Riding the Waves at Pacifica Radio


Andrew Leslie Phillips has written a short history of the Pacifica radio network, published below. He is interim general manager of Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley, California.

Phillips is a native of Australia. He spent seven years in Papua New Guinea as a government patrol officer, radio journalist and filmmaker before coming to New York in 1975. He produced award-winning investigative radio documentaries on a wide range of environmental and political issues for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and for Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. He taught journalism, radio and “sound image” as an adjunct professor at New York University for 10 years. 

Phillips tells me he is still on “administrative leave” at KPFA, pending the completion of some kind of investigation of him by his employer, the Pacifica Foundation. Thanks to Project Censored for permission to reprint this piece. -Matthew Lasar

The Pacifica foundation was founded in 1946 by poet and journalist Lewis Hill and a small group of pacifists, intellectuals and experienced radio people. They did not have the same political or economic philosophy but shared a vision which supported a peaceful world, social justice and creativity. At 3pm, April 15, 1949, Lew Hill sat behind the microphone and announced: “This is KPFA, listener sponsored radio in Berkeley, the first such radio station in the world”.

At the time, less than nine-percent of the Bay area radio audience owned the new FM receivers and Pacifica gave them a special KPFA radio with 94.1 on the FM dial, to get people tuned in. FM was a new, technology and Pacifica was backing the future, inventing an entirely new funding mechanism – the theory of listener sponsored radio.

It was daring, audacious and brilliant. And it caught on. Today there are Pacifica radio stations in five of the ten top radio markets[1]

The concept of listener sponsorship appealed to the politically savvy and zealously left-leaning progressive community in the Bay Area. They were happy to support a radical alternative to the commercial pabulum, incipient McCarthyism and the atomic bomb Cold War politics of the 1950’s. The social, political and cultural leadership eagerly sought the free access offered by KPFA as they do to this day. Today the audience is more diverse reflecting the milieu.

Equality of access to airtime has always been at the center of controversy at Pacifica and community radio everywhere. Most on-air people at Pacifica were not paid until the mid 1990’s. They volunteered and they made money to support the Foundation by pitching their programming on free-speech Pacifica radio. That was the deal. It was a tacit agreement – Pacifica provides opportunity and access whilst producers agreed to pitch and encourage on air pledges. By far the largest percentage of financial support for Pacifica still comes from listener donations.[2]

This model changed in the mid-nineties when the National Federation of Community Broadcasters under Lynn Chadwick and David Le Page, adopted the so-called Healthy Stations Project.  Lynn Chadwick later moved to Pacifica as Executive Director during the disastrous 1999 shutdown and police raid at KPFA.

The Healthy Station Project called for reducing the power of volunteers, professionalizing the on-air sound and adopting more paid on-air producers. It was a model more like National Pubic Radio than community radio. It was designed to increase listenership and revenue and increase the amount of money the CPB might potentially give stations. And it was a tacit control strategy designed to moderate Pacific’s radical message.

CPB has close connections with U.S. mechanisms of propaganda like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti. Personnel move through a revolving door between these agencies. After almost destroying Pacifica, Lynn Chadwick landed a job at CPB.

At the time the Healthy Station Projects was being foisted on community radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was headed by Bob Coonrod. Coonrod was deputy managing director of Voice of America. At the helm of National Public Radio was Kevin Klose, formerly director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Radio and Television Marti. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was Michael Powell, son of then secretary of state Colin Powell.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 requires that the CPB operate with a “strict adherence to objectivity and balance” in all programs of a controversial nature and the CPB regularly reviews national programming for objectivity and balance. When Pacifica agreed to take money from the CPB, it was engaging in self-censorship for dollars.  Of course concern for objectivity and balance is extremely subjective and when it came to the Gulf Wars such sentiments counted for nothing at NPR and mainstream media. Community radio was one of the few places one might hear and opposing point-of-view – one that turned out to be prescient.

Programming was “professionalized” and moderated; less abrasive, music more homogeneous and consistent. It was an idea derived from NPR programming consultants. The mission was to smooth the rough radical edges. The same consultants would go on to advise Pacifica when in November 1996, Pacifica; lead by former KPFA manager and then Executive Director, Pat Scott rolled out Vision for Pacifica Radio Creating a Network for the 21st Century – A Strategic 5 Year Plan.

