classes and workshops in the writing and producing of drama; to establish awards and scholarships for creative writing; to offer performance facilities to amateur instrumentalists, choral groups, orchestral groups and music students; and to promote and aid other creative activities which will serve the cultural welfare of the community.

“. . . to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information of the cause of conflict between any and all of such groups; and through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this corporation, to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.”

“. . . to promote the full distribution of public information; to obtain access to sources of news not commonly brought together in the same medium; and to employ such varied sources in the public presentation of accurate, objective, comprehensive news on all matters affecting the community.”

–From Pacifica Foundation’s Articles of Incorporation.

* * *

Pacifica is not really an underground communications medium. Rather, it is a compromise between an institution of counter culture and of the Establishment. Although it has been used as a vehicle by the radical movement, its financial support comes largely from the upper-middle classes. Although it regularly broadcasts revolutionary agitation and propaganda, it must also seek out the arguments of the extreme right.

Pacifica has attacked the most powerful government agencies in the United States; it has also cowered before one of the weakest. It has preached brotherly understanding while itself being torn apart by feuds so bitter that staff members have seriously accused each other of being witches and mailed live scorpions to their colleagues.

Some of America’s most creative and progressive people have passed through Pacifica as employees. Almost any American of public standing has at one time or another broadcast over a Pacifica station, many of them on a regular basis. Yet when one meets former Pacifica broadcasters, one discovers veins of bitterness against the Foundation that run so deeply they seem never to be forgotten.

Pacifica is an anomaly of American culture that seems to exist despite itself. But it offers almost the only instance in America of a broadcasting channel bas- ed on principles diametrically opposed to those of the commercial Establishment. As such, it offers an object lesson in the limitations and potentials of underground radio and television.

* * *

According to the United States Constitution, expression ought to be absolutely free and uncensored. Broadcasting, however, even ideally, presents special problems. The technology of electronic transmission physically limits the number of available broadcasting channels.

Shortly after the introduction of radio in the United States, it became clear that left to their own devices, American broadcasters would create chaos. In some areas of the country, for instance, one station’s signal completely overlapped another’s. To resolve the situation Congress enacted laws to establish minimal federal control. Under the theory finally evolved, the public owns its airwaves and leases them for extended periods of time to private companies. The Federal Communications Commission, which is vested with the responsibility grants licenses to broadcasters on the basis of their ability and intention to program in “the public interest, convenience and necessity.” The phrase is subject to broad interpretations, but in practice the FCC never has denied a license to an existing company solely on the basis of its programming.

The result has been an immensely powerful broadcasting industry with an income of billions of dollars a year, offering watered-down entertainment, cautious and uncontroversial public affairs programs and incessant commercials-pitches to buy overpriced, unnecessary commodities. Broadcasting has become the advertiser’s key medium, and advertising is the essential ingredient in an economy increasingly dependent on personal consumption.

Newton Minow, a former Chairman of the FCC, once described all this as “a vast wasteland.”

Pacifica has tried to do more, and as a result, it has been one of the few broadcasting organizations in the country to have its programming regularly reviewed by various branches of the federal government.

Because an institution’s rhetoric, like an individual’s, becomes conviction or pretension when it confronts real opposition, I want to begin with Pacifica’s most serious crisis.


On December 17, 1962, the Washington attorney for Pacifica’s three FM stations received a subpoena to appear before one of Congress’ most notorious anti-communist committees, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Mississippi’s equally notorious Jim Eastland. Siss, as we appropriately abbreviated it, was apparently unaware that as the Foundation’s attorney, Harry Plotkin was immune from testimony.

On the following clay, two members of Pacifica’s board of directors living in Berkeley received telegrams announcing that subpoenas (which they had never received) were being postponed. It was in this farcical way that the first sustained attack on Pacifica began.

Within a couple of weeks, Dr. Peter Odegard, another member of the board (and formerly an Assistant Treasurer of the United States and a President of Reed College), and Mrs. Dorothy Healy, Chairman of the South California Communist Party, had also received subpoenas.

Mrs. Healy had a fifteen-minute, bi-weekly commentary on Pacifica KPFK in Los Angeles Trevor Thomas, who as the Foundation’s acting President, called Siss’ chief counsel, Jay Sourwine, and asked him the purpose of the hearings. Sourwine replied that the committee wanted to find out how it was possible for a member of the Communist Party to broadcast on an American radio station. Thomas explained that Mrs. Healy was one of about twenty different commentators who, between them, covered the political spectrum from the extreme right to the left. He added that in line with Pacifica’s policies and FCC rulings – Mrs. Healy was identified as a communist. The next day, Mr. Thomas received a subpoena, too.

By the time the hearings actually convened on January 10, subpoenas had also been served on Mr. Jerome Shore, who had been executive vice president of the Foundation, dealing with administrative matters, for about six months, on Joseph Binns, Station Manager of Pacifica WBAI in New York City for two weeks, and on Mrs. Pauline Shindler, a subscriber to the Los Angeles station.

Before the hearings convened, the Foundation notified Siss and the press that as a public institution its records were open for examination; its programs could be heard by anyone, and most were scheduled in a program guide. Thomas objected to the coercive subpeonas and once again asked for some kind of explanation. None was forthcoming from Washington, however.

Pacifica then requested that the hearings be held in public, and even contemplated broadcasting them live, in the belief that all relevant information ought to be made publicly available. Despite the support of both California senators, Clair Engle and Thomas Kuchel, Siss replied that its rules forbade an open hearing.

The Foundation finally requested that transcripts of the hearings be made available immediately following Pacifica’s appearances. The committee replied that it would issue, when it chose to do so, those portions of the testimony that it deemed necessary and important.

