Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio. On April 15th, 1949 at 3:00 p.m., a charismatic conscientious objector named Lewis Hill sat before a microphone and said, “This is KPFA Berkeley.” With that, KPFA went on the air, and the first listener-supported radio station in the United States was born. Pacifica Radio is the oldest independent media network in the United States, and its sixtieth birthday comes as a deepening crisis engulfs mainstream media. To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio today, we feature a documentary about the first Pacifica Radio station: KPFA in Berkeley. It’s called KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio. On April 15th, 1949 at 3:00 p.m., a charismatic conscientious objector named Lewis Hill sat before a microphone and said, “This is KPFA Berkeley.” With that, KPFA went on the air, and the first listener-supported radio network in the United States was born.
Pacifica Radio is the oldest independent media network in the country, and its sixtieth birthday comes as a deepening crisis engulfs mainstream media. Journalists are being laid off by the hundreds, even thousands. Venerable newspapers, some more than a century old, are being shut down. Commercial media are losing audience and advertising, and people are exploring new models for media, including nonprofit journalism.
To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio today, we bring you a documentary about the first Pacifica Radio station: KPFA in Berkeley. It’s called KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. It’s narrated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. It begins with Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network.
MATTHEW LASAR: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the people who started KPFA wanted to save the world. They’ve been brought together by charismatic pacifist named Lewis Hill, who had spent most of World War II trying to figure out a way to end war. There was an enormous urgency in their minds to the creation of the Pacifica Foundation, because they believed that the world had gotten to the point where it could now kill people at a rate unheard of, and if there wasn’t some response to that, by demonstrating that pacifism was possible, that it was really possible for people to resolve differences peaceably, that if someone didn’t do that, the world would be destroyed.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: In this year, 1942, we shall produce 60,000 planes. Next year, 1943, we shall produce 125,000 airplanes, including 100,000 combat planes.
ALICE WALKER: While most Americans joined the war against fascism, a small group of individuals took a different path. They followed the pacifist creed: There is no way to peace; peace is the way. Their convictions set them apart politically. The government set them apart physically.
ROY FINCH: We were in a conscientious objector camp on the edge of the Sierra Mountains about 6,000 feet up. We were stuck away just for the reason that we were not to be seen. We were put in very isolated places. There were very few of us, you see, in that situation. The public was simply not aware of the existence of such a thing.
One day, among the newcomers I noticed somebody who really looked totally out of place. This guy looked as if he had just come from Abercrombie & Fitch or some place like that, you know, where they sell expensive camping clothes. And I thought, my goodness, what has happened here? How did this fellow ever get here? Well, it turned out to be Lew Hill.
ALICE WALKER: Lewis Hill defied expectations even as a child. His parents had sent him to a military boarding school, and he came out a pacifist. Now the government had sent him to a remote camp to silence him, and he began to think how he could bring pacifism to a mass audience.
ROY FINCH: I remember Lew saying something like this: Imagine that you have a friend, and you disagree with that person on some red hot issue, and instead of just hating each other, that you sit down and you listen to what they say, and then he listens. I mean, that was the spirit in which we thought, "Open it up to everybody. Let’s get this all on the table now," you know. And we were going to do this through the radio station.
ALICE WALKER: In 1943, Lew Hill received a medical release for spinal arthritis. He headed to Washington, D.C. to lobby on behalf of conscientious objectors. And with his radio idea in mind, he joined the world of network broadcasting.
RADIO BROADCASTER: And now let me tell you about McTavish’s skinless weenies. Mm-mmm. So long, so pink, so flavor rich....
ALICE WALKER: He was appalled. Commercial interests colored every program, even the news.
ESSO NEWSCAST: Here’s your Esso, E-S-S-O, Esso reporter bringing you last-minute headline news, hot off the wire...
LETTER TO ROY FINCH: Dear Roy, last night I resigned from the Blue Network, and I’m very glad to be out of that particular doldrum.
ALICE WALKER: In letter after letter to Roy Finch, Hill elaborated his plan for a radically different kind of radio, one that promoted ideas, not products.
ROY FINCH: He had this idea, subscribe. Let the people themselves subscribe to the station and support it that way. And we were constantly arguing about it, because I asked myself, “Would I send in money if I could get it free?” And I had to say maybe not. See, I didn’t realize that the thing was going to be so valuable that people would pay for it even if they could get it free. You see, that’s what I didn’t catch onto.
