(Black Apollo Press)Matthew Lasar has chosen the task of being historian to the disheveled, cantankerous, anarchistic radio operation known as Pacifica Foundation. Pacifica was, and presumably still is, as of this writing, if nothing untoward has happened, owner of five non-commercial "community" radio stations in five large cities: New York, San Francisco-Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D. C.
Lasar's previous book, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network came out several years ago, and was a Dionysian feast for those of us who are enamored of the type of informed, vigorous radio represented by KPFA, WBAI, KPFK, et al. Now comes this even more sturdy volume weighing in at 425 pages.
Uneasy Listening is presented as a history, but I believe it is more in the mold of a detective story: Hammett, Holmes, MacDonald, et al. The mystery is this: how can those who profess to love great and alive broadcasting ... how can these socially-active sorts do everything in their power to cripple and destroy their fellow sufferers in the same media, at the same time possibly destroying the very radio stations that are the life's blood of the volunteers, staff, managers, and listeners? As one ne'er-do-well states in a quote placed at the beginning of Uneasy Listening,
There was a time when we wanted ... to explain the aesthetic of radio --- to describe what it is that makes people go so foolish and so broke in order to get involved in radio.
The operative word here is "foolish."
In the doltish world that is American broadcasting --- commercial, religious, non-commercial --- Pacifica has been outstanding, a true leader. But, despite its name, Pacifica is, to those who work or volunteer there, a hotbed of internecine politics and general backstabbing, usually aimed at the others working in the same space, with, presumably, the same goals.
When I volunteered at KPFA a half-century ago, I saw an institution that was striving to be the American version of Lord Reith's BBC Third Programme, with Alan Watts on Zen, Anthony Boucher on Opera, Alan Rich on music, Kenneth Rexroth on books, Casper Weinberger on politics, William Mandel on Russia, and virtually anyone else who was anybody on world affairs, politics, and art in interview, speech or commentary. It was a true Padua, an island of enlightened thought in an otherwise desolate spectrum.
That was back in the 1950s. Since then, Pacifica has grown and changed, become, in the fullest sense, radicalized, so much so that those of us who were there in its infancy can scarcely recognize the creature that has emerged.
Over the years, four more stations were added to the original in Berkeley. They came to reflect, more or less, the city they served. KPFA continued to retain that cultural, radical edge of the Bay Area. KPFK Los Angeles was less interesting, a bit more ding-ey, far less culturally committed than its big sister to the north. KPFT became a mirror of the ecologically smoggy, intellectually aborted, socially disenfranchised city of Houston.
WBAI was, at the beginning, a sometimes subtle, often a very witty reflection of underground New York City. The only one that didn't fit was WPFW, the Washington D. C. operation which, instead of being a house of intellectual political babble as it should have been, had gone on the air as a jazz station. A jazz station! Fiddling (as one astute critic wrote) while Rome burned.
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Lasar has chosen to write specifially of the lunacy --- perhaps better, the Lunatic High-Wire Act --- that came about in 1999 when the national board of Pacifica chose to assert their FCC-mandated power, tried to bring the five stations into what they thought was the 21st Century. But their 21st century was not exactly the one seen by the rest of us: rather, it was the vision cooked up by the pothering corporate types who run National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and American Public Radio. That vision was far indeed from the original vision of Lew Hill who saw his station as a balanced sounding-board for all those disenfranchised by commercial , "educational" and religious radio.
The Pacifica board --- financed by the income from their subcarrier channels --- began to try to exercise its power over the stations. Before that, the various stations had soldiered on anarchistically over the years, with brief flareups, usually centralized at one station. But on March 31, 1999, "the executive director of the Pacifica Foundation paid a visit to KPFA and
informed the manager that her services were no longer necessary, and that she should pack up her personal items and leave.
It was an attempt by the national board of Pacifica to impose their vision --- mostly a more orderly and commercial programming style --- over what had heretofore been a neo-revolutionary broadcasting matrix, airtime (and thus the station) mostly operated by a dictatorship of programmers.
It was a bold move by the organization from 3000 miles away, with their wizened view of broadcasting. The firing of the station "manager" --- managers at the Pacifica station should alway be referred to in quotes, since they have virtually no power over the programmers --- created a chaotic upheaval that might well have destroyed Pacifica.
Over the next months, people around the country (and even abroad) were treated to clips of pickets, angry announcements both on and off the air, a gag rule aimed at staff and volunteers, paid guards in the halls of KPFA, and general mayhem in the streets as the station became frozen in time, the staff and volunteers and management and the board and various lawyers and "public relations" people plunged into a three-year civil war which finally resolved itself into ... what? As of this moment, a stasis.
