The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2009

My Life at Pacifica Radio: a memoir, part one

Study in orange, black, and white

[Pacifica Radio founder, Lewis K. Hill, suicide note, 1957:] “Not for anger or despair/ But for peace and a kind of home.”

[Don’t stop with part one: part two and Storming Pacifica contain juicy personal anecdotes, and I name names.]

Multiculturalism, or ethnopluralism, as it is sometimes called, may have done more to sharpen group antagonisms, than to have advanced inter-group understanding and social peace as was intended by its advocates. Originating in the theories of the German theologian J. G. von Herder in the late eighteenth century as a defense against French cultural domination and the “mechanical materialism” of the Dutch and French Enlightenments, multiculturalism has been a weapon in the arsenal of class harmonizers in America since the early twentieth century and was recognized as such by its critics as a departure from the melting-pot empiricism of the eighteenth century. As political ideology multiculturalism presided at the birthing of the Pacifica radio network in the late 1940s. In early 1981, after twelve years of producing radio documentaries and cultural criticism, I was hired by Pacifica station KPFK as Program Director to implement affirmative action and “multicultural” programming policy. In my naiveté, I interpreted that mandate as the legacy of the civil rights movement: we were to present an integrated history of women, minorities, and labor as part of a comprehensive long-term project of education and research in the political, economic, and social history of these groups, locally, nationally, and where possible, globally. Simultaneously, in my own work at the radio station (and afterwards, in graduate school), I continued producing materials about institutional censorship and the decoding of antidemocratic propaganda.

Pacifica and I were on a collision course. After eighteen months, I was fired, even though by all objective criteria my leadership was successful in increasing subscriber income and in gaining broad community support, including that of the liberal press. Significantly, my removal prevented the confrontation between science and myth that I was preparing for the Fall Fund Drive. And when I returned to the air in the late 1980s-1990s, tracing the contested definitions of fascism from the 1930s on, I was purged again, this time, permanently, after ten years of attempting to rescue the libertarian heritage of science and what I thought was the progress advanced by meritocracy and the marketplace of ideas.

In terms of programming, such a mad scientist approach challenged what had been a post-60s commitment by Pacifica to policies that were simultaneously replicated on college campuses: in response to 1960s social movements, separate women’s studies and ethnic studies departments were institutionalized, staffed primarily by women and minority faculty in the spirit of rooted (as opposed to rootless) cosmopolitanism. The separation was legitimated by a social theory derived from Herder and German Romanticism: only members of the (stigmatized) group were privy to the “consciousness” or “spirit” of their Volk. And since women and minorities were oppressed (whatever their class position), it was the mission of these new departments to “struggle” against white male “hegemony” and the death-dealing “whiteness” enforced by imperial Amerika. It is the broad acceptance of the role of activist scholar throughout the humanities (e.g. cultural studies) that has led to what libertarians and conservatives now decry as a recent left-wing takeover and the absence of intellectual diversity.

This essay/memoir, written after I had studied the shaping of the history curriculum by “moderate conservatives” since the Civil War, but especially after the second world war, attempts to explain the politics that led to my disillusion with Pacifica and finally to distancing from the populist-progressive agenda and its disturbingly antisemitic and protofascist embedded discourse. The campus “Left” has little in common with the updated eighteenth-century radical liberalism that its advocates often claim to serve.

