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Pacifica's 50th Anniversary

StoryApril 15, 1999
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Fifty years ago today, KPFA in Berkeley, the first of five Pacifica stations, was created by a group of young men and women who hoped to change the world with a credo of non-violence.

Matthew Lasar, author of the book Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, writes this about the birth of Pacifica Radio:
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On a spring afternoon 50 years ago, a small team of pacifists marched to the top floor of an office building on University Avenue in Berkeley. There they made history. In a few weeks, these women and men had built a tiny broadcasting studio. Then, at 3 pm, someone gave a signal. A charismatic, chain smoking ex-conscientious objector named Lewis Hill sat before a microphone. "This is KPFA Berkeley," Hill said to anyone who could pick up the signal from a 550-watt government surplus transmitter. On April 15, 1949, the first listener-supported radio station in the United States was born.

Almost immediately, KPFA became a magnet for trouble. First came protests about children’s storyteller Josephine Gardener, whose violent and macabre Irish folktales proved a little too authentic for university town parents. Then in 1954 came the studio remarks of four marijuana smokers, whose endorsement of the drug earned KPFA its first police raid.

And so it went: the first broadcast of Allen Ginsberg’s poem "Howl" in 1957; the first gay rights documentary in 1958; what is thought to be the last broadcast interview with poet Langston Hughes, interviews with John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Arlo Guthrie and so many, many more. Pacifica became a forum for radical dialogue and a staging area for war resistance.

Fifty years later, with five Pacifica stations and many more affiliates, we bring you a documentary produced anonymously in the 1970’s to celebrate Pacifica’s 30th anniversary. It really gives a very good sense for how the stations got started–from Pacifica founder Lou Hill’s message to KPFA listeners in the 1950’s to the Patty Hearst/SLA communiqué sent to KPFK in Los Angeles; from the Klan’s bombing of KPFT in Texas to the story of George Carlin on WBAI in New York saying the seven dirty words that led to a Supreme Court case on freedom of speech.

Tape:

  • Documentary on Pacifica, made in 1979 for Pacifica’s 30th Anniversary.

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