ALICE WALKER: Hill waited until the war’s end to move forward with his radio project. Newly married, he and his wife headed out to the one place where they thought it might succeed.
JOY HILL: San Francisco was a very alive place to be at that point. There were ideas just floating in the air to be pulled out, it felt like. It was really quite exciting.
ALICE WALKER: Small but fiercely cosmopolitan, the San Francisco Bay Area was a haven for utopian dreamers, blue-collar radicals, artists and anarchists. Here, the poet Kenneth Rexroth presided over a free-wheeling club of intellectuals calling themselves the Libertarian Circle.
MATTHEW LASAR: And Lewis Hill immediately knew that he had to go to these people, because most of them had been conscientious objectors, or almost all of them had been conscientious objectors during the war, and they were a very creative crowd. And he showed up unannounced one day at one of the Libertarian Circle meetings.
ELEANOR McKINNEY: It was at Richard Moore’s house in San Francisco, his apartment. I believe it was an anarchist discussion with Kenneth Rexroth. And the place was packed.
RICHARD MOORE: I remember questioning Lew with an edge of contempt in my voice. I mean, radio is a ridiculous thing. This isn’t political activity. Political activity is in the barricades. And as armchair anarchists, you know, that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but that’s what we said.
ALICE WALKER: But Richard Moore was won over by Lew’s vision that night, as was Eleanor McKinney, a young producer for NBC Radio. And with a few more recruits, they began the Pacifica Foundation in 1946,setting out, in Lew Hill’s words, "to create a pacific world in our time."
MATTHEW LASAR: Hill began typing out, one after another, these little fundraising prospectuses. If you look at the early KPFA fundraising literature, it doesn’t just talk about radio stations, it talks about starting magazines, schools. At one point they were even talking about a chain of restaurants. They saw themselves as part of a mass world movement for a peaceable world.
ALICE WALKER: After three years, they had raised less than half the money they’d hoped for. But on April 15th, 1949, undeterred, they gathered in their makeshift studio for the first day of broadcasting.
ELEANOR McKINNEY: We didn’t feel that it was real. I mean, you do all this work and raise the money and make a decision to start it on a shoestring. And that day, everything was last minute 'til on the air. And then Lew stepped up to the microphone. And it moved us all.
LEWIS HILL: In time past, many romantic feelings were associated with radio broadcasting. But KPFA itself is a real place, only a few steps up from the street, an instrument for real thought and serious intercourse, an integrating aspect of the community.
ALICE WALKER: Denied an AM license, they had to settle for FM, which very few radios received in 1949. And KPFA's signal barely reached the Berkeley city limits. It was not Lew Hill’s grand vision, but it was a start.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: Two of the world’s leading scientists have agreed to debate the issue of fallout and disarmament. Each will speak from personal convictions, based upon experience.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons. And the older one was alright, but the younger one was very quiet. He used to sit by the fire and keep his feet warm in the ashes.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: You know, the fact that Americans use the word “genius” as a noun, they imply that one is born a genius, in a way, just in the use of the word, whereas I’ve always had a conviction that genius, or lack of it, is purely a matter of laziness or a deliberate effort.
ALAN WATTS: The reason why trying intentionally to concentrate is so frustrating is that it is what the Zen people call putting legs on a snake. It is a confusing irrelevance, trying to do what one is already doing.
LANGSTON HUGHES: I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers, ancient dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
ELEANOR McKINNEY: To everyone, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. It really was bringing ideas and goals and longings into a practical reality.
AMY GOODMAN: Eleanor McKinney, from the documentary KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio. We’ll be back with more from the documentary in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the documentary KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. We continue with the narration of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker.
ALICE WALKER: From the beginning, KPFA faced a daunting task: to persuade listeners to support the station. The staff printed a program guide and began to solicit memberships on the air.
LEWIS HILL: The present dangerous shortage of funds here results mainly from the relative slowness of audience response.
JOY HILL: Obviously, we were up against absolute disbelief to begin with: “Why should I pay for something that I can just turn the dial on and get?” And you have to keep saying, “Because if nobody pays for it, it won’t be there.”
BOB SCHUTZ: Nobody had FM, to speak of. We were broadcasting into the vacuum. And we had to actually hawk FM radios in order to sell subscriptions. So you buy a subscription, you get an FM radio.
