Sunday, April 15, 2001 (SF Chronicle)
KPFA -- the Last Bastion Of Free Speech and Poetry
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Poetry and freedom of speech are doing just fine in these United
States. That is, if you are not trying to speak freely on Pacifica's
KPFA in Berkeley or its sister station WBAI in New York.
As a poet and editor, I have a live interest in the present battle
for unfettered freedom of speech on KPFA-FM. Lewis Hill, KPFA's
founder, always signed the station off the air with a poem. For a long time
KPFA was almost the only station in the Bay Area where a poet could
read his latest work. (KPOO-FM was another.)
Truly listener-supported and free of advertising, KPFA has been a
bastion of free speech and independent intellect for more than 50
years. It's still 100 percent free of commercial underwriting, but no
longer free in what one is allowed to say on the air. In protest, WBAI
recently changed its motto from "Free Speech Radio" to simply "Speech
KPFA was the first alternative station in the nation, founded in
the late 1940s by Hill and a group of pacifists, many of whom had been
conscientious objectors during World War II. Their vision was to
broadcast on the highest level of human discourse, with the ultimate
aim of world peace.
But in the 1960s, as Matthew Lasar puts it in his book "Pacifica
Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network," "McCarthyism forced the
Pacifica radio network to define itself less as an institution in
search of humanist dialogue -- the goal of its founders -- and more as
a defender of the right of the individual to speak."
The Pacifica National Board has in the last few years made a mockery
of the founders' idealistic aims, throttling programmers, even removing
them bodily from the air and banning them from station premises, firing
staffers and managers without consulting the locals. The board wrested
local control from its stations, centralizing it in Washington, D.C.,
and rewrote the foundation's bylaws, further empowering itself and
making it easier to sell its stations to the highest commercial bidder.
If this is judged legal for this nonprofit foundation, dissident
poets and other KPFA participants whom I have edited and published --
among the most recent is historian Michael Parenti -- may no longer be
heard uncensored on 94.1 FM. It may become more like mainstream radio,
driven by audience ratings. The national board's desire to broaden the
base of listenership and increase the audience naturally results in a
lowering of intellectual content, contributing to the dumbing down of
Centralizing network control in Washington is the very opposite of
what the Pacifica founders intended: giving voice to people of all
points of view on the local level. The founders were prescient in
fearing concentration of media in the hands of a few. A later Pacifica
policy called the Fairness Doctrine stated that "by restricting the
flow of information essential to political discourse and citizen
participation, media trusts imperil democracy."
Today, the same peril is seen in the corporatization of America, with
conglomerates concentrating control of broadcast and print media in
fewer and fewer hands. MIT professor Noam Chomsky has said that under
the American system of interlocking corporate directorates, public
opinion is as effectively controlled as in most dictatorships. You can
discount this as the usual paranoia of the left, but the founders of
Pacifica must certainly be turning in their graves.
The crisis at Pacifica radio today is crucial, to put it mildly.
One of the KPFA programmers, in violation of a gag rule enjoining them
not to discuss such matters on air, has said "this is crunch time -- a
very desperate situation in the fight to save KPFA and everything we
have worked for all these years." Another is urging listeners to support
"this last bastion where you can speak out. At WBAI in New York they
can no longer say anything."
Bay Area media have covered the conflict to some extent, but what
about the schools and departments of journalism in the universities
here, and the professors in them? And isn't it about time that First
Amendment lovers all over the Bay Area spoke up loudly in its defense?
(Try logging on to http://www.savepacifica.net .)
If a great new poet arises, will there be a station left to put
him on the air uncensored? I still hear America singing in all its
crazy wisdom on FM radio, and I don't want to hear it drowned out by
those who don't want to hear it.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was San Francisco's first poet laureate.
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