3. Listener-Sponsored Radicalism on KPFA

From: Active Radio

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Pacifica was not the first manifestly political radio venture. In the mid-1920s, efforts to establish a labor-based station in Chicago bore fruit for a short while. Edward Nockels, secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor, used organized labor’s contacts in Washington, D.C., to receive a license for station WCFL, which he imagined would be the flagship of a “listener-supported, labor broadcasting network [which would] provide a ‘working class perspective’ on public affairs.” In the late 1920s, Nockels consistently argued before Congress and the Federal Radio Commission against the hegemony of corporate media: Is it in the public interest, convenience, and necessity that all of the ninety channels for radio broadcasting be given to capital and its friends and not even one channel to the millions that toil? . . . Never in our history has there been such a brazen attempt to seize control of the means of communication and to dominate public opinion as is now going on in the field of radio broadcasting.1 Sponsored by voluntary donations from union dues, WCFL was opposed in principle to advertising. With a large listenership in Chicago’s working classes, increased by the station’s invention of an inexpensive, easily available receiver, WCFL maintained a varied, popular schedule. Contemporary and classical music, major-league baseball, and vaudeville shared airtime with coverage of the strikes and public affairs commentary from a labor perspective. However, the national American Federation of Labor showed little support and refused to use its influ3 . Listener-Sponsored Radicalism on KPFA From a philosophical viewpoint, we feel that the health of the society may be improved, and cannot possibly be harmed, by the existence of at least one radio station that acts, to the best of its ability, on significance rather than convenience, and actually seeks to serve, rather than exploit. —Lewis Hill, 1952 39 ence in Washington to guard the WCFL from consistent attacks by the Federal Radio Commission, which changed its frequency, reduced the power of its transmitter , and limited its broadcast time period to daylight hours when its primary audience of workers would be least likely to have the opportunity to listen. Increased operating costs were not met by voluntary subscriptions, leading inexorably to the sale of advertising and the transformation of the station’s programming . By the mid-thirties, WCFL’s programming was indistinguishable from any commercial station. There had also been previous attempts to invite the audience to directly subsidize the costs of programming. Perhaps the earliest was Telefon Hirmondo, founded in Hungary in the 1890s. For more than twenty years, this hybrid phenomenon used the telephone lines in Budapest to distribute “a full daily schedule of political , economic, and sporting news, lectures, plays, concerts, and recitations.”2 An estimated six thousand Magyar elite paid a penny a day for the use of this cable service. By 1900 the venture employed over 150 people with a news staff of twelve reporters. Eliminated during World War I, Telefon Hirmondo remains a fascinating precursor of both Pacifica and the contemporary merging of telephone and broadcast industries. In 1924 a group of Wall Street financiers established the Radio Music Fund Committee to solicit donations from the public to be paid to “artists of the highest calibre” for radio broadcasts at different stations in Manhattan. In Kansas City, WHB, a station owned by Sweeny Auto School, also requested donations from its audience to enhance its cultural offerings, receiving more than $3,000 in response to a written appeal in 1926. These early attempts at subscriptions never took hold, however, and faded from the public eye. Throughout the late 1920s, broadcasters in this country came to recognize that the most expedient (and profitable) manner of subsidizing programming was through commercialization of the airwaves: the selling of audiences to advertisers. Had Pacifica, through reviving listener sponsorship, merely wrested some of the ether from commercial exploitation, its accomplishment would be worthy of note. However, the foundation incorporated in 1946 had more grandiose plans: promoting the cause of peace and international understanding via the airwaves. Postwar Origins After leaving the CPS camp at Coleville, California, in 1943, Hill worked with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., counseling draft resisters 40 LISTENER-SPONSORED RADICALISM ON KPFA as head of the National Committee of Conscientious Objectors (NCCO). In 1944 he took a second job working part-time as a news director for WINX, an AM radio station owned by the Washington Post. During this period, Hill married Joy Cole...


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