LEWIS HILL: And there are only thirty-nine contributing subscribers on the roster as yet. That is our trouble, ladies and gentlemen, and we appeal to you to consider it your own. It’s $6,500 or bust.
ELEANOR McKINNEY: We decided we’d have to go off the air and get a bigger signal. And we announced this on the air. And immediately the phones started ringing.
JOY HILL: Here were these people, these wonderful people, who we didn’t even know were there, half of them, who said, “I can’t let this thing go down the tubes.” And they got together, and they dumped what money they had with them. And then they put in pledges and promised to pay every quarter. I think it was $5,000 they raised.
ALICE WALKER: Lew Hill’s idea had worked. Thanks to galvanized listeners and a three-year foundation grant, KPFA returned to the air by the summer of 1951. From its new studio above a Berkeley coffee shop, it sent out a signal that reached the entire Bay Area.
MATTHEW LASAR: Hill wanted KPFA to be indispensable to people as an accompaniment to their daily lives. It would be like your newspaper. It would be like your home and your friends. They would hear people of very different points of view talking to each other, and they would be transformed. It was a humanist pacifist vision.
DYLAN THOMAS: Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
ALLEN GINSBERG: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters, burning for the ancient shuttering connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The poet must be the real barbarian, descending on society, moving continually downward, not upward, in it, and saying what he hears.
LEWIS HILL: Because the privilege of hearing is a precedent condition to making up one’s mind.
LEWIS HILL: Wisely, very well. While in a democracy it is indispensable that the citizen make up his mind in order that he may act.
UNIDENTIFIED: And if we can’t hear all sides freely, then I do not see how we, the people of this country, are going to be able to participate in the forming of policies.
BOB SCHUTZ: We were quite sure different opinions were represented. And I got a lot of flak on that from some people that were highly partisan on one side or another of the subjects that we attacked, and we attacked almost every subject that was around.
EDWARD TELLER: We live in the same world with the Russians, whose leader has said that he wants to bury us. And they mean it.
LINUS PAULING: The United States has enough of these terrible weapons, and Russia has enough, to destroy the world. We must not have a nuclear war.
RICHARD MOORE: What we didn’t know at that time was that those glorious moments and the exhilaration was not going to change the world. We were naive still.
SEN. JOE McCARTHY: Are you a member of the Communist Party, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
RICHARD MOORE: It’s as if a lid were clamped down, and institutions were challenged and forced to defend themselves.
INTERVIEWER: Did people think you were communists?
JOY HILL: Yes, I think there were a lot of people who thought we were, because we were so unconventional. Yes. And we had communists on, on the air, defending that position.
MATTHEW LASAR: There’s a lot of irony in this. The founders of KPFA didn’t like communists very much. They looked at the Soviet Union, and they didn’t like it. But they felt very strongly that communists should have the right to speak on KPFA and that communists had to be part of the dialogue. Otherwise, there would be no meaningful dialogue.
JOY HILL: The hardest thing was finding good, strong conservative voices, because the so-called radicals and the liberals were always defending themselves, so they were very eloquent. The conservatives just took their position for granted, so they didn’t have to think things through, and they would get pinned to the mat and get very angry.
LEWIS HILL: We want to exercise the right of free speech in an effort to get to the roots of the question of free speech in the United States.
MATTHEW LASAR: Because KPFA was the only show in town, it was besieged by people who wanted it to be what they wanted it to be and not necessarily Lewis Hill’s original vision. Hill found himself constantly contending with competitors, people who wanted to take the radio station away from him.
ROY FINCH: I would hear from Lew, “Oh, there’s another group trying to take over. He has been ousted; somebody else is in.” And there’s this see-sawing going on. So I think that this took a terrific toll on Lew. It really was more than he could take after a while.
ALAN WATTS: The most human people are capable of exquisite pain. But not for long. I’m sure you all know by now that Lewis Hill, the man who founded and ran this station, recently took his own life, not, he said, for anger or for despair, but for peace.
ALICE WALKER: Exhausted by financial and ideological struggles at KPFA and wracked with pain from spinal arthritis, Lew Hill was thirty-eight years old when he died. Eight months later, KPFA became the first FM station to receive the prestigious Peabody Award for its "courageous venture into the lightly trafficked field of thoughtful broadcasting." KPFA’s iconoclastic sound was drawing national attention. In 1960, Pacifica became a network with the addition of KPFK in Los Angeles and WBAI in New York City.