On January 10, when the hearings began, Senator Dodd issued a seven-page statement which each witness was required to read before tsestifying. The statement dealt with possible communist infiltration of American communications media and referred to previous studies. It then continued: “Recently, there have come to the attention of the committee reports of possible communist infiltration or penetration of an important radio chain, the stations of the Pacifica Foundation. We are here today to seek information, from witnesses whom we believe to be in a position to supplu it, respecting facts which may shed light on the question of how much substance there may have been to these reports. This is our major objective.”


Pacifica had broadcast commentaries by members of the Communist Party since it first went on the air in 1949. What, then, had provoked Senator Dodd?

Although no causal relationship ever can be proved, it seems no accident that a couple of months before Siss’ subpoenas, we had broadcast the first sustained attack on the FBI and its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, ever presented by American radio or television. Indeed, at the time the program went on the air, it was one of the few attacks on the FBI available in any form. Senator Dodd, who was responsible for the hearings, is a personal friend of Mr. Hoover and a former colleague.

It all began on October 10, 1962, when one of my colleagues, Dick Elman, called me into his office in the midst of a particularly hectic afternoon and introduced me to a tall, clean-cut young man, “Special Agent Jack Levine, Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Before I could wince, Levine smiled and said in a characteristically hesitant, sincere voice, “No, no. Former Special Agent.”

I was acting station manager of WBAI at the time and thus ultimately responsible for programming policy. But this broadcast seemed sufficiently important to call our new executive vice president on the west coast. “We need this program like a hole in the head,” Shore groaned, but nobody doubted for a moment that it ought to be aired.

Dick and I played the tape for Ephraim London, a prominent New York civil liberties lawyer who advised us that it was in no way libellous or slanderous, and that in his opinion Levine made a more credible witness than 90 per cent of the people he had seen testify under oath. We prepared transcripts of the tape and mailed them to the FBI and Justice Department for comment. They refused to make any public statement for broadcast, but in a series of telephone conversations that followed they did everything possible to cast aspersions on Levine’s character and integrity. None of their charges, however, could be substantiated.


Pressure on us mounted during the week before broadcast. The Justice Department continued to advise us that the broadcast would not be in the public interest. Dick and I were taken out for drinks by reporters we had never met from the AP and other networks who urged us to cancel the program because “they’ll close you down.” Our Folio editor received a call from a labor leader. in Washington, D.C., who had “inside information!” that everyone at the station would be arrested within minutes of air-time. We received several bomb threats. Even I.F. Stone, who first called to congratulate me on the broadcast, called back an hour before air-time to “disassociate” himself from the broadcast and inform me that a better case against the FBI could be made by a careful reading of the congressional record.

Meanwhile, KPFA tracked down another former agent, William Turner, later an editor of Ramparts. In a subsequent broadcast Turner confirmed many of Levine’s charges. We also scheduled a panel discussion of well-known lawyers to discuss the implications of Levine’s charges live after the tape.

The story that Levine told was carried in newspapers throughout the country. Once Pacifica had broken it, the rest of the press was willing to use it, and several papers–The New York Times, for instance–editorialized about it. Later Fred Cook opened his study of the FBI with lengthy excerpts from the program. Meantime, we had to pay for it.


By 1963, however, when the Senate investigation began, the Foundation had become a fairly secure part of the American scene, and it could no longer count on relative obscurity to protect itself. The Levine broadcast made clear that when Pacifica raised a sufficiently important issue dramatically enough, the nation would have to listen.

Its three stations, in three major population centers (the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, and New York City), had a base of thirty thousand subscribers and an income of close to three-quarters of a million dollars. We had a prime- time audience of one to two million people. The only key question was how the foundation would respond.

The function and purpose of congressional anti-communist investigating committees like Siss had been made clear during the 1950s, the era of virulent McCarthyism. The power of domestic communism had never posed a serious threat to American institutions, and those who helped mount McCarthy’s anti-communist drive were interested in discrediting radicals and liberals of all kinds. lie key word there is ‘discrediting’. Iegally speaking, congressional committees are authorized to hold hearings to gather information necessary to enact legislation. But as the records of Siss, HUAC (The House Committee on Un-American Activities) and their various local equivalents make clear, they never served any serious legislative function. Instead, they subpoenaed witnesses, forced them to testify about their beliefs and then publicized their testimony in a context that made them appear to be subversive. They hounded men out of public life-and many out of private life as well.

By the time the Pacifica hearings were held, most informed Americans recognized this, and neither Siss nor HUAC could even hold public hearings outside of Washington without encountering massive counter demonstrations (the last time HUAC had come to San Francisco, the counter demonstrations had been so effective that the city government announced it would no longer make its facilities available to them). Pacifica had played a key role in publicizing the real intent of Siss and HUAC by broadcasting its hearings and making its airwaves available to their opponents.

By 1963 it was clear that no self-respecting American could co-operate with Siss or HUAC, because they controlled the tenor and substance of the investigations. They precluded the possibility of witnesses testifying fully about themselves and their beliefs by forbidding them from reading statements, being cross-examined by their attorneys or having access to testimony made against them. And when their testimony was finally released, it often appeared in a distorted form modified to meet the committee’s own requirements.


I do not intend to construct a legal brief here, but simply to point out that there were solid legal and moral grounds on which to resist Siss. Furthermore, Pacifica had long been a symbol of such resistance in the eyes of its staff and listeners. Its broadcasting policies themselves insisted on absolutely unequivocal freedom of speech: Pacifica’s airwaves had always been available for every political opinion from the American Nazi Party to the remnants of the IWW. Alexander Miekeljohn, perhaps America’s most famous advocate of an absolute position on the First, has helped draft Pacifica’s constitution. And finally, we were in a unique position to establish a principle of the right of non-co- operation. For as a demonstrably ‘liberal’ institution, with no political programs of its own, our record was literally unimpeachable.

