6. WBAI and the Explosion of Live Radio

From: Active Radio

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By the early sixties, the three stations in the Pacifica network had a coherent, if eclectic, schedule: music, poetry, and drama, lectures and discussions, and a wide array of cultural and political commentary. This challenging aural environment earned the network abiding loyalty from small, dedicated audiences in Los Angeles , the Bay Area, and New York. Over time, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the upsurge of radical protest globally had immense impact on the network, altering its soundscape and ultimately giving birth to the genre known as “community radio.” Abstractly, the relationship between Pacifica’s listener-sponsored broadcasting and its reputation as a founder of community radio need not be a complex issue. The stations in the Pacifica network have been supported, in the main, by committed listeners who live nearby, many of whom participated directly in station operations as board members, programmers, and volunteers. Since the early fifties, Pacifica listener groups would meet for informal discussion and fund-raising , a process repeating itself with each new station, fostering a sense of solidarity and community within Pacifica’s audience. Guided by Hill’s original vision, Pacifica’s programmers sought to fulfill its mission to promote peaceful internationalism by first demonstrating a sense of responsibility to local listeners—acting out the familiar “think globally, act locally” idea long before the phrase became popular. A 1951 summary announced that KPFA had “summoned out of the community an enormous and varied energy, talent, goodwill and trust.”1 However, this perspective on the roots of community radio is complicated by Vera Hopkins. The network’s most thorough archivist of written memos and arti6 . WBAI and the Explosion of Live Radio The genius of the heart from whose touch everyone goes away richer. . . richer in oneself, newer than ever before, broken open, blown upon and sounded out by a thawing wind, more uncertain, perhaps, more delicate, more fragile, but full of hopes that as yet have no name. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 113 cles, having worked at KPFA for almost thirty years from the late 1950s until 1987, Hopkins has served as the institutional memory of Pacifica. In a 1983 letter to Larry Bensky, former station manager at KPFA, Hopkins emphatically argued that “in my bones I think of the ‘community radio’ aspect of KPFA as counter to what early KPFA sounded like and what the staff thought was the purpose of KPFA.”2 “Community radio” for Hopkins was signaled by the (disastrous) emergence in the late sixties and early seventies of “Third World” and “women’s” departments at the stations, a restructuring that she dramatically calls “non-Pacifica, . . . in contrast to departments by intellectual division: public affairs, Music; Drama and Literature, News, Children’s Programs.”3 Hopkins is correct, to a point; when they pioneered listener sponsorship and politically committed reportage, Hill, Thompson, McKinney, and others imagined their “community” as one defined by intellect—the “educated minority”—rather than one defined by gender, ethnicity, race, or, arguably, even location. Yet although perhaps not entirely congruent with the original goals, neither does the unabashed pluralism emerging in the late sixties seem quite as divergent from the founding ideals as Hopkins claims. Historically, the ideal of community and the abhorrence of violence and war were fused in the origins of Christianity. Paul’s notions of “membership” derived from a ceremony of “communion.” Believers were unified within the body of Christ into a community marked most emphatically by a refusal to bear arms. The key to Christian pacifism was a new bond of affiliation possible once the convert rejected the idolatry of warfare. More recently, Dewey recognized that there was a deep affinity between the frailty of communal solidarity in modern life and the attraction of war: The most militarist of nations secures the loyalty of its subjects not by physical force but through the power of ideas and emotions. . . . The balked demands for genuine cooperation and reciprocal solidarity in daily life finds [sic] an outlet in nationalistic sentiment. . . . If the simple duties of peace do not establish a common life, the emotions are mobilized in the service of a war that will supply its temporary stimulation.4 Although these brief examples do not indicate the precise form “community radio ” would take, they anticipate that a pacifist institution might well expend its effort to build and sustain a phenomenon called “community.” Pacifica is lauded by scholars and activists around the globe for forging community radio, a rare form of media in a...