- “Progressive” radio network with stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City, Houston and Washington, D.C.
Pacifica Radio is a non-commercial network of five “progressive” FM radio stations: KPFA in Berkeley (launched in 1949), KPFK in Los Angeles (1959), WBAI in New York City (1960), WPFW in Washington, DC (1968), and KPFT in Houston (1970). This radio network is owned and operated by the Pacifica Radio Foundation, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) entity. Some Pacifica programs also air on approximately 200 independent “Affiliate” stations, most of which are based in the United States (though some are located in Canada, Europe, and Africa).
Pacifica’s mission is to broadcast programs “that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors.” By Pacifica’s calculus, only programs with a left-wing political orientation can properly advance this objective.
The Pacifica Radio Foundation filed for incorporation in California in August 1946. Its principal founder, pacifist Lewis Hill, created the Foundation to serve as a vehicle “to carry a radical war resistance program into a mass medium.” Hill’s co-founders included a number of individuals whom the Pacifica Foundation describes as “anarcho”-pacifists with ties to groups like the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. On April 15, 1949, KPFA began broadcasting the commentaries of San Francisco Bay Area radicals – among whom were some Communist Party members – for a few hours each day. The following year, opponents of the Korean war were given considerable airtime on Pacifica.
In August 1950, KPFA went off the air due to bankruptcy. A prolonged community fundraising drive revived the station by May 1951, however, and the Ford Foundation furnished Pacifica with a large grant that same year.
In its earliest days Pacifica was listener-sponsored radio, and the radical community participated not only in funding its programming, but also in determining and providing station content. Soon, however, Pacifica began shifting to what are today called listener-supported stations, where the audience is encouraged to give money but not to determine what programs are aired. While a rapidly growing audience in the 1950s tuned in to hear the likes of Zen author Alan Watts discuss Eastern mysticism, or to hear beatniks Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti read their poetry, other voices on Pacifica were preaching Soviet apologetics and advocating Marxism.
In 1960 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requested a tape of a Pacifica broadcast of Lawrence Ferlinghetti that it found to be “in bad taste” due to its “strong implications against religion, government, the president, law-enforcement and racial groups” – and demanded that Pacifica provide the government with detailed information about its finances and leadership.
That same year, philanthropist Louis Schweitzer gave the New York-based commercial station WBAI to Pacifica. Among its early programs were a documentary on American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, and a speech by the American Communist Party’s chief theoretician, Herbert Aptheker.
From 1960-63, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security (SSIS) investigated Pacifica programming for evidence of “subversion.”
In 1962, WBAI was the first station to publicly broadcast former FBI agent Jack Levine’s harsh condemnations of the Bureau and its director, the ardent anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover. Moreover, KPFA provided antagonistic coverage of the HUAC hearings into Communism.
That same year, KPFK aired profiles of Communist Party USA (CPUSA) members Dorothy Healey and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – programs that were subsequently cited in SISS hearings charging that Pacifica had been infiltrated by Communists.
In 1962 as well, the FCC withheld the license renewals of KPFA, KPFB, and KPFK, pending its investigation into Pacifica’s “communist affiliations.”
In 1964, Pacifica trained volunteers to cover the progress of the burgeoning civil-rights movement in the American South. That June, Andrew Goodman, the son of Pacifica’s president, was murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi along with civil-rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.
In 1965, WBAI reporter Chris Koch became the first American to cover the war in Southeast Asia from North Vietnam.
In 1966, Pacifica stations provided airtime for the leaders of leftist organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress Of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to discuss the future of the American civil-rights movement.
In September 1969, while American soldiers were being killed in Vietnam, KPFA broadcasted a memorial service honoring the late North Vietnamese Communist dictator Ho Chi Minh. Three months later, the station aired a tribute to Ho and his career as a revolutionary leader.
In the 1970s, Pacifica Radio aired regular programs by CPUSA member Dorothy Healey.
In 1973, the network provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings.
In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army delivered the famous Patty Hearst tapes to KPFA/Berkeley and KPFK/Los Angeles. When KPFK manager Will Lewis refused to turn the tapes over to the FBI, he was jailed.
In the 1970s as well, Pacifica gave airtime to the leaders and mouthpieces of Yasser Arafat‘s terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, whose anti-Israel agenda Pacifica supported. Indeed, Pacifica has long viewed the Palestinians as innocent victims of unprovoked Israeli brutality.
During the 1980s, Pacifica voiced support for the Communists of Nicaragua and El Salvador who, by Pacifica’s telling, were “struggling against murderous U.S.-backed military governments.”
Beginning in late Eighties, Pacifica stringers provided live coverage of the violent Intifada which the Palestinians waged against Israel from 1987-93. In a broadcast that aired in 1992, one Pacifica program host declared: “Long live the Intifada and the struggle of the Palestinian people.”