As for any investigation into Pacifica’s broadcasting policies, Justice William 0. Douglas seemed to cover that when he wrote “The Right of the People”: “A committee could not force newspapers to explain or justify their editorial policies. That would amount to harassment for political, social, or economic views, which the First Amendment places beyond the power of government.”


It was therefore a shock to staff and listeners when the Foundation announced that despite its doubts about the legitimacy of the hearings and its belief that they might constitute a threat to freedom of speech, it would co-operate with Siss. The decision was made somewhat precipitously when, in the midst of discussing its appropriate response, a San Francisco newspaper unexpectedly broke the story. Although the Foundation itself agreed to co-operate, it also announced that it would: “. . . also 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 decision was not dictated by policy but by fear. Although the Levine broadcast and his prognostications about possible investigation had generated support from Pacifica’s listeners, the Foundation’s leadership feared that it could not sustain the cost of the lengthy legal battle which might follow non-co-operation. Yet, as the staff-or anyone else close to Pacifica’s supporters-understood, that fear was groundless. It was precisely Pacifica’s non-co-operation, its resistance, that would have ensured vast public support. In 1963 Americans were looking for an unequivocal civil liberties cause to mount a final attack on McCarthyism and we were for a moment in a position to provide that cause. Thus the board’s unwillingness to accept the challenge despite its staff’s advice, deepened a growing division between the board-those vested with ownership and overall policy-and those who actually produced the programs.


Its Performance before the committee deepened that split. Under committee rules, testimony itself could not be publicly released without a majority vote of committee. Finally, in July, it was printed and distributed without negative conclusions, without any recommendations and without proposals for legislation. Although the printed transcript had been changed slightly to emphasize different points and restructure some series of questions, its thrust was clear. As we had anticipated, the committee precluded a serious discussion of Pacifica’s policies and concentrated on ‘exposing’ those program participants who had left-wing contacts. (There were humorous aspects as well: the committee was concerned, for example, with music tapes that we had received from Radio Moscow). It also revealed that Jerry Shore denied having been a communist for the last nine years, but refused to answer questions about his family or friends prior to that time (he was not permitted to answer questions only about himself prior to that time, under committee rules). Siss had been unable to unearth a single damaging revelation.


The damage that HUAC and Siss hearings do is frequently internal; by preying on fear and weakness, they eat at an institution’s inner resources and sap the strength of the root. If Pacifica seemed publicly strong, we all knew that internally it was seriously ill. The bitterness between the board and its staff was vitriolic. The fund raising potential of an open confrontation on a clear-cut free speech issue had been missed. After nine months of pressure we were demoralized and tired, still working under the insecurity of inadequate funds, long hours, and now with growing doubts about Pacifica’s relevance and importance.

In September, almost a year after the Levine broadcast, the National Board met with key personnel from the three stations to discuss overall policy. It was an acrimonious and depressing meeting that left the Foundation’s purposes and functions far from clear.

* * *
Then on October 7, 1962, Pacifica received a letter from Ben Waple, Secretary of the FCC. “Questions have been raised concerning possible communist affiliations in connection with Pacifica’s principals,” it began, and went on to request non- communist affidavits from our directors, officers, and general managers within thirty days. Each of them was asked to state under oath whether or not he had been a member of the Communist Party and if so during what period of his life.


The request came when all three broadcasting licenses Pacifica then held were pending. KPFA in Berkeley had been licensed in 1949, but had been due for renewal since December 1, 1962. The FCC had never fully incensed KPFK which went on the air in 1959; it was operating under a ‘construction permit and program test authority’. So was WBAI, although it had been licensed under its previous owner. Operating without a license is not unusual, because the FCC’s small appropriations and vast backlog of work make it less than efficient. But in Pacifica’s case the delay was undoubtedly due to our controversial programming. In any event, the FCC told us that it would not act on our licenses until Siss finished its investigation. Although FCC Chairman Minow told Pacifica and reporters that there was no connection between its delay and the substance of those hearings, they both asked similar questions.

Once again, the Foundation bitterly debated its response. Ale staff urged it to refuse. At the request of WBAI the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) looked into the legal aspects, and argued that we could make a good legal case for non-compliance.

The board, however, still anxious to avoid a confrontation, prepared a statement for the FCC refusing to file such affidavits but continuing a positive statement of support for the constitution. It was an acceptable compromise for the Foundation, but not for the FCC. It then asked to confer privately with two members of the board and the Executive Vice-President, Jerry Shore. Shore had refused to discuss his political beliefs (prior to nine years ago) in front of Siss, one board member had admitted brief membership of the Communist Party, and the third was willing to do so. Although Pacifica never admitted it publicly, 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?”

By this time E. William Henry was Chairman of the FCC, and he made clear at a meeting with Pacifica that if the three co- operated, our licenses would be forthcoming on January 8 or 15. Pacifica’s board met again on December 14. It knew that if the FCC did not obtain sworn statements of loyalty from the three people in question, our licences would be designated for hearing, with possible revocation as the result. While it was never stated openly at that meeting, it was clear that two of the three were willing to testify. Shore was not, partly on principle, and partly because such testimony could set him up for a full inquiry into his friends and associations prior to 1952. It was also clear, however, that if Shore resigned, our licenses would be granted just as though he had testified.


Once again a majority of the board sought for the compromise. The two station managers there present as advisors urged them to reject the FCC’s request as an unwarranted invasion of the Foundation’s privacy; a minority 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 the confrontation. Sensing that, and sensing the doubtful nature of the support he was likely to get, Shore resigned at that meeting. No one asked him to stay.

