Highlighted quote in Cooper's article: "Differences have to be expressed without resorting to satanization. Serious mediation, tentatively undertaken this week, is the only way out." Friday, July 23, 1999

. . . but Modernizers Seal Its Doom

Radio: The current mandate is far removed from the original vision of connecting with the local community. By ALEXANDER COCKBURN

itnessing the present struggles at Pacifica Radio and KPFA, my mind goes back to the early 1970s and to the Village Voice in New York City. The Voice was founded in the mid-1950s as a bohemian counterattack against the Eisenhower zeitgeist, the Cold War and conventional Main Street journalism. By the time I began to write for it, the Voice was embroiled in a process of "modernization," meaning essentially a constant upward movement in its assessed commercial value. As of 1973, it was worth $3 million, bought from its founders by a scion of the Vanderbilts.

Scarce more than a decade later, not long after I left, it had been sold by Rupert Murdoch for around $50 million to a New Jersey property speculator. Along the way, as it moved into ever sleeker premises, the Voice was purged of raffishness and quirks. Writers who had volunteered years of ill-paid work, were efficiently dropped, even as the Voice marketed itself as the epitome of bohemian voice-ishness.

Indeed, the whole memory of the Voice's destruction came back to me when Pacifica's national directors told its goons to haul out disobedient broadcasters at KPFA, padlock the doors and play archival tapes of radicals like . . . Eric Mann and David Grossman denouncing vested power: Same game.

KPFA was established by Lewis Hill in 1949. Hill was a pacifist with noble ideals. He saw KPFA as a sanctuary from the iron heel of absentee corporate ownership, as a democratic institution, nourished in a process of give and take with the local community.. FM frequencies weren't worth much in the '50s. KPFA was a place where young Pauline Kael discussed movies and Bill Mandel gave his own radical insights into what was happening in the Soviet Union. The station was a rendezvous for cultural and political contrariness.

The process of "modernization" began at KPFA in the early 1990s, and at first many of those later trampled by Pacifica's national directorate weren't averse. Yes, it was time to clean out the cobwebs. The national directorate embarked on a makeover, designed to match the network to its value, now estimated at maybe $300 million. A postmodern headquarters rose up on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley.

But even as the donors' names were etched into the walls of the glamorous new structure, purges were being conducted with chilly zeal. Take my friend Opal Nations, one of the world's great authorities on gospel and blues. After 14 years of unpaid, brilliant programming, Opal was fired on the phone, without a thank you, half an hour before he was due to go on the air. The directorate lied to thousands of distraught listeners, saying Opal would be back soon. He has never been given another slot. He still doesn't know why he was dumped. There are scores of similar stories.

The Pacifica directorate, now headed by Mary Frances Berry, is now well advanced with a plan, equipped with all the usual boilerplate about "wider audiences," "outreach" and so forth, to complete the streamlining of Pacifica. The end result will be a mini-mutant of NPR, with a niche sales pitch of parlor radicalism, bearing about as much resemblance to the real thing as does Monterey today to John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

Berry and her accomplices are not corporate raptors like Murdoch. They're Clinton liberals, with that familiar expertise in punching the correct buttons. Berry sneers at the KPFA rebels and their supporters as white men over 50. Tactically shrewd but not true. Visiting the little tent city outside the KPFA building in Berkeley the other day, I saw as many lip rings and braids as I did the sandals and fanny packs of middle-aged Caucasians. Berry's directorate wants no accountability to any local community, no give and take beyond the checks sent in by listeners. The directorate wants an increasingly expensive national superstructure, which no doubt will be ultimately financed by the sale of one of the frequencies. Above all, the directorate wants obedience. KPFA was shut down when a broadcaster began to discuss the proposal of Pacifica's treasurer-elect for just such a sale. Berry and the directorate have now begun to talk about mediation. Aside from the lawsuit filed by the KPFA rebels, they probably are worried by the plan of a committee in the California Legislature to audit Pacifica's books.

But in truth there's no middle ground between KPFA's founding, still valid vision and what the Pacifica asset managers have in mind. In the courts and every other available venue, KPFA listeners have to challenge Pacifica's mandate and take back the license, and bring the station within the purview of the community that has sustained it down the years.

Alexander Cockburn Writes for the Nation and Other Publications

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