Ten years ago this Friday, one of the most remarkable events in the annals of United States broadcasting took place. Looking back on it now, I can hardly believe that it happened, even though I was there and saw it myself. On a very sunny Saturday July 31, 1999, about ten thousand people gathered in a park to demand the reopening of listener-supported radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. Ten thousand was the police estimate. It looked like more to me at the time.
Why would anyone want to silence that nice little station, you ask? You know, the non-commercial one that was started by pacifists after World War II, and plays folk music, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, and operates almost entirely on subscriber donations? Surely this must have been the nefarious work of the FBI, you say, or the CIA, or some local rogue police operation working in cahoots with state government reactionaries.
Nope, the clampdown came from the station’s owner, the Pacifica Foundation, via its Executive Director, Lynn Chadwick, with support from its National Board and its Chair, the celebrated historian Mary Frances Berry, she also then head of the United States Civil Rights Commission. In fact, I think this little failed putsch came from the American Left.
But let’s put the complexities aside for a minute. Here’s how I described the demonstration in my book, Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War.
By the time I got there at about 11 a.m., it was already obvious that the event would be enormous. The plaza had become a forest of placards – “FREE FREE-SPEECH RADIO” and “Free Speech SAVE KPFA.” Dozens of organizations that depended on the station for outreach – Physicians for Social Responsibility, Global Exchange, Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, Earth First! – came with their own banners. “We’ve got no SAY without KPFA,” read one. Dozens of activists came to the Sproul steps to speak. “I will protect KPFA until the day I’m done,” declared Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers Union.
Then Larry Bensky [the station's senior political reporter] introduced attorney Dan Siegel. Thirty years earlier Siegel, as president of UC Berkeley’s student body, had spoken at a noon rally urging students to take back People’s Park, a piece of land cordoned off by the university administration. Berkeley officials rewarded him with an inciting-to-riot charge, which he beat in court. Now Siegel represented a group Pacifica station local advisory board members who on June 16 filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court, charging that Pacifica had created “a self-perpetuating [National] Board without any accountability to the members and subscribers of the Foundation.” Unless restrained, the complaint continued, “the Board now threatens to utilize its newly created powers to abandon the mission and historic role of the Pacifica radio network and threatens to sell one or more of the Foundation’s five radio stations.”
“Look around,” Siegel told the crowd. “There’s something wrong with this demonstration this morning. And it’s not a lack of diversity. It’s not a lack of commitment. What’s wrong with this demonstration is that it’s not being carried live on KPFA.” The audience roared its approval.
“So here’s my thought for the day,” Siegel concluded. “Let’s go down and take our radio station back!”
And with that the throng, led by a dance/percussion ensemble and veterans of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, marched down Telegraph Avenue. Marching bands played “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” One delegation brought a float depicting a cheerful Lynn Chadwick wielding an axe over handcuffed KPFA listeners. Others manipulated giant puppets – gagged, of course – who hovered above the walkers. A demonstrator in pink tights rode on a unicycle around banners urging justice for Leonard Peletier and Mumia Abu Jamal. Behind them union locals – especially the service unions – carried banners and American flags.
After five blocks, they turned right on a side street corner to the accompaniment of drums, crying, “Shout it out loud . . . free speech now!” and marched down to KPFA. The police were gone. Pacifica had boarded up the station’s front door and windows. Although some suggested occupying the building, it would have been a pointless act of defiance, since Pacifica controlled the transmitter on Grizzly Peak. Demonstrators raised their fists and uttered warwhoops as they passed the structure. Others just gazed sadly at their building and wondered how things had gotten this far. A band played “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” as the protesters slowly made their way toward the park. Staff now led the charge with a huge banner: “FREE SPEECH 1964-1999 . . .? SAVE KPFA!”—1964 a reference to the Free Speech Movement of that year.