MATTHEW LASAR: A new generation of people started showing up at the station, people who had not grown up in the pacifist student clubs of the 1930s and 1940s, but who had had their formative experiences either as witnesses to European totalitarianism or as victims of McCarthyism.
SEN. JOE McCARTHY: Are you a member of the Communist Party?
WILLIAM MANDEL: I’m going to answer your question, sir, under my privilege in the Constitution, but I’m going to answer it in my own way: This is a book burning. You lack only the tinder to set fire to the books as Hitler did twenty years ago. And I am going to get that across to the American people.
SEN. JOE McCARTHY: You will answer the questions.
WILLIAM MANDEL: I had been a member of the Communist Party until before I came to California. One reason I came here was because, as in any sectarian organization, if you have — or as in a divorce, if you have a divorce, you can’t talk to your best friends.
ALICE WALKER: Ostracized by former friends and blacklisted by McCarthy, Bill Mandel headed west in 1957 to start anew. When he arrived in the Bay Area, he approached KPFA president Harold Winkler and offered to host a program on Soviet science.
WILLIAM MANDEL: Winkler amazed me by saying, “Well, we have these weekly surveys of the press of various countries. Do you have access to Russian papers?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Why don’t you do a program on the Soviet press?” I said, “Fine.” So we called it “Soviet Press and Periodicals,” and off we went.
[William Mandel’s Program] But let’s use it to read part of a letter to the editors in a magazine, Soviet Trade Unions, and it deals with a situation in a large fine electrical instruments plant in Kiev. Quote: “The firing of a worker at this plant has become an extreme rarity, even in cases in which the law permits it.”
Good evening. This is Cap Weinberger with the regular Republican commentary. A change and reorganization of the whole tax system...
MATTHEW LASAR: Most people I talk to have no idea and react with shock when I tell them that National Review and Caspar Weinberger had shows on KPFA. KPFA had a regular show moderated by members of the John Birch Society. The government didn’t care at all about that. What they cared about was the fact that Herbert Aptheker and Bill Mandel had shows on KPFA.
ALICE WALKER: In 1960, the House Committee on Un-American Activities arrived in San Francisco to investigate suspected subversives in the region, including Bill Mandel. KPFA was ready to cover the hearings with the latest technology: portable tape recorders.
CHRIS KOCH: The second day on the job, I walked in in the morning. They handed me a tape recorder and said, “Listen. Here is what you do. You push this button and this button. That’s record. Hold the microphone about here. Go over to San Francisco. We’ve got to cover this.”
REPORTER: There is a great deal of commotion outside these chambers, as you can hear. I have no idea what’s going on.
CHRIS KOCH: The major core of the students are sitting on the upper stairwell. The police are on both sides of them. The police are taking them by the arms and are hauling them bodily down the long stairway to the main floor.
STUDENTS: [singing] We shall not, we shall not be moved...
CHRIS KOCH: The police have grabbed a Negro and are dragging him down the stairs.
WILLIAM MANDEL: Honorable beaters of children and sadists, uniformed and in plain clothes, distinguished Dixiecrat wearing the clothing of a gentleman, eminent Republican who opposes an accommodation with the one country with which we must live at peace, if you think I’ll cooperate with you in any way, you are insane.
CHRIS KOCH: The broadcast of the HUAC hearings mobilized the Bay Area community against HUAC. There was a strong sense that this was the beginning of something that would spread across the country.
MATTHEW LASAR: Yes, Pacifica was a player in breaking the back of McCarthyism. The leaders of KPFA began saying, “KPFA brings the listening public the other point of view, the point of view you don’t normally hear elsewhere.” People think that alternative media is this sort of abstract concept that was just invented out of somebody’s hat. It wasn’t. It was invented out of the political necessity that was created by the Cold War.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response.
WILLIAM MANDEL: The thing began on a Monday. My show was on a Monday. I called Trevor Thomas, who was then the station manager and also at that moment the head of Pacifica. I did something I had never done before and the station had never asked me to do. I said, “Trevor, I’m going to accuse the President of the United States of endangering the existence of humanity in my show this evening with his blockade of Cuba. Do you want me to read you the script?” He said, "No." And to me, that was the finest single demonstration of adherence to principle in all the years of KPFA.
[Archival radio broadcast] Hours before the President’s broadcast, I sent him a wire reading only as follows: "Tamper with Russian ships, and you will have a war." That was my wire. Next week, I will continue coverage of the Soviet press on this crisis, if there is a next week.