The Strategic Plan was impractical and showed little understanding of the realpolitiks of the five stations. It led to more expenses and more need to raise money to feed the beast and make the pay roll. And the more money stations garnered from listener support, the more it received from the CPB. It created a two-tiered system of paid and unpaid staff. It encouraged a-them-and-us culture where volunteers subsidized paid staff since the unpaid work, pitch and pay their own expenses while paid staff receive a salary and health benefits. It was and continues to be unfair. The old hippie paradigm of diverse programming and volunteer-based management disappeared. Today paid-staff call the shots and the community is less a part of community radio than it used to be.

The Healthy Station Project didn’t go over well with community radio volunteers and in 1996 spawned the Grassroots Radio Coalition, a reaction against increasing commercialization of public radio and lack of support for volunteer-based stations. The Coalition is stronger than ever today and grass roots community radio presses on while Healthy Station Project stations like the Pacifica network are floundering.

Today the five Pacifica stations revolve in a loose orbit around the Pacifica mother ship. Sometimes the orbit gets wobbly. Pacifica owns the FCC license for all five stations and the non-profit 501(c)(3) status. The five stations are answerable to the Pacifica Foundation with ultimate authority held by a Board of Directors elected from local station boards.[3]

Perhaps more than ever, the current unwieldy and expensive governance structure that emerged in the new millennium following the removal Pacifica board chair Mary Francis Berry and Executive Director, Lynn Chadwick has created slates and factions within Pacifica. Pacifica Boards of Directors comprise truculent political diehards with little radio experience who have done little to improve programming, revenue or audience numbers.

Yet Pacifica has and continues to be an incubator for many important broadcasters and programs like Democracy Now, Counter Spin, Explorations with Michio Kaku and now The Project Censored Radio Show.

Probably the most valuable asset Pacifica has is its intellectual capital: past, present and future. It is the seed germ and should be protected. Today radio crosses over to the Internet to become a trans-media system with opportunities for international distribution, video streaming, interactivity and e-commerce. Creating and being part of trans media systems is the future.

I fear the more things chance the more they remain the same. The popular general manager of KPFA, whose controversial firing by Lynn Chadwick precipitated the crisis at KPFA in 1999, was subsequently twice selected as Executive Director of Pacifica in 2007 and 2008. In her September 24th, 2008 departure letter Nicole Sawaya, in the form of a letter to late Pacifica founder Lewis Hill, wrote:

“…Sadly, it (Pacifica) is no longer focused on service to the listeners but absorbed with itself and the inhabitants therein. I call it Planet Pacifica, a term I coined during my hiring process. There is an underlying culture of grievance coupled with entitlement and its governance structure is dysfunctional. The bylaws of the organization have opened it up to tremendous abuse, creating the opportunity for cronyism, factionalism and faux democracy, with the result of challenging all yet helping nothing. Pacifica has been made so flat, that it is concave — no leadership is possible without an enormous struggle through the inertia that committees and collectives.

“Pacifica calls itself a movement, yet currently it behaves like a jobs program, a cult, or a social service agency. And oftentimes the loudest and most obstreperous have the privilege of the microphone. There are endless meetings of committees and “task forces” — mostly on the phone — where people just like to hear themselves talk…”[4]

Can Pacifica change or is it too late? Has Lew Hill’s experiment been supplanted by the Internet and smart phones? At a time when the need for community radio and citizen journalism seems more important than ever, can Pacifica adapt and change? Unfortunately the prognosis is not good. Ironically, should Pacifica finally collapse, it will be in large part due to the Healthy Station Project, which ripped the heart out of community radio.

[1] KPFA circa 1949, Berkeley; KPFK circa 1959, Los Angeles; WBAI circa 1960, New York; KPFT circa 1970, Houston; WPFW circa 1977, Washington DC.  There are approximately 170 affiliates that take Pacifica programming which is distributed over an Internet portal.

[2] About 80 percent of support for Pacifica radio comes from listener support.

[3] There are almost two dozen members on the Pacifica National Board, representing local station boards.

[4] Current – A newspaper about public media in the United States, Sept. 25, 2008