Radioactive Pacifica


ACTIVE RADIO:Pacifica’s Brash Experiment.

PACIFICA RADIO:The Rise of an Alternative Network.

The New York Times recently called radio “the most ubiquitous consumer electronics device in the nation,” reporting that there are eight radios in every house in the land – and if you include car radios, nine or ten.

Lumped in with the rest of our appliances – as if it were a talking toaster – radio has fallen far in the fifty years since Alexander Meiklejohn suggested that radio “opened up before us the possibility that, as a people living a common life under a common agreement, we might communicate with one another freely with regard to the values, the opportunities, the difficulties, thejoys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, the plans and purposes, of that common life.”

By the time Meiklejohn wrote those words, however, radio, barely twenty years old, had already been handed over to commercial interests, who were intent on selling their goods to what the president of the four-year-old National Broadcasting Company extolled as “the most numerous and attentive audience ever assembled.” In just two decades, a grassroots mass medium was transformed into a delivery system for consumer ears. It was a process that would be repeated again and again over the years, right up to the recent handover of digital broadcast spectrum to many of the very same companies that reaped huge windfalls seventy years ago. In 1999, as our newest electronic medium, the Internet – perhaps the most democratic mass medium to come along since radio – struggles with efforts to privatize and commercialize it, two new books explore the complex entity that is Pacifica Radio, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Pacifica has been much in the news lately, as the latest battles rage over the control, content, direction, and philosophy of the network. The strength of these books under review is that, freed of the heat of the moment, they provide not only a fascinating history of one of the most unique media experiments around, but a vivid and compelling reminder of the bright promise, not simply of Pacifica itself, and not just of the medium of radio, but of all of our communication technologies.

Pacifica at the half-century mark is “the story of a small group of people who, possessed of an idealism almost incomprehensible in our time, thought that dialogue could save the world,” writes Matthew Lasar in Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network. As the media monopolies slouch toward Disneyworld, it’s useful to learn that Pacifica, the first nonprofit FM radio network in the United States, was explicitly created by pacifists to break down ideological barriers and encourage communication.

And if Pacifica has not wrought world peace, it has nonetheless managed to invent, single-handedly, listener-sponsored radio, community radio, and form a unique noncommercial chain of five stations across the country that, as Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment author Jeff Land puts it, “[has] served as a voice promoting social justice, international solidarity, personal transformation and creative expression for five decades.”

Whether you consider radio a “consumer electronics device” or not, it’s true that radio is ubiquitous. News, talk, and music is literally in the very air around us constantly, plucked out of the ether on car radios, Walkmans, and home stereo systems. People who never read a daily newspaper or watch a TV newscast listen to the radio in the shower, on the way to work, in the office, and while they’re jogging. Modern technology now enables anyone with a few pieces of relatively inexpensive equipment to broadcast live to millions of people equipped with radios often no larger than a credit card.

To understand what has happened to our mass media, we must turn back almost a hundred years, before the Internet, before television, and before radio.

Modern mass media began as nothing more than the simple dots and dashes of wireless telegraphy in the early years of the century. In 1912, Congress gave control of wireless telegraphy to the secretary of commerce: the Navy claimed thousands of amateur ham radio operators were interfering with their naval exercises. The secretary issued more than 8,000 permits for sending wireless telegraphic signals in the four years before World War I, and during the war, shut down all non-military use of radiotelegraphy.

After the war the government – acting at the behest of the Navy and budding corporate interests – established a national radio corporation (RCA) to challenge the control of the British-based Marconi system in global wireless technology. “It was in this milieu of postwar chauvinism, extensive amateur transmissions, and government-nurtured corporate mergers that the American mass media were born,” writes Jeff Land, pointing out, “Daily radio broadcasting was possible only because the vast grassroots network of operators had over time built hundreds of thousands of personal receivers.”

Like the Internet in the nineties, radio exploded overnight in the early twenties: while there were just fifty licensed stations in the United States at the end of 1921, within a year there were more than 500. “Almost immediately,” Land writes, “the social destiny of radio became the subject of much glorious anticipation. Broadcasting, following electricity, the telegraph, and the telephone in the previous century, was heralded as a technological miracle capable of immense beneficial social transformations. Traveling on etheric channels, invisible electronic waves radiating from the heavens provided a seemingly unlimited bounty of entertainment and education.”

RCA President General J.G. Harbord declared radio a boon to democracy, freeing citizens from the “contagion of the crowd.” The solitary listener, Harbord said, listening to politicians in the privacy of his or her own living room, need not be a slave to mob enthusiasm but now was free to make political judgments based “solely on the logic of the issue.” Preachers would convey the divine message to those who refused to attend church. Instantaneous international communication would end war.

High-minded stuff indeed. Within a few short years, however, it became clear that the most effective messages carried over the etheric channels were those designed to separate listeners from their money. Radio advertising rose from $4 million in 1926 to over $15 million in 1929, and almost $112 million in 1935. The 1927 White-Dill Act, which established the Federal Radio Commission (forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission), suspended every existing license, divided up the radio spectrum into ninety channels, and handed over the choicest channels to commercial stations, crowding everyone else to the margins, where they remain to this day.