DALE MINOR: People were saying things that people were afraid to say, offering opinions that people were afraid to offer elsewhere. We didn’t take surveys, audience surveys. We didn’t ask people what they wanted to hear. We programmed what we thought they should hear.
DICK GREGORY: If you want to solve the problems in the black ghettos, don’t bring no money down there. You’re going to have to do something first that won’t cost you one nickel as far as black folks are concerned. And that is, for the first time in the history of America, you’re going to have to create an atmosphere where black folks will trust white folks.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: The movement, that generic term now used for all the Negro civil rights activities, has probably found no more fertile ground for its activities than the Mississippi Delta.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: At about 12:00 midnight, we received word that the home of Reverend A.D. King, brother of Martin Luther King, had been bombed. It was a ten-minute drive from the Gaston Motel in [inaudible].
KPFA PROGRAMMING: And I understand, we want our freedom. We’re going to get it one way or another. They done messed up right here. From here, we’re going to mess up, too. We want freedom! I mean full freedom! I want to know why did they blow up the house. Why didn’t they blow also? We want freedom!
CHRIS KOCH: Most of our political reporting looked at issues that the rest of the media wasn’t dealing with: race, poverty, peace issues, nuclear disarmament. The fact that there was no PBS, the fact that there was no NPR, meant that if you wanted to turn to anything different than network news, your only place to go was Pacifica, was KPFA.
VOICES FROM “THE HOMOSEXUAL IN SOCIETY” RADIO SHOW: There have been ten licenses revoked in this very Bay Area of bars and restaurants, simply on the grounds that a large number of homosexuals allegedly congregate in those places.
ELSA KNIGHT THOMPSON: Have they any idea how they’re going to remove the civil rights of one element in the population without removing everyone else’s civil rights? What is to stop the police...
ALICE WALKER: The person responsible for the station’s bold public affairs programming throughout the 1960s was Elsa Knight Thompson. Trained by the BBC in wartime London, she arrived at KPFA ready to take charge.
ELSA KNIGHT THOMPSON: You see, most liberals think that if you can find the middle of anything and squat there, that somehow or another virtue has been achieved.
DALE MINOR: She had a tongue sharp enough to double as a buzz saw. Her command of the disembowling epithet was just a phenomenon that we all admired, except when we were the targets of it.
ELSA KNIGHT THOMPSON: I think if there is any possibility of saving democracy, that it rests with media, because the politicians are never going to tell you the truth. And the only way that people can cope is if there is some source of information that they learn to know that they can trust.
KPFA PROGRAMMING: This program deals with the report of former special agent Jack Levine to the Justice Department on some alleged shortcomings in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and with his subsequent attempts to get his information before the American public.
CHRIS KOCH: The notion of criticizing the FBI was completely beyond the pale. Nobody had ever done that before. And nobody would take Jack’s story. We interviewed Jack for two or three hours. As we approached broadcast, unbelievable pressure came down upon us. All the staff was called. People were followed at home. FBI agents appeared at people’s doorways. There was huge pressure not to go ahead with this broadcast. But we persisted.
JACK LEVINE: Most of the investigations being conducted by the bureau were into the so-called liberal or left-wing groups.
CHRIS KOCH: You mentioned NAACP . You mentioned CORE.
JACK LEVINE: Yes.
CHRIS KOCH: Would you mention any others?
JACK LEVINE: Yeah, the American Civil Liberties Union.
CHRIS KOCH: Very quickly after that, the Senate Internal Security subcommittee issued subpoenas to investigate possible communist infiltration of Pacifica.
ALICE WALKER: Pacifica’s commitment to dissent triggered further government retaliation. The Federal Communications Commission threatened to withhold license renewals for all three stations. Factions within Pacifica fought over how to respond to the government’s demands and assure the network’s future.
MATTHEW LASAR: The FCC ultimately forced them to sign oaths declaring their fealty to the United Stated Constitution, and they were pressured into kicking somebody off the national board who had once been a member of the Communist Party. It was very ugly, but that’s what they had to do to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, from the documentary KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio. We’ll be back with more from the documentary in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Today is the sixtieth anniversary of Pacifica Radio, as we return to the documentary KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. It’s narrated by Alice Walker.