Anti-Semitic themes were not uncommon on Pacifica broadcasts during this period. In December 1991, for instance, Steve Cokely – a former aide to the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington – told listeners that Jewish doctors had engineered the deadly AIDS virus in order to kill black babies. And during KPFK’s live coverage of “African Mental Liberation Weekend” festivities in February 1992:
- Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan characterized whites and Jews together as “the pale horse with death as its rider and hell close behind.”
- Afrocentric historian Yosef Ben-Jochannan claimed that the Jews had stolen Bible stories from black Egyptian Muslims.
- Africana Studies professor Tony Martin claimed that Jewish scholars were ultimately responsible for the enslavement of Africans, because the Bible and the Talmud allegedly contained moral justifications for that practice. Martin also condemned the “virulent racist hostility to everything Black in much of the Jewish press”; he asserted that Jews were responsible for the negative portrayal of blacks in Hollywood films; and he charged that Jews had taken leadership roles in civil-rights organizations like the NAACP solely for the purpose of strategically placing themselves in positions that would empower them to limit the progress of blacks.
Though awash from its birth with the socialist-Marxist rhetoric of class warfare and anti-capitalism, Pacifica Radio in the 1990s used threats, intimidation, gag orders, lawyers, and lockouts to try to prevent its own workers from organizing. For instance, in 1996 the Pacifica Foundation ordered the management of WBAI to file (with the Region 2 Director of the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB) a “Clarification of Unit” petition seeking to remove some 200 volunteer workers classified as “Unpaid Staff” from the station’s 225-person Collective Bargaining Unit (CBU). (The station had voluntarily recognized these unpaid workers as employees since a 1987 agreement to that effect.) Moreover, WBAI tried to reclassify some paid positions as management jobs, thereby effectively moving them out of the union contract as well; e.g., the station petitioned the NLRB to remove WBAI’s bookkeeper, whose job had been renamed “Business Director,” from the CBU.
But in a decision dated February 12, 1997, the NLRB’s Region 2 Director — reasoning that “the unpaid staff and paid staff share a strong community of interest” — ordered that WBAI’s unpaid staff “should remain in the existing [CBU].” Two years later, however, the NLRB unanimously reversed the decision of the Region 2 Director, and ruled that unpaid staff members were not employees, because “to work for another for hire is to receive compensation for labor or services.”
In June 1997 the Pacifica Radio Foundation named Mary Frances Berry as the new chairman of its national board. Berry “always seemed determined to use Pacifica for her own ends,” wrote Judith Coburn in the left webzine Salon. One policy of the partisan Berry was to stifle criticism, from left or right, on Pacifica’s airwaves of President Bill Clinton‘s Administration or of the Democratic Party — the bases of Berry’s own power, position, and politics.
Disparaging KPFA’s leadership and audience alike as being composed predominantly of “white male hippies over 50,” Berry was determined to increase black representation in the station’s board room and listenership. Thus she demanded the imposition of racial preferences in hirings and promotions, though she refused to meet with minority staff people at the station, most of whom opposed her actions. In 1999 Berry and Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick fired KPFA’s station manager and a number of other white staffers. Berry and Chadwick then issued a gag order, threatening to fire anyone else who worked at the station who spoke publicly of this campaign to alter the racial complexion of the workforce. When one host, Dennis Bernstein, tried (on July 13, 1999) to tell listeners what was happening, Berry had him arrested while he was live on the air. And when people subsequently gathered peacefully outside the station to protest the firings at KPFA, Berry used her connections in the Clinton Justice Department to pressure Berkeley police to arrest the protesters, which they promptly did. On the night of July 13 alone, 52 people were arrested outside the station for protesting Bernstein’s removal.
Also on July 13, 1999, Berry ordered a lockout of all KPFA personnel, in violation of station union agreements. To keep the station on air, a digital ISDN telephone connection was quickly installed so that KPFA could simulcast KPFT, the network’s Houston affiliate. This was done without the permission or approval of the FCC and thus violated federal law.
On February 27, 2000, Berry resigned as Pacifica’s board chair.
In the early 2000s, United for Peace and Justice director Leslie Cagan, a longtime pro-Castro socialist, was a member of the Pacifica Foundation’s board of directors. Other notable Pacifica board members during that time period included radical comic Dick Gregory and former Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry.
During the first few years of the 21st century as well, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was a huge source of taxpayer dollars for Pacifica Radio, constituting the network’s second-largest source of funds, after listener donations. From 2001 through 2005, CPB issued a total of $6,637,826 in grants to the Pacifica Network’s five stations.
Pacifica has also received large amounts of funding from charitable philanthropies over the years, including the AT&T Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Park Foundation, the Verizon Foundation, and many others.
For additional information on Pacifica Radio, click here.