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Radio and Pacifica: an early history


[ From: http://www.radio4all.org/fp/shadow.htm ]

From "Cracking the Ike Age", The Dolphin No.23, Aarhus
University Press, Denmark
© 1992 John Whiting
May be quoted in part with credit as below:

Lewis Hill and the Origins of Listener-Sponsored Broadcasting in America

By John Whiting


[ John Whiting is a free-lance writer and international sound designer based in London and working throughout Europe and America. In the 1960s he was a volunteer and then Production Director/ Program Producer at KPFA, where his happy memories include technical production for Erik Bauersfeld's legendary series, Black Mass. In 1993 he published the first installment of KPFA's history, which he is struggling to complete before it becomes an obituary. ]

American radio programs of the thirties and forties are easy to get nostalgic about now that the issues they didn't confront and the questions they didn't ask are well behind us. They were intended to entertain or stimulate the listeners in such a way as to promote the sponsors' products. To that end they tried to amuse, excite, even frighten the punters into a state of mind in which they would be susceptible to the Big Sell.

As the great radio maverick Henry Morgan explained, the air time on all the network stations was filled by a small number of announcer/actors whose ranks were extremely difficult to break into: "about thirty of them did ninety percent of the work". (BUX p. vii) Morgan was himself one of this elite, having worked his way up quickly from page boy to full-time announcer by 1932 and by 1938 to his own comedy show on WOR, New York (which, at the age of seven, I half-listened to only because it occupied, on alternate days, the same time slot as Superman).

The "radio voice" was established early: it demanded a norm of intonation, inflection and voice projection which was as absolute in its rules as the BBC's so-called "standard English". Deep chest tones, bland assurance, total lack of hesitation or error were essential, so as to convey that ineffable, indispensable quality-Sincerity. This exaggerated diction also helped to compensate for the primitive equipment and the bad reception in "fringe" areas.

Lewis Hill, the founder of listener-sponsored broadcasting in America, described in 1951 one of the standard audition procedures, symptomatic of the principles and practices which had led him to seek an alternative to commercial radio:

"The test consists of three or four paragraphs minutely constructed to avoid conveying any meaning. The words are familiar and every sentence is grammatically sound, but the text is gibberish. The applicant is required to read this text in different voices, as though it meant different things: with solemnity and heavy sincerity, with lighthearted humor, and of course with 'punch'. If the judges award him the job and turn him loose on you [the audience], he has succeeded on account of an extraordinary skill in simulating emotions, intentions and beliefs which he does not possess." (MEE p.21)
Until the mid-40's, all programs were presented live. Fred Friendly (1954-1964: public affairs producer for CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System] Television; 1964-1966: President, CBS News) has explained the reason for this in his highly informative history, Due to Circumstances Beyond our Control... (FRI):
"...network policy prohibited the use of recordings lest the entire concept of chain broadcasting be destroyed; [this] might lead to such widespread syndication by records that there would be no need of a live interconnected network." (FRI pp.xiv-xv)
The object was therefore network power over local stations, most of which were voluntarily affiliated, not owned. But the fact of simultaneity was not merely a control mechanism; it also gave radio an immediacy that had never before existed in a mass medium. I can still remember the tingle of a new and strange excitement while listening in 1939 as an eight-year-old child to a speech by Adolf Hitler, realizing that he was haranguing a crowd half-way around the world at that very moment and catching, even in a totally strange lingo, something of the hypnotic mass hysteria.

There were also live "documentaries" such as The March of Time which, from 1931, dramatized contemporary history with actors playing the world's leaders (Art Carney and Agnes Moorhead, whose later acting careers would epitomize comedy and melodrama respectively, were Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt.) (BUX p.153) The less attentive listener might be uncertain whether he was listening to fact or fiction. (FRI p.xiv) Nevertheless, the audience believed that what was presented as fact had indeed taken place, even if not at that precise moment.

The depth of this conviction was demonstrated in 1938 by the hysterical public reaction to Orson Welles' legendary The War of the Worlds, to which many listeners tuned in too late to catch the opening disclaimer. Commercial television in its scramble for ratings is now regressing to this "faction" technique which Welles was spoofing, and which radio would soon outgrow.

