Another War Breaks Out In the Pacifica Radio Network

...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 fired 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 writes 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 and 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 saves the archives.

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  • Paul.||

    The network fired Executive Director Summer Reese last week, and she is refusing to go.

    Perhaps Ms. Reese believes her Executive Directorship is a human right?

  • Paul.||

    So when people talk about getting Pacifica back to its roots, they have any number of roots to choose from.

    Those roots would of course be the roots which were skeptical of power. Days gone by...

  • Pro Libertate||

    Is this the same thing as the Pacifica Foundation? If so, they were a party in the famous "Seven Dirty Words" case involving George Carlin.

  • Paul.||

    I'll have to look it up to verify, but I believe they are connected. You're talking about the olden days when leftys revered the first amendment, instead of comparing to a 'creepy uncle you thought was cool in your youth, but just embarrasses you now."

  • Pro Libertate||

    Remember left-leaning First Amendment absolutists? They once existed!

  • ||

    Still do. And this leftist revere the rest, especially the 2nd.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Is this the same thing as the Pacifica Foundation? If so, they were a party in the famous "Seven Dirty Words" case involving George Carlin.

    Yep. Same Pacifica.

  • GILMORE||

    "1. Pacifica was founded by libertarians, sort of."

    Sure.

    And the Maxim machine gun was invented by a *Pacifist*

    File under: "Funny how shit works out"

  • RannedPall||

    Well, dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel, which he then used to explosively eliminate all of his rivals and win the Nobel prize, funny indeed how shit works out.

  • Paul.||

    Oh, Jesse, good article. I've gotten lots of lulz over the years "following" Pacifica Radio.

  • BakedPenguin||

    "They say you better listen to the voice of Reason, but they don't give you a choice, because they think it's treason."

  • GILMORE||

    While the whole thing seems like a big soup of crazy that deserves to die under the weight of their own collective stupidity, there are some awesome quotes in that piece (even skipping over Reese's invoking the Old Testament God to smite her enemies)...

    e.g.

    "Amy Goodman’s an evil bitch.” -Marc Cooper, former news director at KPFK"

    Also rich is their moral conundrum about "ripping off the public" by flogging new-age remedies and bullshit conspiracy products... when they'd be *so* much more morally at peace by taking massive sums from the taxpayer.

    There is some fantastic irony embedded in all of this - that their utopian leftism by default leads to charlatan-capitalism....

    And like any good leftists = *badly run*, charlatan capitalism. Because no one fucks up organizational efficiency like a progtard.

    ""If you fired half the staff around here, it would work better," Masters says. "They're just useless people with no work ethic — they don't give a fuck about anything. They act like they're doing you a favor if they get the program up without glitches. It's surreal.""

  • Paul.||

    ""If you fired half the staff around here, it would work better," Masters says. "They're just useless people with no work ethic — they don't give a fuck about anything. They act like they're doing you a favor if they get the program up without glitches. It's surreal.""

    This is what happens when you hire-- by design-- people who are seemingly genetically predisposed to not understand what rights are.

  • GILMORE||

    "Pacifica's decline in the late 1970s can be attributed to the end of the Vietnam war and the rise of NPR."

    Another way of saying this would be "as baby boomer leftists got older and real jobs", their accepted brand of leftism became the cuddly institutional-progressive-statism we know and love today. Radical-leftist radio is cute and all, but those ideals are really only fashionable when you're an idiotic 20-something (see" Jesse Myerson). When you're in your 40s? Everyone thinks you're a LOSER.

  • Paul.||

    It charts the fall of liberalism and the rise of progressivism well.

    Although I have to question the work ethic of those who maintain the comments-section-code.

  • Robert||

    Come to think of it, it does seem a good mirror on the New Left and how it evolved to be subsumed into, or kicked out by, the Stalinists who preceded them.

    I often wonder whether this was the result of a real struggle within the "left", or just the working out of a mechanism whose seeds were in the original. Does anti-capitalism inevitably become a dominant motiv'n?

  • ||

    "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

    In the late 70's and all through the 80's, It was the best radio in Houston.

  • ||

    "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

    In the late 70's and all through the 80's, It was the best radio in Houston.

  • RannedPall||

    You should tune in to squirrelz radio.

  • GILMORE||

    I will add that their whole self-involved, narcissistic implosion, where the Evil Thug who finally destroys their utopian dreams turns out to be the progressive darling Amy Goodman (cast here as an evil capitalist who built her media empire on the bones of these Pacifica rubes)... reminds me of Vineland or perhaps some other Pynchon novel, where the hippies have devolved into flogging All Natural cures for AIDS because their only remaining financiers are criminal Ponzi-scheme thugs/Wellness Gurus.... meanwhile, NPR is like the evil galactic empire threatening to subsume them in the quest to Own Everything Liberal...

    ...My god, if Pynchon hasn't already written this one, someone *should*. It transcends parody of itself. Plus = Music!

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Oh just come clean. You may have started a Pynchon novel, but no one ever finishes a Pynchon novel.

    /jk

  • GILMORE||

    I believe this is partly true.

    Pynchon books, with some exceptions (crying of lot 49) become so goddamn convoluted and frustrating around the end of the 'second act' (3/4 through) that it almost begs you to throw it in the fire. With some, this impulse comes sooner (I recently read 1/2 of 'Bleeding Edge' before returning it to the owner). I believe its something of a Raymond Chandler-gone-acid-trip tic, where Pynchon doubles-down on the plot-complexity midway through, introduces a few new characters, casually mentions something that was crucially important to know about the main character that he'd sort of forgotten about, and then goes off on a backstory tangent about a character you don't even remember being introduced earlier in the book.

