7. Beloved Community

From: Active Radio

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A student of broadcasting history might wonder what James Rorty, vociferous critic of early corporate media, would have thought of the crisis at WBAI. In the early 1930s, educators, civic activists, and church leaders watched in dismay as the Federal Radio Commission stripped the broadcast licenses from their stations and, under the rubric of “public interest,” gave them to commercial broadcasters (see chapter 1). In meeting after meeting organized by the National Council on Educational Radio, the noncommercial operators gathered to address this baleful situation. They consistently charged that commercialization would debase Western literary and musical heritage: “Private radio monopolies deriving their revenue from advertising [are] dead set against the fundamental ideas which underlie modern civilization.”1 Noncommercial broadcasters argued for the Arnoldian high ground, hoping to retain their licenses under the mantle of providing the public with programs of cultural excellence, much as PBS does to this day. Into this fray jumped James Rorty, the former ad writer turned socialist. Rorty had for years been an acerbic observer of the commercial media and was in general alliance with the educators. However, at the suggestion of serving the public by providing works of canonical excellence, he rebelled: Concerning the concept of culture, the point should be made that we do not have in this country a culture. When we say “we” what we mean is the particular group with whose interests we find ourselves identified. . . . We have a fragmented civilization, with not one culture but many cultures and many definitely conflicting interests . . .2 7. Beloved Community Now, in the 1990’s several million people may listen to one of my [NPR] reports and I might not receive a single response. But in the 1970’s, on that 5:00 A.M. show, it was possible to create a community of listeners. . . . At five in the morning there is nothing that can’t be changed. —Margot Adler, Heretic’s Heart: A Journey through Spirit and Revolution 133 In the midst of a debate about the true meaning of broadcasting in the “public interest ,” Rorty insisted that it was the very premise of a single interest that was misguided. It was not until the transformation of Pacifica in the late sixties, when stations in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco struggled to provide various groups with regular programming, that any broadcast institution in this country began the as yet unrealized task of accommodating Rorty’s radical cultural pluralism— of confronting the massive social and cultural fact that “when we say ‘we’ what we mean is the particular group with whose interests we find ourselves identified .” It would be stretching the truth to claim that Pacifica negotiated the situation with no problems. Opening the ether to “particular groups” ceaselessly testifying to the fact that “we have a fragmented civilization” was often torturous, accomplished only at the cost of work stoppages, deep animosity, and lingering distrust.3 At the same time, WBAI’s evolving relationship with two forms of community , one vast and heterogeneous, one smaller and more uniform, provides different models of how the media might serve and participate in the utopian project of democracy. The previous chapter charted distinct moments that WBAI laid the groundwork for community radio. The first was the interaction of Radio Unnameable and other live radio programs in the mid-sixties with the vast, inchoate counterculture in the New York metropolitan area. Binding the programs and audiences together was the project of ending the Vietnam War, but combined with this manifest political task was the Whitmannian conviction in the power of the imagination to transform existence altogether. The second moment, evolving from the first, began when the daily schedule increasingly became a locus for smaller groups, bound together by webs of curiosity, loyalty, and love, to use the microphone to call out to each other and initiate a conversation on quotidian matters of abiding personal interest. Broadcasts addressing the division of labor in the household, or the demand for two men to feel free to hold hands in public, clearly grew out of, but also differed from, the Radio Unnameable–yippie synthesis of the antiwar and counterculture energy. Stepping back to consider more theoretically the transformations of programming helps place WBAI’s experiment within the overall changes occurring in the politics and culture in this period. Pacifica’s radicalism, as it crystallized at WBAI, was an emerging synthesis of elements, not all of which were precisely anticipated by Hill. Radio Unnameable and the free radio that followed...