Twixt Art & Politics: the History of Pacifica

Here are the opening paragraphs of a lengthy, thoughtful review of Matthew Lasar’s second volume of the history of Pacifica Radio — Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, Great Britain, Black Apollo Press, 2006, 430pp, ISBN 1 900355 450 — by John Whiting, musical wizard, audio-master, food-writer & someone who worked for Pacifica some fifty years ago. Here’s how he described his involvement with Pacifica: “In 1965 Whiting was Production Director at Berkeley’s egghead FM station, KPFA. His defining moment came when he created the post of London Correspondent for Pacifica Radio and assigned himself to it. For the next four years he was the poor man’s Alistair Cooke, feeding programs across the Atlantic in the opposite direction.” In the email that alerted me to Whiting’s review, he gives the following reasons for publishing it on his website:

The review won’t, alas, be published in _American Studies in Scandinavia_, who commissioned it. Upon submission, the present editors asked me to rewrite and resubmit, talking more about the book and less about the stations. This I refused to do; it would have perpetuated the misapprehension that Pacifica was all about politics, and not also one of the major forums of the avant-garde.

The former editor, who commissioned my review of the first volume in 1999, writes me that he would happily have published it just as it stands. Never mind; it will probably reach a wider audience through my website than buried in an obscure scholarly journal in the frozen north.

Here are the reviews opening paras, and you can read the rest here:

War in Heaven

Matthew Lasar continues his encyclopaedic history of KPFA and Pacifica Radio

This review was commissioned by American Studies in Scandinavia, for whom I had reviewed Matthew’s first volume in 1999; but on submission the present editors asked for substantive changes in content and emphasis which I was unwilling to make. I publish it here as I wrote it, with the added benefit of metalinks.

KPFA-FM Berkeley, America’s first listener-supported non-commercial radio station, went on the air in 1949. Half a century later, reviewing Matthew Lasar’s Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network for American Studies in Scandinavia, I wrote:

Although [pacifist poet and broadcaster Lewis] Hill and his co-founders did not intend that KPFA should be directly controlled by the community, its openness and informality led its listeners to presume a proprietary interest—it sounded democratic. This contradiction would be at the heart of all the attempted invasions and palace revolutions which over the years would make the Pacifica network a perpetual battleground.

The history of this “fine old conflict” [Thank you Jessica Mitford!] shows us yet again how difficult it is to induce analytic thought in a mass audience that wants merely to be entertained. In his second volume of Pacifica history, Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, Lasar acknowledges this dilemma, but with a diplomatic ambiguity:

A dialogue emerged between two narrative explanations competing for the attention of the public: a democracy narrative and a relevance narrative. Both had their roots in tensions that went back to the very beginnings of the Pacifica organization and could be found in Lewis Hill’s public writings and letters. The debate between these two narratives generated widespread attention as the Pacifica fight became a metaphor for the anxieties many progressive Americans felt about the rightward drift and consolidation of the media. [pp290-1]

Lasar took this as his organizing theme. The “rightward drift” meant that he was unable to interest a mainstream American publisher, and so he ultimately signed up with a British house. He emailed me last year:

Europeans find Pacifica fascinating, especially in contrast to the rest of U.S. politics. I’ve been interviewed by the BBC, Deutsche Rundfunk and French TV about Pacifica over the last two years. But nobody in the United States ever calls me.

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