In 1964, students at the University of California, Berkeley, staged a protest calling on the university administration to lift a ban on on-campus political activities that launched what came to be known as the Free Speech Movement. This is Mario Savio, the leader of the student sit-ins.
MARIO SAVIO: My name is Mario Savio. I’m chairman of University Friends of SNCC. I’ve been one of the people who have been meeting with the deans here to see if we can have freedom of speech at the University of California.
If you don’t stand up for your freedom now, you’re dead, guys.
ALICE WALKER: KPFA had barely survived an attack on its own freedom of speech. It would now commit itself to bringing the students’ cause to the larger community.
FSM STUDENT: If the administration does not accept full political rights on this campus, we will be back for direct action until we have total democracy.
KPFA REPORTER: On December 1st, the Free Speech Movement announced that a round-the-clock sit-in would be held in Sproul Hall.
FSM STUDENT: We want all your support. This is everyone’s issue! Get out! It’s free speech! Fight them! Don’t let them do this!
KPFA REPORTER: At 7:00 p.m., the doors were closed, and police announced that anyone who remained in the building did so in violation of the law.
POLICE OFFICER: You have five minutes to leave the building, or you will be arrested.
KPFA REPORTER: I don’t know what’s happening to these kids, but it looks horrible. They’re tugging them by their feet and throwing them down the stairs. One kid is now being pulled feet first down the stairs. Some other cops are grabbing him. We’re reporters with the press. Alright, OK, OK, alright. OK, we’re moving. Fine, OK, alright, alright.
ALICE WALKER: By the time 800 students were arrested in December1964, KPFA had become the voice of the student movement.
KPFA REPORTER: The police have ordered us to get out of the way until they’ve gotten this cleaned up.
ALICE WALKER: And when student activists began to confront the war in Vietnam, KPFA’s coverage fueled the movement’s growing strength.
ANTIWAR PROTESTER: Say no. Say no. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go.
DALE MINOR: For some forty-five minutes now, the battle has been raging on the streets of Da Nang. We are now situated halfway between the two forces and are in a hollowed-out building here.
I didn’t want to go to Vietnam to end the war. I wanted to go there, because I wanted to go there and do that story. I had, not too long before, been one of them. I was in Korea.
A number of young Vietnamese hiding in here also, and the shots are firing furiously up and down the street. Somebody up there has been hit. Goddamn! It was as close as I want it.
Pacifica was one of the earliest voices opposing the Vietnam War, asking critical questions of the Vietnam War, asking critical questions of American involvement there. Pacifica was invaluable in getting some of these things into the atmosphere.
ALAN SNITOW: You hook together political activists and cultural activists and an avant-garde and a bunch of really crazy people. and it was out of that mess that this synergy happened that created exciting things.
Suddenly, something went wrong. All the details aren’t in yet, but it appears that a pump in the Three Mile Island reactor’s cooling system broke down.
That particular moment when the reactor started to melt down, we went on the air, took everything else off the air on KPFA, and just went on continuous broadcast alert.
NUCLEAR SPOKESPERSON: We have absolutely no question about the safety of nuclear plants as a result of this mishap. We do not refer to it as a nuclear accident, because it was not that.
AILEEN ALFANDARY: How can you say it’s not an accident, when radiation is being detected as far away as sixteen miles?
ALAN SNITOW: Aileen Alfandary, who had been working on these issues for a long time, called all of the nuclear engineers, all the people who had done exposés of this industry and so forth.
NUCLEAR ENGINEER: It sounds like a very serious accident. Certainly they have a leak in the primary system.
ALAN SNITOW: And what we were saying was 100 percent opposite what the nuclear industry was saying and what was being reported on the media. And it really was a moment that showed the power of what this medium could be.
OLIVER NORTH: This nation cannot abide the communization of Central America.
LARRY BENSKY: Good morning, and welcome to Pacifica Radio’s live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings from Washington, D.C. I’m Larry Bensky, in the Senate Caucus Room. Strangely enough, a hush has fallen over this room as Lieutenant Colonel North has entered.
I’ll never forget, after Iran-Contra in 1987 I was at some media event, and a reporter came up from the all-news station, and he came up to me and said, “You’re Larry Bensky.” He said, “I want to tell you, I listened to so much of that Iran-Contra. That’s the best live broadcasting I ever heard.” I don’t take it so much as personal praise, but how wonderful it is, despite all the poverty we have and all the internal aggravation at Pacifica, that we have this freedom to cover stories and expose the illegitimate uses of power.