On January 22-a bit behind schedule-Pacifica received its licenses from the FCC.


It was a more costly victory than many realized. When Shore resigned, Fred Haines, Station Manager of KPFK in Los Angeles, and Dick Elman, who did the Levine broadcast with me, left, too. Those of us who remained were doubtful about staying for long. We knew that our program policies were always likely to put our licenses in jeopardy; now it seemed that if they did so those staff members whose backgrounds made them vulnerable would be abandoned.


For those reasons-and others I shall go into later- movements started at all three stations to unionize. The issues seemed to be job security and the preservation of our programming policies. The solution turned out to be chimerical, but the problem was real enough.

On January 7, the staff at KPFA in Berkeley voted to join NABET (The National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians). On January 13, Elsa Knight Thompson, the outspoken Public Affairs Director of KPFA (and Pacifica’s best-known programmer who had been with the Foundation since 1959), was fired. Elsa had led staff opposition to the board on both the Siss and FCC struggles and had also supported unionization, After preliminary negotiations, Acting President Trevor Thomas delayed the inevitable strike until after the Licenses were granted. The staff walked out on March 23. Thomas told the press that it 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’.

Although KPFA’s strike was finally ended and Elsa Knight Thompson was reinstated, the fear of the left persisted for some time to come. KPFK in Los Angeles unionized. Staff members gradually drifted away. About a year later I went to North Vietnam and did a series of broadcasts for WBAI. The Station Manager of WBAI felt they were biased, and backed by the board, insisted on a number of changes in my script. I made some but refused to make others, and when they took the programs off the air I resigned. Most of the staff that worked under me left, too. Within six months subscriptions at WBAI dropped from a high of twelve thousand to only slightly more than seven thousand. It was the end of an era.


Pacifica was the brain-child of a journalist and poet named Lewis Hill who, as he is recalled by those who knew him, had that vision and magnetism we call charisma. Hill was a pacifist and, like many young people of today, he acted on his principles. He spent part of World War II in a camp for Conscientious Objectors. Also like young people of today, Hill’s pacifism was not simply a way of finding inner peace, but a passionate commitment to involve himself in society in order to change it.

Although Hill admired the work of the peace movement, he was convinced that ‘the prevention of war depends in part upon an overwhelming public sentiment against it.’ And that sentiment could only be generated by controlling or influencing the various media of mass communications. “The major job for those determined to see a pacific world in our time is to enter the region close to home, to speak through newspapers, on the street and over radio stations-in short, to identify the principles of world understanding where they have direct import in familiar situations.”

Hill found the attempt to use existing facilities frustrating. The commercial responsibility of mass media in the United States and its close identification with the power elite hardly attracted it to principles of world understanding. In 1946 Hill was working as a White House and Senate correspondent for a Washington radio station, but his attempts to do the kind of reporting he considered essential were frustrated. Finally, when he was asked to read a news report that he knew from first-hand experience to be untrue, he resigned and headed for California to create his own radio system. As he put it, in the first prospectus for Pacifica written in July 1946, “the groups devoted to war prevention are still without any means of widespread communication needed to engender such sentiment.” From its inception therefore, Pacifica was intended for pacifist propaganda.

Hill spent the next three years drawing together a staff of professional broadcasters, raising money, and hammering out a structure and broadcasting policy.

He and his associates discussed several alternatives for financing the station. Total reliance on advertising was an anathema, but they considered several forms of limited advertising. One such idea (which is still being proposed today) was that the radio station could accept advertisements like a newspaper: instead of sponsoring specific programs, an advertiser could place an ad for a certain time of the day. The problem was that radio’s pre-programmed format (news at 6 p.m., a concert at 7 p.m., etc.) makes time ads program ads anyway.

And however one cuts it, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Furthermore, the staff and function of any commercial station are split between programming and commercial needs. Hill believed that the ad salesmen and account executives would always drain programming talent. He feared that in the struggles for growth and development, the commercial needs of the station would take precedence over its programming needs. In any event, as the experience of small magazines devoted to culture, serious political discussions and experimental literature made clear, commercial advertisers could not be expected to be sufficiently interested in Pacifica’s programs to support them.

Hill also rejected city, state, or federal government sponsorship, because he doubted their willingness to let the station function independently. Similarly, Pacifica could not rely on a handful of wealthy patrons or large foundations. A system was needed that insured a broad base of support from the station’s listening audience


Hill finally adopted Gandhi’s idea that all public institutions should be supported voluntarily by those who benefit from them. Such a voluntary association established a vital relationship between the broadcaster and the listener, whereby the listener could express his involvement directly-or withdraw it if the broadcaster became unresponsive to his needs. On the other hand he did not want Pacifica to be an exclusive system like a pay TV, in which the signal is scrambled and only available to subscribers, because that would limit its educational power and restrict it to the already committed. Pacifica had to be available to the entire community, supported by those who recognized its community importance.


Although Hill was constructing a community service station, he never conceived of its being under the control of the community. To preserve Pacifica as the instrument of peace, the ownership and control of the Foundation were put in the hands of a self-perpetuating Board of directors, and an executive membership was established to deal with day-to-day problems. Hill also feared that a listener co-operative station would become a battleground for contending ideologies, with each new majority in the co-operative insisting on a new program orientation. At least one such experiment, in Washington, D.C., after the war, seemed to substantiate his fears: the political strife quickly tore the station apart.

