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KPFA On The Air. Film/Video documentary. Producer/Director: Veronica Selver; Co-Producer/Writer: Sharon Wood; narrated by Alice Walker. Distributed by California Newsreel. 56 minutes, 2000. Additional description at

Single frame from KPFA On The Air.
From KPFA On The Air.
The film KPFA On The Air arrives at a good time. Until quite recently, little information was readily available about the Pacifica Foundation and its stations—somewhat surprising given the organization's ground-breaking role in public broadcasting for more than half-a-century.

Now those curious about the organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary with an enormous public meltdown can choose between several books and this exceptional documentary to get at least an inkling of what drives one of the world's most vital—and volatile—media operations.

One of many demonstrations at KPFA.
Protests are common at KPFA
and other Pacifica stations.
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It's a tribute to filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood (and a comment on the complexity of the story they tell) that the Pacifica Foundation reportedly disliked their work enough to bar its five owned-and-operated stations from using KPFA On The Air as a fundraising premium—while the "Save Pacifica" activists currently doing battle with the network's management felt it did not go far enough. But I'm getting ahead of myself!

Before going any further with this review I must, in the interest of full disclosure, reveal that my own history with the Pacifica Foundation goes back more than 20 years. The community radio station with which I was very involved in college depended heavily on Pacifica's national news feed. I still remember my excitement when they picked up a few of my own stories for distribution. After graduating I spent a number of rewarding months working out of Pacifica's National News Bureau in Washington DC. A decade later, my stint as assistant manager at Pacifica radio station WBAI in New York City was at the time the toughest job I ever hated and, in retrospect, one of the most meaningful times of my life. And now, my association with Pacifica continues through my work with WRPI in Troy NY—one of the sixty-odd affiliated stations that air the network's news and information programming.

Such is the importance of the organization that a large percentage of the people involved in public broadcasting in the United States have at one time or another had experience with Pacifica. The exact number is difficult to determine—although former Senator Larry Lee Presser of South Dakota attempted to do just that a few years ago when he demanded that National Public Radio release lists of its employees with ties to Pacifica in a move strongly reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy's probe of Pacifica itself (footage of which is included in KPFA On The Air). But again I'm getting ahead of myself!

The Pacifica Foundation was developed in the late 1940s by Lewis Hill, a pacifist who used his time in a remote conscientious objector camp during World War II to develop organizing strategies with other non-violent activists. Hill had some experience as a journalist, enough to convince him that the compromises inherent in commercial broadcasting corrupt its content. The world's first listener-sponsored station, KPFA in Berkeley, was the result of Hill's conviction that truth-telling is the path to peace—and that financial independence is the path to truth.

Bill Mandel at a McCarthy Hearing.
Bill Mandel at a McCarthy Hearing.
From KPFA On The Air.
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One of KPFA On The Air's enduring contributions to our understanding of broadcasting history is the skillful telling of the story of Pacifica's early years. It is one thing to read in a communications studies text that Pacifica champions a style of reporting now called "advocacy journalism"—it is quite another to see the Cold War roots of one of the boldest experiments in broadcasting.

The story of Pacifica Radio is of course inseparable from its context, so the documentary is rich with images ranging from archival footage of pacifists in the contientious objectors (C.O.) internment camps to the Iran Contra hearings on Capital Hill. Longtime KPFA supporter Alice Walker's crisp narration holds the disparate elements together. One of my favorite parts of the documentary comes when her scripted voice track is replaced briefly by footage of Walker at a "Save KPFA" rally. The camera work is nicely done, as Walker seems to speak to the film's audience.
Alice Walker steps into the film she narrates.
Alice Walker steps into the film she narrates.
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This moment, in which the narrator's traditionally dispassionate role is jarringly questioned as Walker literally steps into the documentary, symbolizes Pacifica Radio's own role in redefining the relationship between journalism and activism.

Historian Mathew Lasar (author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network) is an engaging presence in this production; his comments show both a passion for Pacifica and a nuanced understanding of institutional history. The story of Pacifica is rife with problems that defy easy answers; it is a credit to everyone involved in making this film that it strives to present the complexity of its subject rather than making a run at determining who was "right" at any particular moment. And it is this very characteristic that gives KPFA On The Air its evergreen appeal, for after watching it we understand that it is the ideas behind Pacifica that create the conflict we see today—and that conflict is the one constant at Pacifica. What, after all, is conflict other than the sign of process underway? Certainly it might be better if Pacifica and similar organizations could achieve their goals without it, but discord also can be seen as part and parcel of an organizing project that strives to bring disparate, disenfranchised members of a society together in a physical space with finite resources. That Pacifica's founder, a committed pacifist, took his own life—due in no small part to the unending struggles at KPFA—reveals a great deal about Pacifica today, where conflict is as much a part of the landscape as it was 50 years ago.

Concerned listeners and contributors protest attempts to restict their access to KPFA.
Concerned listeners and contributors protest
attempts to restict their access to KPFA.
From modest beginnings as the troubled proprietor of a single radio station, Pacifica is now the troubled proprietor of five major market stations—KPFA in the San Francisco Bay area, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, WPFW in Washington and WBAI in New York City. It also supplies programming to independent non-commercial radio stations throughout the United States and Canada, and on the Web. Pacifica pioneered a form of non-commercial broadcasting that inspired a global community media movement, as well as introduced the listener-sponsorship model familiar to supporters of National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting System stations. To this day Pacifica stations refuse to air commercial announcements, even as its progeny fall increasingly under the sway of corporate "underwriting" essentially indistinguishable from advertising.