ALICE WALKER: In 1991, KPFA and the Pacifica Foundation constructed a state-of-the-art broadcast facility. By this time, government grants provided a share of Pacifica’s budget, but it was KPFA’s listening community who donated $2 million to build the new studio. A monument to the station’s role in Bay Area cultural and political life, the building also signaled Pacifica’s ambitions for the future.
CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Tonight KPFA celebrates the opening of a new home in a beautiful building with a major new composition by one of the most honored and revered composers in the United States, Lou Harrison, called "Homage to Pacifica."
PAT SCOTT: I’m really very grateful to Lew Hill for establishing Pacifica and for really inventing listener-supported radio. But I think that Pacifica has changed from Lew Hill’s time, that we have a different population that we’re broadcasting to, a much larger population.
PROTESTER: We listen to KPFA. Why don’t you listen to us? We listen to KPFA. Why don’t you listen to us?
ALICE WALKER: In the summer of 1995, and after thirty-two years on the air, Bill Mandel’s show was cancelled, along with a number of other longtime programs.
KPFA LISTENER: Since KPFA is listener-supported, I’d like to know why the listeners weren’t consulted before these drastic program changes were implemented.
MARCI LOCKWOOD: We had an incredible amount of listener input. We may not have gone to each and every one of you in this room and said, “What do you want?”
KPFA LISTENER: Why didn’t you announce it on the radio?
KPFA LISTENER: I still don’t understand how you know who’s listening. What is the big click? You said, “We know there’s a big click, and that means that people are no longer listening to something.” I don’t understand it.
KPFA LISTENER: We don’t want a commercial station!
MARCI LOCKWOOD: We don’t want a commercial station either.
KPFA LISTENER: I want a station like the KPFA of 1975.
PAT SCOTT: Everybody wants a piece of it. And because there is nothing else, that people don’t have access to anything else, they want to make sure that they keep this. This is theirs. This is their special treasure. And sometimes what they see as individuals, in terms of how the station can be used, is not necessarily what’s best for a larger group of people.
KPFA LISTENER: You belong to us. You are responsible to us. You need to work with us. You cannot violate something that is in your hands to preserve. I leave it at that.
ALICE WALKER: In 1999,KPFA’s fiftieth year on the air, new officers heading the Pacifica Foundation began to make decisions that staff and listeners considered arbitrary. At a media network founded on dialogue, communications broke down.
AILEEN ALFANDARY: In a move that sent shockwaves throughout KPFA, the executive director of Pacifica today fired general manager Nicole Sawaya. Sawaya said she was shocked and dismayed.
MARK MERICLE: Last Friday, veteran Pacifica broadcaster and Polk Award winner Larry Bensky was fired by executive director Chadwick for discussing Sawaya’s dismissal on the air in violation of Pacifica’s so-called gag rule.
PROTESTER: Who owns this station?
PROTESTERS: We do!
TV REPORTER: There are more than a thousand people demonstrating against the Pacifica Foundation, which owns public radio station KPFA. And they’re incensed over the way Pacifica yanked a staffer off the air yesterday and then took live broadcasts off the air altogether.
TV REPORTER: Protesters outside KPFA have been claiming for the past two weeks that Pacifica was considering selling the station. The Foundation steadfastly denied it. Today, another voice was heard.
PETE BRAMSON: I take no pleasure in being here today, but I cannot remain silent while Pacifica’s national board holds serious discussions in secret about selling KPFA.
PROTESTER: Whose station?
PROTESTERS: Our station!
PROTESTER: Whose station?
PROTESTERS: Our station!
ALICE WALKER: KPFA’s broadcast license, which cost a little over $1,000 when first granted, was now estimated to be worth $75 million. When news spread of the station’s possible sale, more than 10,000 listeners took to the streets in support of KPFA.
ALICE WALKER: This is something that is precious. This is something that is ours. This is something that we paid for. This is something that we believe in. And this is something that we intend to keep.
ALICE WALKER: On August 1st, KPFA resumed broadcasting. Three months later, with tensions still unabated, the Pacifica national board promised not to sell any of its five stations. KPFA had started with thirty-nine listeners who believed in its possibilities. Now the station had become what its founders once dreamed of: a powerful and vocal community of the air.
AMY GOODMAN: KPFA on the Air by filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood. You can reach them at veros(at)aol.com.