Hill’s commitment to peace demanded a commitment to humanity-to art, culture and the significance of human relationships. He did not want Pacifica to be proselytizing but representative of the best that men could do. Thus it had to be a channel for the serious artistic work of the community,

Trying to explain the lack of artistic excellence on commercial radio, Hill argued: “. . . to get any real art or any significant communication one must rely entirely on individuals, and must resign oneself to accept not only their uniqueness but the possibility that the individual may at any time fail By suppressing the individual, the unique, the industry reduces the risk of failure (abnormality) and assures itself a standard product for mass consumption.”

On Pacifica, by contrast: “. . . we assign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio are normally denied him.”

Thus both the maintenance of excellence in broadcasting, and his commitment to peace, brought Hill to an absolute position on the First Amendment: Pacifica had to insist on complete freedom of speech for the individual.

* * *

Hill was also concerned with another weakness of commercial broadcasting, the separation of programming from general station policy and the alienation of the creative staff from those who make that policy. To prevent that from happening in Pacifica, Hill argued: “. . . the people who actually do the broadcasting should also be responsible for what and why they broadcast. In short, they must control the policy which determines their actions.”

Thus Pacifica’s self-perpetuating board of directors and executive membership would consist of those who, in the words of the first articles of incorporation, showed “continuous active participation in the foundation.” In practice, that originally meant those who worked for the station.

Pacifica decided to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for an FM (frequency modulation) transmitting license rather than an AM (amplitude modulation) license, because FM offers greater clarity of reception, enables higher fidelity sound reproductions, rejects interference from other stations and is static-free. Thus it was ideal for serious music which would make up a large part of Pacifica’s programming. Furthermore, in 1949, FM was the fastest-growing phenomenon in broadcasting. Although there were only a limited number of FM sets in use (ten thousand in Pacifica’s first broadcast area), everyone predicted that FM would be the next mass-communications wave. AM, on the other hand, could reach far more people. What finally tipped the scales was the availability of an FM channel. Hill hoped that Pacifica would eventually expand to AM, but it was one battle the Foundation never won, and today it would be prohibitively expensive to purchase an AM transmitter and secure a license. FM offers the only alternative for listener sponsorship. Hill and his associates raised $20,000, and the FCC granted them a license to begin broadcasting on a 250-watt transmitter in Berkeley. At 3 p.m. on April 15, 1949, Lew Hill stepped to a microphone and announced: “This is KPFA, listener-sponsored radio in Berkeley.”


The initial response to the station was modest but encouraging. The broadcasting industry and the press were sympathetic to the idea and the performance, but they were skeptical about Pacifica’s long-range prospects. Eleanor McKinney, who worked closely with Hill, later wrote of those days: “Visitors dropped in to ‘see for themselves’ where such extraordinary radio programs came from . . . They enjoyed the absence of radio’s conventions, hearing an announcer casually say, ‘The tape just got tangled up’ or ‘The background music you hear is leaking from the other studio where they’re rehearsing the next program’ . . . There were no fanfares, no themes, no organ music or strings. Duration of programs was designed to fulfil natural content-not to he chopped off in regular segments by the stopwatch. So that programs could begin at scheduled times, spaces between the flexible endings were filled with bits of prose or poetry, or simply by silence when the mood or impact would have been jarred by a sudden shift to another subject”


Over six hundred different program participants in drama and literature, public affairs, music and children’s programs took part in KPFA’s broadcasting in the next five months. They volunteered their services. Listeners, too, who dropped into the station, found themselves commissioned to type letters, write continuity and stuff envelopes, and a large volunteer staff soon sprung up next to the paid professional one. By such expedients KPFA kept its operating budget at about $4,000 a month. It broadcast from 3 p.m. to 10:30 or so at night (depending on when the last program seemed to end), and 40 per cent of the broadcasting was live.

Summarizing programming after five months, Hill referred to its success “in obtaining a large and intensely interested audience for the public affairs broadcasts on controversial subjects-war and peace, race relations, economic democracy- which are the central expression of Pacifica Foundation’s concern.” The report concluded that “The ‘radical’ statement of human and societal relations can be effective on radio if placed in a context of general programming which is otherwise valuable to the listeners.”

[ FINANCE ] KPFA was not yet able, however, to raise $4,000 a month consistently. After fifteen months on the air, with only 270 subscribers, it was forced to suspend broadcasting to devote full time to fund-raising. The exhausted staff -who were all paid the same, regardless of their position-hadn’t received a salary for weeks and many had to leave to find regular employment elsewhere to support their families.

When Hill announced that KPFA was suspending broadcasting, listeners suggested that a public meeting be held. Eleanor McKinney recalls that “To the discouraged staff it was an overwhelming experience to see the meeting-place crowded with listeners.” A working fund of $2,300 was raised immediately, and a number of fund-raising committees were formed. Nine months later one thousand subscribers had voluntarily contributed funds to the silent station, and KPFA was able to resume with a more powerful transmitter. A few months later, Lew Hill finished negotiations for a $150,000 grant from the Fund for Adult Education, a branch of the Ford Foundation, to test the theory of listener-sponsored broadcasting.

Hill never conceived of Pacifica as one small station in one limited community: the Ford grant gave him a chance to test a theory that he wanted to apply elsewhere. Later, in notes for an evaluation of the project written in 1957, he projected that at least eleven metropolitan areas with a combined audience of more than fifty million people could support a listener-sponsored station.

“Broadcasting year-in year-out in the greatest metropolitan centers in the nation, their specialized program content could not fail to affect public thought and taste, and it is no great extension of our hypothesis to envision these stations as a major factor in American cultural development.”

Hill’s projection was based on the theory that at least 2 per cent of any potential audience would subscribe “as long as the service rendered was uniquely valuable to a listener who could not elsewhere obtain it.” No Pacifica station has ever achieved that level of support, however.

