Another War Breaks Out In the Pacifica Radio Network

Making sense of the in-fighting


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 interest 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.

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.

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 that 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.