The Common Good
September-October 2003

Opposition Radio

by Ted Parks | September-October 2003

The alternative voice of Pacifica's KPFK.

Clear Channel, Viacom, AOL Time Warner, Disney—the march of corporate titans toward further media consolidation is scarily steady. And, with the Federal Communications Commission's recent decision to loosen its rules regarding how many media outlets companies can own, Big Media is getting bigger. Colossal.

What are the alternative voices? Where are the electronic John the Baptists crying out in the media wilderness?

Pacifica Radio's KPFK, based in Los Angeles, is one small but strong voice. KPFK is the most powerful outlet among the five stations of the Pacifica Radio Foundation, founded in 1949 by pacifist Lewis Hill. The other stations in the Pacifica family include Berkeley's KPFA, the first in the chain, followed by KPFK, then WBAI, New York; KPFT, Houston; and WPFW, Washington, D.C.

As KPFK broadcasts through the crowded airwaves of Southern California—Hollywood is just down the road—it penetrates what is arguably the communication nerve center of the world. So what does KPFK offer listeners who already have so many options? A stark difference from what most corporate media news and entertainment outlets provide, according to KPFK programming director Armando Gudiño. "A venue like ours provides alternative analysis, alternative interpretation, as well as an alternative point of view in general," he said.

Some critics charge that the Pacifica network has lost credibility in recent years and has become an ideologically driven purveyor of left-leaning analysis. Yet for Southern California attorney and Pacifica interim board member Dave Fertig, the organization's overriding aim is to be an "educational device" promoting social justice without surrendering itself to any particular ideology. "Pacifica is above the fray of left and right," Fertig said. KPFK's Gudiño argues that the station fills a gap in mainstream media coverage and "addresses the news and information that many times is omitted from corporate venues." The station and other Pacifica outlets are free to offer the "complete story" about what is happening in America and the world, Gudiño said.

One example of KPFK's alternative voice was its strident opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq last spring. The station sponsored protests and served as a clearinghouse for information about local anti-war activities. And, in the process of consistently transmitting a dissenting opinion on the Iraq war, its reports gave visibility to the ethnic diversity within the peace movement, Gudiño said.

Financing is a fundamental difference between Pacifica stations like KPFK and advertising-dependent radio broadcasters. According to Fertig, Pacifica's outlets get 17 percent of their money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit created by Congress in 1967 and a major funder of programming that airs on NPR and PBS. But as KPFK general manager Eva Georgia explained, the Los Angeles station looks to subscribers and donors for the bulk of its money.

Lewis Hill was a pioneer in radio funded by listeners instead of advertisers. When he started Berkeley's KPFA in 1949, Hill longed for an outlet to broadly disseminate his ideals, according to Matthew Lasar, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the 1999 book, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. Lasar was a reporter for KPFA during the 1980s.

While Hill had a lot of Quaker friends, he was an "anarchical pacifist," Lasar said, a "genteel, scholarly man" leery of the state's potential for violence. Ironically, the person who pioneered an organization built on community was himself a very solitary, isolated person, Lasar said.

ACCORDING TO its mission statement, Pacifica radio aims to "provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community." Further, Pacifica works for "a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds, and colors," conveying information about "the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups."

These lofty goals haven't been easy to implement. Recently the organization was wracked by internal lawsuits involving Pacifica's national board. A key element in the strife is the question of governance: Pacifica leaders acquainted with the fight refer to a power struggle between local and national boards in the organization. The legal settlement between the warring parties mandated a new interim national board, which is charged with drafting replacement bylaws for the organization.

One facet of this conflict has been the role the community should play in steering the network, according to board member Fertig. Pacifica's founders had been reluctant to spread control too widely, he said, for fear that the organization might stray from its original principles. But Pacifica has largely decided to trust the role of listeners and subscribers as it attempts to remain faithful to its mission, Fertig said.

What worries historian Lasar is that controversies inside Pacifica might open the door to attacks from without. Seeing the Bush administration as unfriendly to civil liberties, Lasar thinks the network's political enemies might take advantage of the current crackdown on dissent and the network's own in-house wrangling to pounce on Pacifica.

"I think that if it doesn't get the bylaws together pretty soon, it risks facing a concerted right-wing attack while it really doesn't have any clear sense of what its internal governance is like," Lasar said.

But in Los Angeles, Pacifica is thriving. With subscriptions and donations up, KPFK is debt free, according to general manager Georgia. KPFK's recently rebuilt transmitter, blasting 112,000 watts from an elevation of 6,000 feet, is the strongest signal west of the Mississippi, the station says. The Los Angeles affiliate has added new studios and upgraded to a completely digital operation.

In its fund drive last June, KPFK came close to its $1 million goal, raising more than $982,000, according to Georgia. And the June fund-raiser followed an even more successful drive in February, when the station hit its million-dollar target. KPFK's subscriber base has also expanded to nearly 30,000.

According to program director Gudiño, KPFK takes seriously its role in reflecting and shaping community opinion. While Gudiño sees mainstream broadcasting as an institution that's generally designed to legitimize government and its acts, KPFK has the unique opportunity to do something different.

"I encourage producers to always remember that socialization process," Gudiño said, referring to the media's power to determine attitudes and behavior. The station's potential to reach a mass audience is crucial, but so is each listener KPFK impacts. "If it affects only one person," Gudiño added, "that's just as important."

Ted Parks, an associate professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, writes about issues of media and faith.

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