The upheaval was typical Pacifica, some of us said, those of us who have known the operation for so long. But Lasar convinces us that something far more significant was going on compared to the other Pacifica firestorms over the years. It was tied to the dumbing down of NPR, along with the consolidation in America of thousands of AM and FM stations into oligopolistic corporate control, with a concurrent preciousness of resource --- the owning of an FM license --- which led the Pacifica board to consider selling the San Francisco or New York operation for $100,000,000 or so for operating capital.
The center of the vortex was Dr. Mary Frances Berry of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights --- "from a family so poor that she spent some of her childhood in an orphanage." She was, as Lasar reports, "a media-savvy figure to lead the Pacifica network, someone with perfect progressive credentials." At her side was Lynn Chadwick, "a short, bustling person, brimming with energy" who had, in two decades, "climbed from community station volunteer" to executive director of Pacifica Foundation. Between the two of them they managed to desecrate the founding principals of Pacifica and in the process, managed to stoke a powerful reaction to their demands that the stations become more popular, more centered. How do you center a maelstrom?
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I well remember Lynn Chadwick. She may be, as Lasar asserts, "bustling," but she was also a pill. When she took over as president of the NFCB --- the National Federation of Community Broadcasters --- I received a letter from them asking for a contribution. When NFCB was born, I had doled out this and that to help them start new stations, even gave Tom and Terry Thomas (running it at the time) a car so they would have some transportation around the jungles of Washington D. C., their home base. I responded to this unexpected dunning letter from Chadwick by stating that I still loved NFCB, but since I had made several sizable contributions over the past years, they might relent, acknowledging my burgeoning senility by giving me some peace. I got in quick return a snippy letter signed by her, saying they had no record of any contributions from me, ever.
She obviously didn't know, nor did she care, that in the early seventies, when we conceived this independent radio station nonsense, we were happy-go-lucky hippies who sent people and whatever assets or letters-of-credit that were needed here and there in the country so that there would be whatever was needed to put a new station on the air in Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Austin, or Pittsburgh, or Santa Cruz, or Miami. In the process, we expected nothing in return, certainly nothing as formal as a receipt. Receipt? What's that? We were all friends, remember?
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According to Lasar, Chadwick managed to carry her bustling unpleasantness on with her into the very heart of Pacifica, giving start to the war that erupted in 1999. These battles! One of the most disturbing parts of Uneasy Listening has to do with some specifics. Out of the five stations' independent histories examined so expertly by Lasar, the tale of WBAI, New York, in the dread years of the two Ladies of Darkness, is perhaps the most doleful. It tells of an eruption between Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now" and the station manager, Utrice Leid ... or rather, one of her programmers. You may --- as I did --- blanch at the bitter, soul-shredding, back-and-forth, that took place on the air, showing Pacifica (and its programmers) at their most divisive and cruel.
Amy Goodman came on to prepare her show. Before her there was a program with Clayton Riley, a black who ran an on-the-air call-in show. Someone called and, apropos of nothing, "Nigger in the woodpile!" he shouted, then hung up.
"Another part of your army I guess, Amy?" Riley quickly said.
"Clayton, I thought you'd apologize for saying that," Goodman responded.
"Well, why don't you apologize for these people calling in support of you saying things like that?" Riley demanded. "Have you ever apologized?"
"I condemn when anyone uses a term like that," she replied.
"No you don't. You didn't condemn it just now."
"Yes I do."
"Now you are! . . . you didn't say a word, Amy, you didn't open your mouth."
"That, of course, would have been difficult for Goodman to do [Lasar interjects]. Aside from the fact that the caller had not disclosed in whose support, if anyone's, he had made his racist crack, Riley attached it to Goodman before she had a chance to speak. After a few more calls, Robert Knight came into the studio to report the news."
"Good morning, Robert," Goodman said with relief in her voice.
"Good morning," Knight responded. "People who say nigger are not Amy's people," he gallantly declared.
"How do you know that, Robert?" Riley asked. "How can you be so sure?"
Sensing that the situation had reached the brink of disaster, the studio board operator switched to jazz.
Since his previous book, Lasar has developed a narrative style which, if you are interested in the American broadcasting sub-culture called Pacifica, will knock your socks off. I had just gone through an operation when I picked this one up. My doctor had warned me to mind my p's and q's, lay off the booze, get tucked in at nine, not permit myself to get overexcited during recovery. I ignored his directive by reading Uneasy Listening, and, if it weren't for the heavy sedation he gave me, I might have come to need another carotid artery repair as I read on about the tangles of that beloved, battered, bedeviled, benighted beast we love to hate known as Pacifica Radio.
In the midst of all this name-calling and backbiting (undoubtedly still going on in the various provinces of Pacifica) Lasar is a voice of reason and care.--- L. W. Milam