Political controversy had to be avoided at all costs. Not that newscasters were required to be objective; rather, their prejudices were expected to reflect those of their bosses and sponsors. The most popular commentators were those with a gimmick: Gabriel Heater always opened with "There's good news tonight!", Edwin C Hill presented "the human side of the news", Fulton Lewis Jr. closed with "... and that's the top of the news as it looks from here.", Drew Pearson was introduced as the commentator "whose predictions have proved to be 84% accurate." (BUX pp.172-3) (The latter was an old fashioned muckraker whose revelations continued to make politicians squirm well into the sixties.)

Like all organized crafts, arts and professions, radio produced a small handfull of practitioners who sought to burst the straightjacket. Orson Welles, whose influence on early radio was so profound, broke the conventions in many ways--not least in his delivery, which projected a wry, laid-back irony which instantly distinguished him from his fellow-announcers, while at the same time preserving a smooth perfection which affirmed his credentials.

Henry Morgan chose satire, sending up his sponsors' advertising techniques until he exhausted, one by one, their bemused tolerance: I remember hearing, in the early forties, Morgan delivering, as Scarface, a testimonial for Schick Injector razors. Morgan didn't get away with this forever and no one else got away with it at all. It would be decades before sponsors would allow self-satire to become a cliche.

As radio grew more respectable, occasional programs and even series were given the opportunity to rise above the mediocre. This happened mostly in the areas of music and drama. The still-running Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, sponsored by Texaco, started as early as 1931. (BUX p.159) NBC [National Broadcasting Company] even founded its own symphony orchestra in 1936, calling Toscannini out of retirement to conduct it. It was given its own unique "floating" studio in Rockefeller Center. (BUX p.171) This is now a common construction technique, in which the studio is built as a totally self-contained spring- and rubber-suspended box, but at the time it was revolutionary. The man responsible was the visionary David Sarnoff, a Russian émigré who became President of RCA in 1930.

There was an occasional one-off event of total strangeness, such as the 1947 broadcast of the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. While normal life went on downstairs, I sat glued to the little radio in my father's study, having tuned in by chance to a strange hypnotic happening which bore no relationship to either life or art as I knew it. Years later, in the music archives at UC Berkeley, I would discover a complete recording of the event, privately taken off the air on to 78 RPM disks. The collector's motto is, "Everything exists!"

Radio drama, however, was more interesting than radio music. The technology of sound transmission had not yet evolved to the point where radio music was more than a crude approximation of the real thing, but in radio drama the use of sound effects made possible a rapidity and complexity of montage previously possible only in film, and at a tiny fraction of the cost. Furthermore, radio had two advantages over film: it was still "live" and therefore immediate, like the theatre; and, relying on imagination, as an anonymous child succinctly put it, "The scenery is better."

We are indebted to Orson Welles for realizing, evolving and perfecting most of the techniques which radio drama has been using ever since. After bluffing his way into the Dublin Gate Theatre in 1931 at the age of sixteen, two years later he went to New York; within five years, during which he also captured Broadway, he had bagged himself to the top of network radio. (LEA pp.50ff.) His work, first with Columbia Workshop from 1936, and then with his own Mercury Theater on the Air from 1938, set standards that have been equaled but never exceeded. (BUX pp.56, 158) Anyone intimate with radio drama who listens to Welles' films with his eyes closed will immediately spot the uniquely meticulous craftsmanship of his sound tracks.

Other important writers and directors included, most notably, Norman Corwin, Archibald MacLeish and Arch Obler. Thornton Wilder, so far as I've been able to determine, didn't write for radio; but his most famous play, Our Town, cannot but have been influenced by radio drama, and is very effective in that medium with hardly any changes. Performed on a bare stage, it depends on the stage manager's descriptions to set the scenes, and most of the action is carried by dialog. It is questionable whether any of these playwrights could have done their best work without the example, and sometimes the collaboration, of Orson Welles.

