By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Meanwhile, the wrong people are telling me that the staff, paid and volunteer, is beaten down and barely functioning. The money from the pledge drive, even though it was earmarked for the exclusive use of KPFK and is supposedly sitting in a local bank account, has yet to filter down to the station. So short is ready cash that there's no money for colored markers; recently the phones were cut off for a day. More than one employee expresses weary frustration at the endless internal sniping on and off the air. One predicts that in six months the audience will dwindle into "the banned and the fired" and their supporters -- the LAB's "true" audience.
THIS IS THE KIND OF BATTLE THAT HAS MORE THAN once threatened to destroy Pacifica, a tiny network of five stations nationwide that for the last 50 years has been the sole broadcast voice of the left, a radio equivalent of and collaborator with The Nation magazine. Founded after World War II by a group of Bay Area conscientious objectors as a listener-sponsored alternative to commercial radio, Pacifica was designed to offer a forum for the free exchange of views between diverse groups. The network's highs have been high indeed, mostly when competing factions have united against a common enemy -- McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Iran-contra. Time was when the network also boasted some of the richest cultural programming in radio: Film critic Pauline Kael cut her teeth at KPFA in Berkeley, which also aired guru-philosopher Alan Watts, and the Beats; the network was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's Howl. But in the late '70s, as movements on the left grew more fragmented and identity politics displaced class struggle on the left agenda, sectarian programming crept in, carving up the audience by ethnicity, gender or ideological tendency. Listener-sponsored radio was reborn as "community radio," with airtime allocated to those mostly unpaid volunteers who could shout the loudest on behalf of their ethnic, political or spiritual groups. One KPFK activist, according to a piece by John Dinges in The Nation two years ago, actually tried to bequeath his air slot in his will.
In the late '80s, with audience numbers in free fall and many so-called loyal listeners tuning in for as little as minutes a week, Pacifica's national board began to enact reforms designed to professionalize the stations and increase their audiences. This brought loud protests from local programmers passionately attached to their soapboxes. Since 1998, both the board and its detractors have squandered time, energy and scads of money squabbling over the practice of its mission, with one side claiming the other was stuck in the '60s while the other accused the board of trying to water down Pacifica and turn it into NPR, which had lured away not only many of the network's listeners, but some of its liveliest broadcasters. Thousands of dollars were spent on lawsuits, public relations, and even on security when the brawling became physical. For a while, Schubb, who was committed to reform, managed to keep KPFK out of the fray. The station doubled its audience, tripled its fund-raising, and rebuilt its studio and its transmitters. Though even some of his supporters say Schubb's diplomatic skills were not what they might have been, he did replace some of the ghettoized programming favored by the LAB and its supporters with more cerebral fare that brought the station some much-needed sophistication without abandoning its critical edge. The jewel in the crown was drive-time public affairs: Cooper's daily show, plus Radio Nation, his weekly collaboration with The Nation magazine (He also writes a column for L.A. Weekly.); Jon Wiener's, Suzi Weissman's and Joe Domanick's early-evening drive-time shows. (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute film commentary on Wiener's show.) And though, aside from the music programming, arts coverage remained inexplicably weak for a network that once boasted the likes of Kael, Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jon Beaupré's early-morning magazine lent the programming a certain urbanity and elegance.
Depending on who's talking, KPFK has either sailed into a glorious new era of free speech and accountability to its listeners, or slunk back to a chaotic and politically byzantine past. Starr and the LAB are promising to reopen the station to community participation, especially minorities, which they accuse Schubb and those he nurtured of neglecting. "Mark Schubb, with the blessing of the prior Pacifica administration, simply refused to fulfill his duty to work with the LAB," says Dave Fertig, the LAB's representative to the interim national board. "With resumed community involvement and openness at KPFK and Pacifica, I believe the recent reckless mismanagement, and the enforced silence about it, is unlikely to recur." This line of argument maddens Schubb, who says he hired more people of color during his tenure than had ever been hired during the station's history, though he freely admits that it's hard to find talented black, Latino, Asian or other minority journalists when the pay at Pacifica is so lousy. Which goes to the heart of the degree to which identity politics has displaced the less sexy but more useful category of economic inequality on the far left. Is ethnic inequality redressed, as Schubb interprets it, by affirmative action or, as the episode of the black separatists amply illustrates, by doling out airtime to anyone ä who happens to have dark skin? Schubb is infuriated by the thought that the balkanized programming he so painstakingly dismantled will return to KPFK as a result of such woolly and condescending thinking about how ethnic minorities use radio. "I'm sure," he says dryly, "that if you're a janitor working a 10-hour job and then another in some fast-food place, you want to come home and listen to the Marxist Struggle Hour or the Latvian Accordion Hour on KPFK." Pacifica has allowed such programming to go on, he says, "out of some bogus liberalism, some bullshit permissiveness that I think is one of the core problems of the left in America. Whoever yells the loudest gets whatever they want. At a certain point the smart people just leave, and the angry ones run it until it's dead."