“Everyone else” ranged from schools to churches to labor unions. Oregon State Agricultural College’s KOAC, for example, broadcast a popular diet of weather reports, football, lectures, agricultural information, household hints, and student orchestra performances. The flood of advertising money after the 1927 Radio Act swept away most of the non-commercial stations, who could not afford the hardware and on-air talent necessary to retain their licenses.

The transformation of a powerful new medium into yet another tool for private profit has occurred so often by now that it’s hardly even remarked on anymore. But the thirties and forties were different days, with warfare abroad and class struggle at home. The pacifist movement that began at the turn of the century took root in America, not just among those affected by the economic turbulence of the Great Depression, but at the highest levels of government: a 1933 Senate investigation revealed that arms merchants had fanned the political flames that consumed millions of people worldwide, and Woodrow Wilson himself asked “Is there not a man, woman or child in America … who does not know [World War I] was an industrial and commercial war?”

By 1937, 95 percent of Americans polled on whether America should take part again if another war like World War I developed said, “No.” Of course, we did enter the next war, and thousands of pacifists, sticking to their principles of nonviolence, were sent to Conscientious Objector camps. There, they met like-minded war resisters and, as they dug ditches and built trails, had plenty of time to try to figure out where the movement to end war and violence had gone wrong.

When Lewis Hill was six, his older brother gave him a crystal radio kit, and like many boys in the twenties, Hill became fascinated with radio. Hill studied philosophy at Stanford and “thought that if one could engage in dialogue with others, one could solve any human problem.” Hill spent time in Washington as the Director of the A.C.L.U.’s National Committee on Conscientious Objectors, but eventually left D.C. convinced that “the pacifist movement had to find ways to communicate with people on their own terms, not just in the context of what he increasingly saw as an isolated, self-referential community, bent on dramatic but ineffectual forms of resistance,” reports Lasar in Pacifica Radio.

Hill’s two passions fused on April 15, 1949 in Berkeley, California, when KPFA went on the air. Hill’s Pacifica Foundation had scraped together $15,000, and just enough surplus parts and donated equipment to begin broadcasting a signal that, on a good day, carried twenty miles – but whose effects would reverberate across an entire nation.

Pacifica’s vision was in direct contradiction and opposition to everything commercial radio had become. In the living rooms where broadcasters saw consumers, Hill and his pacifist colleagues intended to re-open the door to the outside world. Instead of the consumerization and suburbanization that isolated listeners, Pacifica’s radiowaves would carry “an intruder with a different point of view.” Communication with different ideas would be welcomed and explored instead of shunned. “If this is too much to hope for,” Hill said, “someone will have to explain to us how we can do with less.”

This vision, which carries on today, half a century later, is directly responsible for much of the sound and shape of radio today. It was Pacifica that pioneered the use of the FM band, that invented listener-supported radio and, later, community radio. The hugely popular talk show phenomenon, which has driven the modern revival of radio, began in late-night freeform talkfests on Pacifica’s KPFA in San Francisco and WBAI in New York City. At the very dawn of the sixties, Pacifica was there with tape-recorders at the sit-ins and be-ins, long before the mainstream media figured out which way the wind was blowing. It’s even rumored that Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” had its radio debut on WBAI’s overnight show, where Arlo Guthrie first sang his own anti-war anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Abbie Hoffman called in live daily reports during recesses of the Chicago Eight trial, and Seymour Hersh first broke the My Lai story on WBAI in 1969. While mainstream media dutifully regurgitated the U.S. military’s daily press briefings, the Pacifica network made extensive use of Agence Française, the sole Western news agency with a permanent staff in Hanoi.

Among progressives, Pacifica’s story is often cast as an ongoing struggle to protect the purity of the network’s original vision and purpose. Matthew Lasar’s Pacifica Radio delves more deeply into the roots and branches of this struggle, not to resolve the conflicts but to illuminate them. “A wise historian once said that by revealing the socially constructed nature of the past, we free ourselves to think critically and creatively about the present,” writes Lasar.

Jeff Land is more interested in the external conflicts, and in exploring how Pacifica has “[used] radio’s unique capacity to harness the power of the spoken word – the medium of consciousness itself – [struggling] to repair the damage that war, a culture of consumption, and commercial media have wrought upon our national psyche … as a witness, commentator, and actor, its overall programming provides an ongoing chorus of voices, calling to mind an ideal of a peaceful, democratic, global community yet to be realized.”

Together, they refute forever the distorted view of radio as nothing more than a “ubiquitous consumer electronicsdevice.”

Chris Garlock, former producer of Hightower Radio, now lives and writes in Washington, D.C., where he works for the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council.

(For current information, consult the rebellion websites at, and The official Pacifica page is at For news on Houston action, contact Edwin Johnston: [email protected])