5. Free Speech Radio

From: Active Radio

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A dynamic and radical version of the First Amendment stands at the heart of Pacifica’s practices. Pacifica fused the Anglo-American libertarian creed of dissent as the lifeblood of democracy with a romantic notion of expression as the unique utterance of the soul. With roots in Emerson and Whitman, this aesthetic attitude has in fact shaped the majority of the programs in Pacifica’s history. The experimental music, Beat poetry, and modern drama (often commissioned by the network and performed live in the studios) emphatically indicate Pacifica’s devotion to free, creative, poetic speech. One does not do justice to Pacifica’s overall schedule by too neatly dividing between “politics” and “culture” (music, drama, poetry). Not only were many programs clearly syntheses, but the daily menu of political analysis and debate and cultural programming was complemented by more narrowly defined “educational broadcasts.” Hearkening back to the ideals of the early broadcast educators, KPFA and later other Pacifica stations provided listeners with hours of “lectures” and entire courses (for example, the six-part series by David Reisman in 1958 entitled “Tocqueville and American Culture”). These topics could, at times, cover fairly arcane and complicated topics such as Dallas Smythe’s ninety-minute lecture in 1962 on the geopolitical and technological significance of the Telstar satellite. To say that “only” 20,000 listeners may have tuned in to Smythe’s program on WBAI (there is no way of really knowing — perhaps it was only 2,000) is not the correct way, or at least the only way, of considering the appeal of these programs. Even 2,000 is quite a sizable number to attend a “lecture.” This listener-sponsored pedagogy exhibits neither dissent nor aesthetic expression; these programs demon5 . Free Speech Radio The social world may be uttered and constructed in different ways according to different principles of vision and division. . . . One may act by trying to transform the categories of perception and appreciation of the social world, the cognitive and evaluative structures through which it is constructed. These categories of perception, the schemata of classification, that is essentially the words, the names, which construct social reality as much as they express it, are the stake par excellence of political struggle. —Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Space and Symbolic Power” 91 strate another facet of the First Amendment, often labeled the “free market of ideas.” Pacifica at heart is the continuous weaving together of these different aspects of the free speech tradition throughout the years. Each broadcast day is a chorus of voices uttering the social world according to different principles: dissent , art, and paideia. This ongoing synthesis within Pacifica’s programming — unprecedented in U.S. mass media—is the most complete measure of Hill’s genius. “The Secret of Liberty” The 1927 Radio Act that established the rules for government licensing of broadcasters explicitly stated, Nothing in this act shall be understood or construed to give the licensing authority the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio station , and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the licensing authority which shall interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio communication.1 Two factors—the prevailing sentiment that private, profit-oriented economic activity serves the commonweal and the ideology of the First Amendment—have kept government intervention into the media to a minimum.2 According to critics such as Meiklejohn, this “freedom” has enabled commercial broadcasters to abrogate their public service responsibilities in their search for the widest possible audience. When asked recently about television’s educational efforts, television producers pointed to such fare as the Flintstones and Jetsons, bringing to mind the fear of the earliest critics of commercialism: Our present radio setup which puts radio broadcasting in the hands of private radio monopolies deriving their revenue from advertising is dead set against the fundamental ideas which underlie modern civilization. . . . For the first time in human history we have turned over the tender mind of a child to men who would make a profit from exploiting it—to men who have no real understanding of the consequences of their acts, for if they had, they would hang their heads in shame and make their apologies to the generations yet unborn.3 KPFA entered the airwaves at the point when alternatives to this situation appeared dim. 92 FREE SPEECH RADIO If the founding ideals of Pacifica hearkened first to Thoreau, Gandhi, and the great conscientious pacifist tradition, the earliest programmers were...