History of Radio: Listener-Sponsored Creativity and Chaos

When radio first started to find an audience in the 1920’s it was driven by the manufacturers who thought they could make money by selling radio sets. But as the cost of programming increased, especially the popular network programming, and the number of Americans who already owned radios grew, the industry turned toward commercial interests to pay the bills. That came in the form of commercial sponsors and then the sale of advertising time. Ad sales is what keeps the lights on at radio stations and that remains true to this day.

But in the late 40’s an alternative emerged with the Pacifica Foundation. It was founded in 1946 by Lewis Hill, a pacifist who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. In 1949 Pacifica’s first station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., went on the air. It was a station which Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air, says “reflected the anarchist and pacifist ethos of 1940s Bay Area Bohemia.” Not exactly the kind of programming that’s going to attract corporate advertisers. So Hill turned to an alternative source of financing, its listeners.

Today the Pacifica network has four more stations: WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFT in Houston. It has also begun to syndicate programming to affiliate stations and has a Pacifica archive. Throughout its 60+ years of existence Pacifica and its stations have remained listener sponsored although as early as 1952 when Hill received a grant from the Ford Foundation it has also benefited from foundation funding. In later years Pacifica received some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It is the independence that comes from not being beholden to commercial interests that has allowed Pacifica stations to innovate in terms of the talent it has put on the air, the news reports it has broadcast and the various racial, ethnic and sexual-orientation minorities who were given a voice on Pacifica stations.

Peter Wilson DJ

Gay rights radio show on WBAI with DJ Pete Wilson

In New York, the folks who walked into WBAI’s studio included the likes of Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar. The beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were on the air at KPFA and in Los Angeles, the Fireside Theater, a comic quartet whose work could be described as psychedelic mixed audio got their start at KPFK.

In an earlier post, I wrote about WBAI’s Bob Fass and his show Radio Unnameable which many consider the first true freeform radio programming. Fass used his show to organize demonstrations at Kennedy Airport, to report from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and to help found the Yippies. Fass and the other on-air personalities were among the pioneers of listener call-in radio. And Jeff Land, writing in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media,  credits Pacifica with the birth of community radio. Referring to Pacifica in the 70’s Land says: “It is at this moment, when Puerto Rican and Black nationalists, radical lesbians, Asian-American activists, feminist spokespeople, and newly empowered ecologists all begin regularly scheduled programs, that ‘community radio’ is born.”

Pacifica has also consistently been an innovator when it comes to news. A Pacifica reporter was the first to file a report from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They interviewed Che Guevara from Bolivia a short time before he was killed. KPFA received a Peabody Award for its programming challenging McCarthyism in 1954. KPFK was awarded a Peabody for excellence in programming in 1961.

As you might expect, Pacifica has often raised the concern of both local and federal authorities. Their track record of provoking these overseers is something they are likely proud of. As early as 1954, KPFA found themselves at odds with the police when they aired a panel discussion about marijuana in which all of the panelists were “obviously stoned” according to Walker. Police arrived and confiscated that tape. In 1960 the FCC requested the tape of a Ferlinghetti broadcast which they were concerned was in “bad taste.” At the same time the House Un-American Activities Committee was probing what it thought was Pacifica’s “subversive programming.” Also in the early 60’s, the FCC held up the renewal of the Pacifica stations’ licenses for three years while is investigated possible “communist affiliations.” WBAI ended up in court after it broadcast George Carlin’s “Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

But neither the FCC, nor legislators, nor the police have been the biggest threat to Pacifica. Rather it has proven to be its own worst enemy, its history being one of firings, strikes, staff revolts and listener demonstrations. There was a group called Take Back KPFA and another in New York, Friends of WBAI, which picketed the homes of board members in 70’s. KPFA went off the air for a time in 1974 as a result of a staff strike. Most of these disputes resulted from two issues, the foundation firing a station manager who didn’t toe the line, or labor disputes deriving from the fact that the volunteer staff, which made up the largest portion of Pacifica employees, were union members that the foundation wanted to decertify.

In the 90’s there were more disputes that resulted from efforts by the foundation to standardize national programming, thus reducing the programming role of individual stations and their staff. Web sites popped up like freekpfa.org, wbaifree.org, and savepacifica.org. In 1999, a Pacifica executive director brought in armed guards at KPFA after a popular station manager was fired. There has also been a racially charged atmosphere at the stations, particularly WBAI. For the decade after its founding in 1960, WBAI had a largely white, male staff. The reaction to that included one program in which calls were screened to keep men off the air. More recently, the station has been criticized, according to Land, for anti-Semitism and Afrocentrism.

Obviously keeping Pacifica’s listeners happy is no easy task. The talent and innovation these stations have brought to the airways is often overshadowed by chaos and turmoil. You really have to marvel at the fact that these stations have hung in this long and are still on the air.

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2 Responses to History of Radio: Listener-Sponsored Creativity and Chaos

  1. I agree, you really do have to marvel at the fact that these stations have hung as long as they have given the chaos that sometimes ensues.


  2. Donna Janke says:

    You do indeed have to marvel that these stations have hung around. I am not familiar with Pacifica – what an interesting history!

    Liked by 1 person

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