    It reminds me a little - not stylistically, but atmospherically - of the story "Typhoon" by Joseph Conrad, where, just when you think the storm is at its worst and the ship is on the verge of foundering, chests of money break open in the hold and the Chinese coolies start rioting below decks. You sort of just go, 'aw come the fuck on already, now I *want* you all to die'

    if you've read his stuff you probably know what I mean.

  • Paul.||

    Tell us how you really feel...

  • Sevo||

    ..."meanwhile, NPR is like the evil galactic empire threatening to subsume them in the quest to Own Everything Liberal..."

    I refuse to watch let alone contribute to the local 'public TV', but they've fallen to giving Depak Chopra time during the fund-raising.

  • James Anderson Merritt||

    I have always thought that college radio was the farm team for Pacifica: same office politics, same internecine wars, same radical point of view, same fundamental, backbiting drama -- all in miniature. I used to listen (occasionally) to Pacifica in Berkeley, at the time that I was hanging out regularly at UC Berkeley's KALX and Ohlone College's KOHL (at the other end of the bay). The college stations used to follow the KPFA drama religiously, and then replicate it locally. I hear KPFA-originated programs here in Santa Cruz on the local NPR outlet sometimes, but more often on Freak Radio Santa Cruz, our own pirate radio. The latter also carries Democracy Now, and a show that pulls classic programs from the Pacifica archives; I have heard several of those lately, and I must agree with Jesse Walker about saving those archives: whatever your political or artistic orientation, those are radio gold.

  • teamred vs teamblue||

    I used to enjoy listening to Pacifica (KPFA) back in the late 80's/early 90's. It was very eclectic and weird, but compelling.

    I hope Pacifica endures. We need radio like that.

  • Robert||

    Meanwhile WFMU (whose stream I'm listening to as I write this) seems to be a very, very happy dictatorship. AFAICT, this is for a small number of reasons:

    1. There are no money stakes to fight over. Paid staff is minimal, and everyone else is a professional-quality amateur. WBAI actually pays the talent; last summer (or maybe the year before) some of them at a party I was at were bummed because of being laid off. WFMU acknowledges donors only discreetly by name (if they want it), and has no other "plugs" other than occasional joke "underwriting" anmts. They do wonderful exposure & promotion of musical acts gratis.

    2. There aren't even air exposure stakes to fight over. By now WFMU's live online audience (let alone archives) is double their broadcast audience. What do they do when there's more will to perform than hours in the day? WFMU extends its brand and resources to alternate streams. Not counting the Rock & Roll Ichiban stream (which I think is at least semi-automated), I'd estimate their live output now as 36 hrs./day. Plus they sometimes even help out other stations in trouble. And they are still expanding their own b'cast reach with 2 class C & one low power FM xmtrs, plus an on-channel booster.

  • Robert||

    3. They're not very political in terms of changing the outside world. They don't shy away from it, and even hosted Democracy Now "in exile" while it was booted off WBAI. However, it's not their "thing". The most political program they have on now is Dave Emory's For the Record, and now that I'm finally sure he's full of shit, I listen to him as low camp and in the hope that he'll finger me some day as part of a conspiracy. Auricle Communications founder & stn. mgr. Ken Freedman (whose resemblance to Harold Ramis is remarkable) is more interested in revolutionizing the world communications- and entertainment-wise.

    If anyone knows any "dirt" that says otherwise, I'd be interested in reading it.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I've got no dirt for you. FMU is a great station. They are, as far as I'm aware, the only onetime college station to survive the death of the school that once owned it. It takes a devoted fan base—and programming good enough to attract that fan base—to pull that off.

  • Robert||

    I asked WBCN alum Ken if he listened to your "Titicut Follies", and he said yes.

    But what do you think of my analysis as to why they don't have the troubles Pacifica does? BTW, they (WFMU) say they did have a little infighting in the 1970s, which was before my time as a regular listener, although I did listen to them long before Auricle was est.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I think you're onto something, though I should note that some of these things (like the number of paid vs. volunteer staff) vary from one Pacifica station to another too. But yes, it's true that the culture & organization at WFMU are just completely different than at Pacifica, generally in ways beneficial to FMU.

  • GILMORE||

    "
    Jesse Walker|3.19.14 @ 5:04PM|#

    FMU is a great station. They are, as far as I'm aware, the only onetime college station to survive the death of the school that once owned it.

    Hmm? I thought it was Fordham?

    I listened to FMU all my life, and especially relied on their AM jazz show for about a decade to get me out of bed in the morning. They also had some great indy-hiphop shows in the 90s.

    I always thought it *was* a college radio station... ? I mean, like 'still'. (then again I stopped paying attention to almost everything around 2004)

  • Jesse Walker||

    Hmm? I thought it was Fordham?

    No, it was affiliated with Upsala College. The school went under in the mid-'90s, and FMU managed to survive & thrive. They still don't run any commercials or take any money from the feds.

  • Robert||

    Frequent mistake here in the Bronx when I refer to WFMU, to think it's WFUV, which is Fordham U.'s. A commercial pirate on 91.3 here has made WFMU unlistenable in much of the Bronx for about 7 yrs. anyway.

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