KPFA reached a new kind of maturity during the Ford grant. Newspapers and magazines that had doubted the viability of listener-support began to pay increasing attention to KPFA’s programming as the station constantly innovated with live concerts of new composers’ works, readings and discussions with new poets, novelists, political thinkers and activists. Even the State Department began sending foreign dignitaries to tour the station.

Persistent problems remained, however. Pacifica’s dynamic program policy attracted some strong and creative people; but the Foundation never really maintained a dynamic administrative formula within which such people could work successfully. And so, there was always a crisis–a major clash of personalities, a dispute over the purpose and function of the Foundation, a key dismissal or resignation. And then hours were spent in whispered conversations at the local bar or coffee-shop, or late into the evening in messy offices, among used cups of coffee and the stale smell of cigarettes.

[ 1957 ]

As we have seen, Hill wanted the broadcasting staff to control the station. In 1953, however, that staff voted Hill and his closest associates out of office. For a year the station was operated by an anti-Hill faction, then another coup brought Hill back and his opponents all walked out. The issues are no longer clear, but the chaos damaged the station’s reputation, and Hill convinced the board that staff members could not be objective about their work conditions and salaries. To create more stability, non-staff members were invited to take part in the administration and control of the station. Staff participation on the executive membership was limited to one-third, and its representation on the board of directors became token. Although Hill intended to maintain the homogeneity of the controlling group and the broadcasters, it was a step in the direction of precisely that kind of alienation between those who make policy and those who are expected to carry it out that Pacifica was set up to avoid.

Although by 1957 Pacifica seemed an assured part of the Bay Area’s cultural scene, money remained tight and all the pressures that accompany poverty played havoc with it. Furthermore, the introduction of television had cut the heart out of the FM market (production of FM sets dropped from 1.4 million in 1949 to, 130,000 per year in 1954), and although KPFA tried to market them itself, it was hardly a successful entrepreneur. Hill was bitter and disappointed. Shortly after he completed the report to the Fund for the Republic-but before it was published-he committed suicide.


In October 1957 Dr. Harold Winkler became President of Pacifica and Station Manager of KPFA. Winkler was one of the new members of the board. A professor of government and political science at the University of California, Winkler was not involved in the station as a staff member. He was concerned with questions of free speech, and had resigned from California in protest over a newly required loyalty oath for faculty members. He was also independently wealthy.

When he first took over, Winkler was enthusiastic and optimistic about the growth and potential of the Foundation. Shortly after Hill’s death the downward trend in the FM industry reversed, and KPFA to some extent shared in the expansion of the industry as a whole, In 1958 KPFA won the George Foster Peabody Award for Public Service, radio’s highest award, for its thoughtful broadcasting, and for its demonstration that “mature entertainment plus ideas constitute public service broadcasting at its best . . . ”

In July 1959 plans that had been under way for about four years finally reached fruition when Pacifica opened KPFK in Los Angeles. The sister station borrowed parts of KPFA’s staff to begin broadcasting, but basically it was an independent unit with its own executive board and station manager. Funds had been raised in Southern California and its growth and development would depend upon the listener-support it could attract there. Costs in the FM industry had risen so sharply in the ten years since Pacifica started that KPFK cost more than $200,000 to get on the air and operated on a budget of about $15,000 a month (Pacifica expansion into other metropolitan areas would become increasingly difficult).

Then in January 1960 Winkler received a long-distance telephone call from New York City offering Pacifica a windfall. Louis Schweitzer, a Russian-born millionaire who was President of the Peter J. Schweitzer Division of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, owned a completely equipped FM station, WBAI-FM in New York City, which he wanted to give to Pacifica.

Schweitzer, a strong man-an individualist used to getting his own way-had contributed to a variety of liberal causes. For instance, he funded the Vera Foundation (and named it after his wife), an organization that arranges bail bonds for people too poor to afford them. Other charities have been less conventional. Several years ago he bought a Mercedes- Benz 190, installed a meter and roof-light, paid $17,000 for a hackie’s license and medallion, and hired a personal cab- driver. The cabbie was on call to him, but when not driving Schweitzer he was free to operate the cab on his own, splitting the profit with his boss.

Schweitzer had been interested in radio for some time, and he had tried to make WBAI commercially profitable while broadcasting intelligent programs. The tension between the programming and commercial requirements, however, continually frustrated him. Either he could run the station at a loss and maintain excellent programs-something which he could not tolerate as a good businessman, or increase the number of commercials and sacrifice some of the programs-which his humanitarian instincts rejected. He told Winkler that during one of New York’s newspaper strikes he realized that “When we were most successful commercially, that was not what I wanted at all … I saw that if the station ever succeeded, it would be a failure.”

Winkler accepted the station, and Pacifica had suddenly expanded into three metropolitan centers with a potential audience of sixty million people. It had also expanded into a host of problems for which it was thoroughly unprepared.

Pacifica programming projected no consistent orientation. Much of its coverage of current events (news documentaries, interviews, etc.) seemed to be tinged with the latest theories of the emerging left; its theoretical and philosophical programming seemed to project a liberal goodwill tinged with religious mysticism; its drama and literature was traditional and academic; its music was exclusively classical. The quality was unpredictable; professionally produced programs were mixed with inaudible, amateurish ones. Because Pacifica frequently seemed to be trying to provide something for every minority of a minority, it created no identifiable audience.

Meantime, it angered many people who felt that one emphasis or another was dangerous. Pacifica’s emergence on a national scale exacerbated the problems. Shortly after WBAI was transferred to Pacifica, for instance, it broadcast tapes of a Communist Party convention. The idea itself was excellent, but WBAI made a journalistic mistake when it allowed the Communist Party to pre-edit the material. Worse than that, it gave the liberal anti-communist community in New York the opportunity it wanted to launch a bitter attack on the station. It thus alienated the “community leadership” that Hill believed the support of the station depended upon, but it never went far enough to the left to attract radical support.