I. Pacifica, from the moment of its inception, reflected and transmitted the politics of a coalition of Leninists, anarchists, and romantic conservatives left over from the 1930s: they were “anti-imperialists” of the Left and Right as reflected, for instance, in the coalition of America First and the Communist Party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period (1939-41). Their affinity group included neo-Thomists (like Robert Hutchins, a powerful presence on the air at Pacifica during the 1960s), New Humanists, Southern Agrarians, and the English Distributists Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Pacifica’s politics became less murky after I read THE AMERICAN REVIEW, edited by Seward Collins, a periodical of the mid1930s that supported Mussolini’s corporative state, aspects of the New Deal, regionalism in politics and aesthetics alike, and at times even Hitler. Writers for THE AMERICAN REVIEW became “New Critics” at the end of the decade and powerfully influenced the teaching of the humanities after World War II. Their organic conservatism is reiterated in the critical theory that now dominates the teaching of literature, the “new historicism,” though new historicists often declare themselves the democratic antidote to New Critical formalism and its implications for coerced harmony in other institutions. Recuperating the agrarian critique of industrial capitalism, they proposed that a network of small towns, independent producers, and stable hierarchies would defeat the anomie, nihilism, miscegenation, decadence, and class warfare induced by modern science and technology, speedy urban life, giant corporations and Jewish money: the same primitivism, along with its demonology, has characterized Pacifica and “community radio” in general.

THE FOUNDING MYTH(S) EXPLODED. There are extant at least four versions of the history of Pacifica: all are partly right. The continuity myth states that radical pacifists disgusted with the Cold War and its anticommunist distortions started KPFA to provide balance. The discontinuity myths are apocalyptic: in one version an originally worker-managed station with direct accountability to the community was overthrown by establishment liberals in the mid-50s, perhaps causing the suicide of its idealistic and ultra-democratic founder, Lewis K. Hill, who had earlier warned his Quaker lieutenants: don’t trust the liberals! A New Left multicultural rendition identifies a high culture station controlled by and for white people that, with much internal mayhem, finally sunk roots into diverse communities where it flourishes (or would, if mainstream forces were not intent on stealing the foundation away from their communities). Yet another version also sees sudden change: the genius poet Lew Hill, opening minds with no designs upon the listener, was supplanted by fragmenting politicos who seized control in the 1960s [Larry Josephson documentary, 1974, played by KCRW July 27, 1999]. My historical sketch will note both continuities and discontinuities.

The original mission statement of the Pacifica Foundation, the entity that holds the increasingly valuable broadcast licenses, was formulated shortly after World War II by Lewis Kimball Hill, a conscientious objector. Hill had been assigned to a reclamation project but was discharged for failing health in 1943. He then ran the Washington office of the ACLU, at that time mostly representing conscientious objectors. Hill also served as radio announcer and Night News editor for WINX, a station owned by the Washington Post. But Hill quit, reportedly over differences with management over the one-sidedness of the news coverage, setting out for bohemian San Francisco. It is worth noting that Hill’s parents had sent him to a military academy “for discipline” after two years in a public high school; moreover he never completed his undergraduate work at Stanford University which he had attended from 1937-41 as a student of English and philosophy. But he did get some of his poetry published. Hence the impressive set of goals set forth in the Pacifica Articles of Incorporation take on a particular resonance in light of the personal history of Lew Hill—who was apparently antagonistic to military discipline or to any conflict whatsoever—a quality that would be found in many a Pacifica programmer and listener hoping to find a kinder home.

In its Articles of Incorporation, Pacifica told the FCC that it would promote lasting international peace through the study of conflict, would present objective news from a variety of sources, and would “encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community” by rewarding performance and writing skills in the arts among young people. Nearly fifty years after KPFA went on the air in Berkeley, KPFK manager Mark Schubb appealed to libertarian and patriotic sentiments in his Report to the Listener of June 29, 1998. With July 4 upon us, it was fitting to remind the subscribers that KPFK’s intellectual independence stems from the freedom from corporate sponsorship; hence Pacifica was able to get different “kinds of people” (i.e. races and ethnicities) to talk to each other. Vague reference was made to an original antiwar mission of the Pacifica Foundation intended to oppose the promotion of the Cold War in commercial media. Schubb did not say that such pacifism was agreeable to the American upper-class peace movement supported by the Soviet Union after Hiroshima; nor did he mention the early support of the Ford Foundation, formed to provide a labor-friendly image for business. [fn Berkowitz and McQuaid, Creating The Welfare State] Lew Hill, whose wealthy Oklahoma parents had interests in oil and insurance, echoed the same class-harmonizing progressive goals as the Ford Foundation (or other upper-class groups with which Pacifica has been associated, such as The Nation or Robert Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions).