Yet the mere mention of the word Pacifica is almost guaranteed to evoke a flinch, a giggle, or both, from those in the know. The organization, notwithstanding its extraordinary history and loyal listeners, is synonymous with internal strife and crippling internal politics. As I write this, headlines from New York City tell the story of the sudden and seemingly arbitrary firing of WBAI's general manager—her reward for more than twenty years of service. Other similarly tenured staff were also dismissed and several unpaid staff members (the volunteer life-blood of Pacifica and other community-based stations) have been banned. Reminiscent of mid-1970s bloodbaths from which the Foundation has not yet fully recovered a quarter century later, Pacifica is enveloped by internecine warfare that threatens, as usual, destruction from within. This is so much a part of the story that Pacifica will almost certainly be in crisis of one kind or another regardless of when you read this. But why?

Blacks, Latinos, and Asians increased their presence at KPFA from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Blacks, Latinos, and Asians increased their
presence at KPFA from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Much of the value of the film KPFA On The Air lies in the filmmakers' attempt to reveal the nature of these conflicts, without yielding to the urge to make definitive judgements about causality. (This, of course, makes them unpopular among anyone with an axe to grind, which is seemingly anyone within hearing distance of a Pacifica station.)

It is clear from viewing the film that broadcasting unpopular views on issues as controversial and diverse as McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and so on is central to the Pacifica tradition—so it should surprise no one that the stations are themselves so often the center of controversy. Pacifica has proven its worth to successive waves of social justice activists, but the extent to which the stations also support marginalized and avant-garde culture is clearly illustrated through numerous interviews and archival clips featuring artists Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsburg, Lorraine Hansbury and many others.

The Pacifica Foundation's trajectory over the past five decades is illustrated as well as anyone could in a film of less than an hour. We hear KPFA's earliest recorded broadcasts and see the program schedule, which illustrate an allegiance to British Broadcasting Corporation-style high culture and objective journalism. The harrowing encounter with McCarthyism, tempered with Beat poetry, gives way to footage of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and all-out opposition to the war in Indochina. And, in a particularly illuminating sequence, the filmmakers explore Pacifica's transition from radio for social movements into radio by social movements, as people of color and other activists demand a voice within the organization.

Radio for social movements, reflected in KPFA's program schedule.
Radio for social movements,
reflected in KPFA's program schedule.
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I was a college freshman in 1977 when I read in the New York Times about the radio station whose staff had seized control by barricading themselves in the transmitter shack atop the Empire State Building. It was Pacifica Radio's WBAI. I thought then that it was an absolutely astounding act—who (in this country) cares enough about radio to do such a thing? I know now that is was a desperate effort by people fighting to retain their place in an institution that had become part of their lives.

When I began work at WBAI a decade later, I walked into a radio station that had clearly lost its way. In many ways WBAI (like Pacifica as a whole), had been at the center of the counterculture of the 1960s but, by the late 1970s, New York City had changed in ways with which the station had not been able to keep pace. Noncommercial stations like WNYC had siphoned off the classical music listeners; the ground-breaking news magazine All Things Considered redefined the meaning of National Public Radio. Suddenly there was competition for the white, upscale, college-educated audience that Pacifica had originally cultivated and drawn.

Simultaneously, the demographic makeup of WBAI's signal area became far more culturally diverse—and the hot button political issues of the day were those that reflected concerns of the city's African American and Latino residents. A logical strategic move would seem to be re-focusing the station's attention on this new, under-served audience. And in fact, the seizure of WBAI's transmitter in 1977 was precipitated by the hiring of program director Pablo Guzman (former Minister of Information for the Young Lords) who intended to do just that.

To a large extent the problem then, as now, was one of organizational development—the inability in a politically-charged, largely volunteer-staffed environment to manage change. The stereotypical white, middle class men who dominated Pacifica in its first three decades were understandably loathe to move on—and the abysmal management that has been Pacifica's hallmark did little to help. The result, as I experienced it in the late 1980s, was an environment rife with racial tension—one in which entrenched producers (who, because of the station's history, were largely white) jealously protected their hard-won resources from newcomers (mostly people of color) with a management ill prepared to mediate.

Pat Scott, Pacifica Executive Director from 1994 to 1998.
Pat Scott, Pacifica Executive Director
from 1994 to 1998.
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But overall, it is the sorry state of broadcasting in the United States that is to blame for Pacifica's troubles. With the bulk of available radio spectrum squandered on utter tripe, for millions of people their only hope of getting heard is on one of the few handfuls of stations dedicated to ideas, not profits. The incursion of commercial broadcasting ideology into the non-profit realm has intensified the pressure for strict formatting, professionalization, and advertisements thinly disguised as underwriting. They have become the order of the day even at formerly community-oriented stations. In this ever-more-wired world we need more access to media—and we're getting less.

Steve Pierce
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Video Review of KPFA On The Air
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History

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