Administrative problems remained too. In 1957 Hill still insisted that Pacifica be free “from any influence, direct or otherwise, which supervened on the imagination and discretion of the persons responsible for broadcasting.” But whereas earlier he had argued that this could only be assured if the broadcasting staff controlled policy, by 1957 he was not so sure.

Winkler wanted no interference with administration, and he removed all staff members from the board and then convinced the executive membership to vote itself out of existence. The staff became paid employees and the board increasingly had less to do with the station; during the early 1960s few board members even listened.

When Winkler took over he was optimistic about Pacifica. In a report published after six months in office, he wrote that he was “utterly amazed by its vitality and its unlimited horizons.” By 1961 he was worn out by the persistent financial and administrative problems. The stations were in debt; there were moves at all three to depose him. He resigned in 1961 and was succeeded by a Quaker activist, Trevor Thomas.

Two major developments affected the Foundation during Thomas’ reign prior to the Siss hearings, although he himself was not responsible for either of them. Because of certain key staff hirings Pacifica swung markedly closer to the left– particularly that element represented by the young activists. Meantime, the split between board and staff became a chasm that led the staff to organize against their employer.

In 1960 we founded a Pacifica Employees Association (PEA). PEA included all staff members at KPFA, and shortly after Thomas became President we began to negotiate for higher wages and freer working conditions. Ironically, the major issue was identifying certain senior staff members as “professional employees” so that we could work more than the eight hours called for by law for non-professional help. It meant only a minor raise in salary, but the board initially opposed it. Nevertheless, we worked out a suitable arrangement with Thomas.


PEA acted as a stabilizing influence in Pacifica. When, for instance, KPFK’s staff all resigned over a dispute with management, a PEA representative convinced them to organize a staff association and negotiate instead. Some staff members wanted PEA to affiliate with a national union, but when a motion to join NABET won at Berkeley by only eleven to ten, we scrapped the idea because the margin was too close.

Jerry Shore was hired as Executive Vice-President to clear up these administrative problems at a critical time in the Foundation’s development. Siss moved against us, however, before Shore had a chance to make his changes.

If Pacifica had been listening to its programs and aware of the Foundation’s national role, it could have anticipated confrontation with powerful enemies. If it had considered the implications of PEA, it would have anticipated unionization. No one on the board bothered apparently, until we were attacked, and by then it was too late.


Culture is communication. Society as an organism is not simply the sum total of its components but rather a terribly complex, interrelated message, a meaningful pattern of information, “the pattern of society as a whole”-what T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold and others have defined as culture. As such, society can only be understood by the communications that take place within it, for they are, in a large sense, what makes it identifiable.

The communications that we use define and mold the world we think we see and, by extension, the behaviour that we find acceptable. We react and act differently when we define the victims of a U.S. bombing attack on a Vietnamese village as “communists” or “women and children.”

Lenin’s awareness of the importance of communication is behind his argument in “What is to be done?” that Russian revolutionaries required an all-Russian newspaper. “Socialist consciousness”, Lenin argued quoting from Karl Kautsky, “is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without . . . and not something that arose within it spontaneously.” Without a powerful organ for socialist propaganda, spontaneous movements “lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology . . . for the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin . . . more fully developed, and because it possesses immeasurably more opportunities for becoming widespread.”

The point is that the development, maintenance and viability of a counter-culture depend on the existence of a counter-culture communications system. And if it is to have any impact beyond its own narrow confines, the system must be technically equivalent to society’s most advanced. The most powerful media in the United States is broadcasting, particularly television. For the time being, however, television is prohibitively expensive (about ten times that of radio). Radio, as used by Pacifica Foundation, seems to provide an alternative.

* * *

Dissent in the United States is contained in four ways: it is ignored (isolated and discredited), co-opted, absorbed, or destroyed in that order. Because each of these stages involves a progressively more naked suppression of the Establishment, it will only move to the next when it seems essential to do so.

The most popular form of control is to isolate and discredit opposition. So long as counter-culture communications systems function primarily as house organs for minority movements, and so long as society is otherwise relatively stable, the radical press powerlessness ensures its survival.

Thus Pacifica Foundation, so long as it operated only one small station in Berkeley, California, broadcasting to fifty thousand people and supported by only five thousand of them, was left to develop as it wished. When Pacifica projected itself on the national stage, however, reaching an audience of at least a million and supported by thirty thousand subscribers, its potential influence had to be reckoned with. The Levine broadcast demonstrated that when professional journalists take advantage of a sufficiently sensitive area of national concern and communicate it on a national system, the Establishment press cannot ignore it.

It also demonstrated that when that happens real opposition begins to grow.

When attempts to discredit and isolate opposition fall, it may find itself co-opted. Co-option takes a variety of forms, but primarily it is a way of bringing radical statements, individuals or institutions into the mainstream where they cease to be radically critical. Radical statements, for instance, can be co-opted by giving them publicity within a context that makes them appear ridiculous: thus, when a black revolutionary is given television time, either his most innocuous or inflammatory statements are selected in a context of futile demonstration or a burning ghetto, and the message that emerges from the total presentation is clear–his statements seem hopelessly naive or nihilistic.

When the co-option becomes more complete, it is closer to absorption. Radical programs for instance, can be absorbed by adopting aspects as reformist platforms. Thus Truman took over most of the Independent Progressive Party’s program in 1948, and Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, articulated a peace position on Vietnam. If later the reform fails to materialize or to correct the conditions that stimulated them, the credibility gap can itself be manipulated by continually absorbing the weakest elements of the criticism- Johnson’s bombing halt, for example. Radical people can be absorbed by hiring them. The poverty programs hire young radicals and put them into a bureaucratic miasma where they are ineffective but relatively affluent.