The Founder has been presented as a champion of the labor movement in one doctoral dissertation and as a fighting radical in other publicity generated by Pacifica. However, in “KPFA, A Prospectus of the Pacifica Station,” dated May 1948, Hill hinted that it was the class war that required pacification:

“…despite the high incidence of unionization and the consequent involvement and interest of hundreds of thousands in labor affairs and news, newspapers, and radio stations in the [San Francisco] area report on labor only when it is a protagonist of conflict, the antagonist of “business.” Unfortunately the only press and radio sources of consistent and comprehensive labor reporting are either controlled by the Communist party or Stalinist in inclination. There is no source, Communist or other, which incorporates labor news with general news reporting in any fair and realistic proportion.”

It is no wonder that the word “class” is missing from the mission statement: Pacifica was to study “political and economic problems” but to _determine_ the “causes of religious, philosophical, and racial antagonisms.” One did not need to be a Marxist to posit class antagonisms as one important engine of history. It was far more radical for the Progressives and later conservative reformers to believe that class harmony (without structural transformation beyond modest redistribution measures and a weak welfare state) was an attainable goal. For Hitler, the erasure of the divisive Jewish mind would permit the return of the warm and paternalistic relations between master and man said to exist in pre-industrial Germany before modernity and distinctively “Jewish” institutions—such as money interest, absentee ownership, the stock exchange, mass media, and mass politics—made the scene. For Lew Hill, presumably, better communication between different cultural groups would contribute to the solution of political and economic problems; solutions that would bring world peace. Hill’s prospectus, nearly erased from the Pacifica memory bank until I read it on the air in the mid-1990s, gives one concrete referent to the mission statement call for comprehensive and objective news coverage brought together in the same place; his prospectus allies him with the moderate center, not the Left as Pacifica has been represented and indeed has proudly represented itself. Pacifica helps us to forget that it was not working-class movements that invented Populism and Progressivism; that credit goes to agrarian reformers and moderate Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and other social hygienists who were losing political control to an urbanized, industrial society crowded with scruffy, saucy immigrants; all were said by many a Populist and Progressive intellectual to be secretly manipulated by finance capitalists whom they identified as international Jews. The recognition of the hidden antagonism between the atomic Jew and the rest of us was the single unifying concept to be found in this still powerful centrist progressive political tradition.

Explaining the original intent of the fallen Founder, a suicide after a bitter faction fight at KPFA in the mid-1950s, Hill’s “right hand” Eleanor McKinney restated and clarified the mission statement in an essay of 1963 (it could have been T.S. Eliot, romantic anticapitalist and ally to Southern Agrarians, talking):

[Eleanor McKinney, “The Pacifica Venture Into Radio Communication,” January 1960:] Lewis Hill, the founder of KPFA was intensely concerned with two contemporary problems: communication, and the strife between individuals and between nations which plague modern society. He believed these two problems were fundamentally one…It was obvious to the group originating Pacifica that war cannot be prevented through primarily intellectual appeals. Common beliefs are formed close to home, in the events of neighborhood and city. In the average man, on whom war prevention depends (the group believed) the sense of right action is formed in a familiar and satisfying adjustment to the people and institutions of his immediate environment. It was the conviction of Pacifica’s founders that the major job of education toward a peaceful world is through public communications centers–newspapers and radio stations, where principles of world understanding have direct import in familiar situations. Searching out these principles in the open controversy of the traditional American free forum was a major concern of the Pacifica Foundation, along with the communication of the musical, dramatic, and literary arts, and the exploration of religion, science, and philosophy. The group’s concern was directed to the quality of the human spirit out of which community life is built.”

