Pricks Up Your Ears

by Alexander Cockburn

Witnessing the struggles at Pacifica and KPFA, in which on July 13 the network’s national directors called in goons to haul out staffers at the Berkeley station, claiming insubordination, my mind cast back to the early 1970s and to The Village Voice in New York City. The Voice was founded in the mid-1950s as a bohemian counterattack against the Eisenhower Zeitgeist, the cold war, conventional Main Street journalism. By the time I began to write for it, the Voice was already embroiled in a process of “modernization,” essentially a constant upward movement in its assessed commercial value. At the start of the seventies the Voice was bought from its founders for a couple of million dollars by Carter Burden, an ambitious City Councilman and Vanderbilt heir. Scarcely more than a decade later, Rupert Murdoch sold it for about $50 million to Leonard Stern, a New Jersey property speculator who had made his pile from flea collars. Along the way, as it moved into ever-sleeker premises, the Voice was purged of raffishness and quirks. Writers who had volunteered years of ill-paid work were dropped, even as the Voice marketed itself as the epitome of bohemian voice-ishness. Indeed, the whole memory of the Voice’s destruction came back to me when, having ousted the disobedient broadcasters and padlocked the doors, Pacifica began playing archival tapes of radicals like Eric Mann, David Grossman and even me denouncing vested power! Same game.

KPFA, founding flagship station of the Pacifica string of five FM stations, is even older than the Voice, having been established by Lewis Hill in 1949. Hill was a pacifist with noble ideals. He saw KPFA as a sanctuary from the iron heel of absentee corporate ownership. FM frequencies weren’t worth much in the 1950s, any more than were alternative newspapers like the Voice. KPFA was a rendezvous for cultural and political contrariness, a place where young Pauline Kael discussed movies and Bill Mandel gave his own radical insights into what was happening in the Soviet Union; where “Howl” was read, along with Che’s speeches.

The process of “modernization” began at KPFA in the early 1990s, and at first many of those who would themselves later be trampled-Larry Bensky, for example-were complicit. Yes, it was time to clean out cobwebs, winkle out relics of the olden time. The national directorate embarked on a makeover designed to match the network to its value, estimated at $300 million. A postmodern headquarters rose up on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. But even as the donors’ names were etched into the walls of the glamorous new structure, purges were being conducted with chill zeal. Take my friend Opal Nations, an English transplant and one of the world’s great authorities on gospel and blues. After fourteen years of unpaid, brilliant programming, Opal was fired on the phone, half an hour before he was due to go on air with his weekly show. He still doesn’t know exactly why he was dumped. Meanwhile, the directorate lied to thousands of distraught listeners, saying Opal would soon be back. He never was given another slot.

The Pacifica directorate, headed by Mary Frances Berry, is intent on streamlining Pacifica into a mini-mutant of NPR, with a niche sales pitch of parlor radicalism, bearing about as much resemblance to the real thing as does today’s dockside Monterey to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Opal gives a fine, unsentimental account of his firing in the latest issue of CounterPunch, the newsletter which I co-edit, and of how the jackboot asset managers moved in, contemptuously kicking aside those deemed out of step with the onward march of things. One of Berry’s more repellent attributes is the cynical way she plays to this panic fear of being passé, when she claims those in the Bay Area opposing Pacifica’s plans (who include many thousands of citizens, plus the ethnically and sexually diverse Berkeley City Council and members of the state legislature) are somehow all white males over 50. When I visited the tent city outside the KPFA/Pacifica building in Berkeley, I saw as many lip rings and braids as I did the sandals and fanny packs of decrepit Caucasians. Incidentally, when KPFK in Los Angeles had two choice drive-time slots available recently (one of them formerly held by a Latino), Pacifica hired two white guys, Joe Domanick and Jon Wiener.

Berry is not shy about playing to the PC gallery about the need to diversify. She’s a Clinton liberal whose idea of constructive negotiation is apparently to give Attorney General Janet Reno a nudge to get someone at the Justice Department to call the chief of the Berkeley police and make polite inquiries about why the protesters in front of the station weren’t being dealt with more firmly. At one rally Alice Walker said the attack on KPFA must be a Republican plot. Wrong. The enemies here are the mainstream liberals, who voted for Clinton and who will vote for Al Gore. Berry’s directorate wants no accountability to any local community, no give-and-take beyond the checks sent in by listeners, lured with hour after hour of effusive bilge about the participatory joys of Pacifica’s listener/subscriber base. Instead, it wants discreet obedience. Modernizers always do, as I learned at the Voice, and later at The Nation. Now, with all its costly, self-serving plans, the directorate has caused a cash crunch at Pacifica, which no doubt will ultimately be assuaged by sale of one of the frequencies. KPFA was shut down when a broadcaster began to discuss on the air the proposal of Pacifica’s treasurer-elect, Micheal Palmer, for just such a sale, of either KPFA or New York’s WBAI. The modernizers deride such democratic discussion as “airing dirty linen” or “boring the audience.”

On July 21 police arrested picketers at KPFA’s transmitter site. Despite talk of mediation, Pacifica has designs to install an ISDN line allowing it to broadcast the whole KPFK signal over KPFA. Such action during a lockout would thus turn everything produced in LA, including RadioNation, into scab programming. In truth there’s no middle ground between KPFA’s founding, still-valid vision and what the asset managers have in mind. In the courts and every available venue the KPFA resisters have to take back the license and bring it within the purview of the community that has sustained the station down the years. This is an important fight.

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