I do not want to dwell on those various devices, nor even insist that they can be carefully defined. My point is simply that there are many ways of containing dissent without destroying it, and in the United States they are almost always available to radicals.

The Levine broadcast demonstrated that Pacifica had to be dealt with. The attack by Siss and the FCC was a prod; we were threatened with destruction on the one hand, but offered the opportunity to join the mainstream on the other. All we had to do was let one key employee go and agree to sign a loyalty oath. What Pacifica failed to realize was that after that nobody would be very interested in us. Radicals withdrew their support and the establishment didn’t want us. Meantime, we were internally torn to pieces. For the time being, Pacifica had been reduced to the point where it could be ignored.

There are physical limitations on the effectiveness of a broadcasting station as a vehicle for counter culture. Because stations must be licensed by the government to broadcast, they must take into account in their programming, administration and technical operation government regulations and precedents. They must, for instance, maintain a first- class engineer with a FCC license, use equipment that meets government standards, conform to certain administrative procedures and to certain programming requirements.

The FCC is unlikely to withdraw a license from a station on the basis of its programming, so long as the station can prove that its programming represents editorial judgement. But program complaints from listeners filed with the FCC are generally investigated, and they can eat up hours of staff time.

The government’s right to regulate broadcasting gives it an ever-present hold over a controversial broadcasting station. And because the FCC would prefer to deny a license to such a station on grounds of technical or administrative violations, the controversial stations must be particularly careful to abide by all the rules. This requires a certain minimal core of professional staff, and a certain quality of broadcast equipment.

Construction and maintenance costs of a radio station in the United States today depend upon circumstances. When some of us in the civil rights movement and broadcasting tried to start a radio station near Jackson, Mississippi, we estimated that we could construct our facilities and broadcast for a year on a budget of about $200.000. When, on the other hand, WBAI estimated the cost of moving its facilities in New York to a new location several blocks away, it found that this would cost about $400,000.

Construction of minimum facilities in a major metropolitan center today will cost at least $500,000. Costs of operating for a year are about $250,000, with $125,000 allocated to staff salaries and the rest for supplies, legal expenses, etc. That will provide for a core staff of ten to twenty people who can be supplemented by an unlimited number of volunteers. It will all allow for minimal standards of broadcasting on a twenty-four-hour a day basis (reduction of the broadcast day does not substantially reduce the costs of the total operation, although it can improve the quality of what is broadcast).

To give some idea of comparative figures for television, the Carnegie Commission (which investigated educational television in the United States some time ago) estimated that a fully equipped television station will cost $6.2 million with an annual operating budget of about $3.6 million. An hour episode of a television serial (Star Trek) costs $250,000.

The large capitalization and maintenance costs are also complicated by the fact that broadcasting occurs in time, and time goes on. A broadcasting station must transmit a continual signal (both to insure its identity with its audience and satisfy FCC requirements), and thus it is virtually impossible today to suspend broadcasting to recoup losses or engage in fund-raising–unlike a magazine, a theatrical group or a free university where there are periods of slack.

Where can this money be raised? Pacifica has explored many alternatives, but we have found that the only reliable one is our audience. Our programming has been too unpopular to attract regular funds from industry, government or the large foundations (which are generally interested only in giving to specific program projects anyway, and the problem here is sustaining the station).

Our studios and our mail suggest that the supporting audience-those who subscribe and pledge additional contributions when asked to do so-is drawn from liberal, upper-middle-class intellectuals, supplemented by a smattering of students and young people.

That demographic breakdown is not surprising. Because of FCC limitations-no radio station can advocate the breaking of a law-Pacifica can never be an overt movement station. In any event, the movement tends to contribute its precious resources to action-oriented projects of immediate need-posters, bail money, travel, etc. The movement has its own house organs and in the United States has not yet shown much interest in propagandizing to others.

Recognition of these limitations clarifies Pacifica’s possibilities. It has survived for twenty years despite wildly erratic program quality–despite everything–in part because the idea was so good.

The United States is a country in which middle-class liberals and intellectuals are increasingly dissatisfied, in which they themselves are becoming functional parts of a machine they can no longer control. Dissatisfactions within our universities-the fear that they too are machines to grind out technicians for the military-industrial complex-is an early warning-sign of general middle-class concern. It is premature to wonder now whether or not middle-class elements will be (in the final analysis) revolutionary agents. But it is not too early to recognize that they are searching for alternative life-styles, alternative sources of values and information. Recognizing its audience, Pacifica can provide an invaluable educational service for them. It can project values of counter culture consistent with human freedom. And along the way, it can keep its channel open for the most advanced thinking of the community: it can offer a loud- speaker to the ghettos, a platform for radicals, an outlet for transcendent culture. It does not even have to revolutionize its audience, only neutralize them for the inevitable struggles to come.

Pacifica’s single unequivocal stand must be on the First Amendment. It must not allow itself to be distracted, or threatened, or weaned in any way from freedom of speech. Because consciousness is so important, whenever tensions within the United States reach crisis proportions, consciousness will be controlled. Pacifica must stand in the way of that control. By insisting on freedom of speech in culture and politics, Pacifica can make the First Amendment a radical tool.

Pacifica’s audience of liberal, middle-class intellectuals will be united with radicals on the question of its existence. That requires the courage to be uncompromising on freedom of speech. For in any confrontation with the power elite, the movement will support Pacifica if we remain true to our own ideals–and that is when we need them. We have suffered most only when we have lost our nerve.

© 1968 Christopher Koch

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