At Martin Luther King, Jr., Park, [Berkeley Mayor] Shirley Dean greeted the demonstrators. “Thank you for being strong,” she declared. “Thank you for being there. Save KPFA!” She was followed by a procession of Bay Area politicians whose offices had been overwhelmed over the previous three weeks by email, voice mail, snail mail, and faxes – among them, San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano and San Francisco’s Mayor Willie Brown. Brown called for the resignation of the Pacifica board as some protesters, irate at his housing and homeless policies, stupidly booed him. It was, in fact, a testimony to the strength of this movement that so many political figures ambivalent about the station’s politics came to pay homage.
Equally remarkable declarations of solidarity came from afar, one from an alternative radio station banned in Serbia. Larry Bensky read its communiqué at the rally. “Radio B92 condemns in the strictest terms the repression and exertion of force against the staff of Radio KPFA,” its staff declared. “Long live freedom of speech! And down with media repression which knows no ideological or national boundaries, in either Berkeley or Belgrade.”
The park was packed; the streets beyond overflowed with people. Police estimated that ten thousand demonstrators had come to defend KPFA, the biggest East Bay crowd since the Vietnam antiwar protests, and surely the largest demonstration in American history on behalf of a radio station.
What impressed me then (and still now) about that fight was the extent to which it spilled out into the larger civil society. In the immediate moment a big chunk of the East Bay had no police protection for days because of the number of cops stationed around KPFA to keep its listeners and supporters out. As the crisis spread to varying degrees to all the Pacifica stations and some affiliates, the California state assembly held a hearing on the battle, as did the New York City Council, as did Congress. Dozens of newspapers covered the conflict: just to name a few, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and even overseas newspapers such as Le Monde and United Kingdom’s Guardian and The Economist. Scores of activist groups, non-profits, and alternative media outlets struggled to make sense of the fight and to offer some kind of constructive response to it, most notably The Nation magazine.
Why did Pacifica shut down KPFA? Easy explanations point to corporate intrigue or the machinations of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I think the crisis had its roots in a twenty year effort by progressives to turn Pacifica into a broadcasting network competitive with commercial and mainstream public media. That project, full of centralizations and schedule cleanups, produced some good results, most notably Democracy Now!, but pushed the organization beyond its limits. In the 1990s it threw too many people off the air who had no where else to go to reach a big signal terrestrial radio audience (Pacifica’s five stations have powerful transmitters; well over 100,000 watts in the case of KPFK in Los Angeles). These ejected programmers and their supporters, in turn, availed themselves of the Internet’s then new tools—most notably listserves and websites—to resist those changes. By the late 1990s Pacifica’s managers and directors had simply lost patience with the process and opted for repression.
In the end, Pacifica radio is a bad candidate for centralized makeovers. For better and for worse, its political economy is bottom up. The listener sponsored system, with its emphasis on voluntarism, puts too much power in the hands of volunteer workers and contributors to allow any small group of people to self consciously contour the network in any coherent way. This is good news if your heart palpitates at the sound of words like “grassroots” and “community.” But if your whistle whets at the prospect of a broadcasting organization that can compete with mainstream media to reach a big terrestrial/streaming audience, well, take a look at Pacifica’s resources and its present very complex democratic structure (a result of the settlement of that war). To put it gently, your efforts are best directed elsewhere.
What the Pacifica stations can most effectively offer today, I think, is what is missing from so much broadcast media at present: localism. As the rest of radio automates and newspapers continue to collapse, these signals stand out as unique resources for news/information about the local political process and as venues for local music and other cultural forms. Web 2.0 has yet to really prove whether it can do this. KPFA, KPFK, WBAI in New York City, WPFW in Washington, D.C., and KPFT in Houston already have.
But this blog post is not about working out Pacifica’s future. It’s about celebrating that moment ten years ago when thousands marched in Berkeley, declaring that radio of the people, by the people, and for the people should not vanish from the earth. I am sure that I am not the only person who remembers that amazing day.