Note that modern society is plagued by strife, but it is individuals and nations who are the combatants, not classes and not incoherent institutions that only partly deliver what they promise. And we solve these problems, not through the activity of intellectual investigation, deliberation, and politics, but through passive adjustments to the folks close to home. We are not to be alienated, not even temporarily, while we think (or rather sense) things over. McKinney comments in defense of “the traditional American free forum” safely bounded by localist commitments might be read against the backdrop of a government investigation of alleged Communist infiltration of the Pacifica Foundation earlier that year. The anti-monopoly propensities of populism were held by Peter Odegard, former president of Reed College and spokesman for Pacifica, to be the antidote to fascism and all other forms of totalitarian control:

[From the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee Hearings investigating alleged Communist infiltration of the Pacifica network, January 10, 1963; Peter Odegard interrogated by committee counsel Sourwine, explains that populist institutions stop fascism:]

Mr. Sourwine: Do you think Hitler could have taken over and attained the power he did if he had not access to the radio?
Mr. Odegard: Mr. Sourwine, I spent a year studying this movement, and I do not think I could give a simple answer to that.
Mr. Sourwine: Well then, pass it because our time is short.
Mr. Odegard: May I just make one statement on this? I do not think nationalism, fascism, any more than communism, could survive in an atmosphere of freedom or could survive without a monopolistic control of these great agencies of communication. This I am convinced of, and that is why I believe a free–
Mr. Sourwine: That is why, is it not, the Communists always seek to infiltrate mass communications as early as they can in every country, why it is a prelude to the Communist takeover in country after country?
Mr. Odegard: Well, I do not know about this.
Mr. Sourwine: I have no more questions, Doctor.

Nazi-style antisemitism propagated by some black nationalist programmers at Pacifica has been rightly denounced by many listeners and observers, but these cultural nationalists should not be isolated as uniquely destructive and irrational. For the Pacifica Foundation, in the late 1940s and now, commerce was always the enemy of “public” broadcasting: filthy lucre and greed were sufficient causes to explain what was held to be the lowbrow and demagogic, i.e. the protofascist, character of mass media. For filthy lucre, read the Jewish gold that had bought up mass communications and strangled the voices of antifascism. Pacifica defined itself against the “materialism” that Hitler, Stalin, and contemporary aristocratic radicals identified with inordinate Jewish power in the modern world: rootless cosmopolitanism– corrosive antagonist to the organic people’s community–represented the mobility and fungibility of money. The aristocratic radicals (aka postmodernists today) were not issuing a call to popular democratic revolution in forms recognizable to seventeenth and eighteen-century political theorists, but affirming the spirituality that bound people to each other: the hierarchical social relations of feudalism, the old kind of home, were to be maintained or reinstated. (Of course, the memory of the old kind of home had been purged of its constant factional warfare, anarchy, and poverty for the masses of people. We had really expensive William Morris wallpaper to remind us of an intertwining vegetable love.)

The story I am about to tell offers a glimpse at the ways an apparently incoherent coalition of liberals, Old and New Leftists, anarchists, and cultural radicals, united to maintain top-down control of a radio network advertising itself as free from external, antidemocratic pressures of every kind. I will restrict the focus of my tale, too rich and awful for a short article, to the pervasive hostility to artists and independent intellectuals that I have found in numerous “liberal” institutions, not only the Pacifica Foundation, which is no better and no worse than any other bureaucracy responsible for public education. The problems that I will identify are not only features of Left or New Left culture and politics, but are common to every society with democratic aspirations insofar as they are hamstrung by bureaucracies that determine their fates while unaccountable to an informed, appropriately educated citizenry.

[This is the end of Part One. It will obvious to readers here that all of my blogs are variation on a theme, and the impetus to study the material probably was produced by my shocking experiences in an institution that for many years I felt was my true home. For more on Pacifica history, see and part two of this memoir:]

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