The second world war forced two major revolutions in radio news. First, the development late in the war of wire and tape recorders made it impossible to maintain the ban on delayed broadcast, since both convenience and recording quality were far in advance of 78 RPM disk transcription. Fiction documentaries were quickly superceded, since it was now possible to record actual events. Second, the seriousness of the war in Europe produced a new, more responsible breed of newscaster who spoke to a nation gradually forced out of isolation and narcissism. One of the most notable of these was Edward R. Murrow, who, working with Fred Friendly, would later transform television as well as radio public affairs programing. (FRI p.xvi)

But, aside from a few good comedy series and a sizeable body of excellent war coverage, the scripts of all the outstanding radio programs heard in America during the three decades up to 1950 would make up a rather small library. Radio broadcasters of all kinds spent most of their professional lives innocuously filling air time, which meant that radio had very little to say to the intelligent listener.

Eleanor McKinney, a founder member with Lewis Hill of Pacifica Radio, anecdotally encapsulates the total frustration which led them to desert commercial radio:

I had had quite a career in San Francisco with broadcasting as a writer/director. This was when NBC had about a hundred and twenty people on staff for drama and music and sound effects--I mean it was really a place in those days! I had done a really exciting drama which I wrote on juvenile delinquency and race relations and civil liberties. We recorded it with an NBC orchestra and the sound department and the whole works. Then they called in all the big corporations to come and audition it. They all said, this is fabulous--but I wouldn't touch it with a ten- foot pole! In those days they were considered controversial subjects. (MEI)

Like the BBC under Lord Reith, Pacifica Radio from its foundation in 1949 may fairly be described as the lengthening shadow of one man: a pacifist and poet named Lewis Hill. Both his principles and his character, integrally incorporated into Pacifica's structure, determined its name and history, and subsequently, through his direct intervention, the history of Public Broadcasting in America.

I had known Lew Hill slightly in the early fifties, and later knew many people who had worked closely with him for several years; but when I attempted to assemble a short biography I came up against a blank wall.

Several informants could outline in precise detail his opinions about pacifism, free speech and the public media, but none could tell me when or where he was born, who his parents were, where he had gone to school or college, what radio experience he had had, or what conscientious objectors' work camp he had been held in.

Further questioning elicited a consensus that he "didn't talk much about his background, but mostly about ideas" (HRI) There was further agreement that:

"...he was essentially a lonely person, because it was difficult for him to reach out to others. To simple people he was an unknown quantity and this made him feel lonely and he could never overcome it." (HRI, SRI)
Morris Horowitz, a fellow conscientious objector, tells an illuminating story involving Bayard Rustin, one of the leaders of the pacifist movement during World War II and later of civil rights:
I met Bayard in Washington once and he asked me, "Hey, do you happen to know Lew Hill?" and I said I did. He said, "They say that you can't understand what he's talking about." [laughter] I said, "That's not true at all. He's a very intelligent, very interesting talker, but he speaks in a formal, complicated way and you have to pay attention." He was an intellectual and he couldn't attain the common touch even if he tried. (HRI)
After a long search, it was from Joy Hill, Lewis's widow, that I was finally able to learn the basic biographical details that few of his colleagues seem to have been aware of. They are best told in her own words:

"He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on May 1st, 1919. His father was an attorney; his grandfather had been a Missouri doctor. His father told the story of having been in law school at the University of Missouri at Columbia. After the first semester, which he "aced", he went to the dean when spring came and said, "I don't think I can stand to keep my shoes on any longer. Can I do my studying at home and come back for the finals?" The dean said yes, and he went home....
"His father made a million dollars selling an oil company to J.P. Morgan (he was the lawyer on the deal). Lew's mother's family was the Phillips family of Phillips Petroleum (Frank hillips was her older brother). Lew's father then bought a small foundering insurance company in Tulsa, where they moved, and built it up and later went into politics. He was in the state legislature and for a part of one term he was Speaker of the Oklahoma State Legislature. But he had made a campaign pledge to clear out a graft situation in the school textbook purchasing division. He lost the reform bill by one vote, so he resigned because he had made this promise....
"Lew was sent off to military school because he was too bright for the public school, and he hated it, just despised it. He completed his first two years of college there, at Wentworth Military Academy. He was also Missouri State doubles tennis champion. But he injured his back playing football, and I really think in the long run that's what killed him....
"He went to Stanford University and he was in what they called the "university program". There were four or five really brilliant people who were working directly for their doctorate, which was for him unfortunate: when the war came along he had completed his thesis, which was on printers' changes in Troilus and Cressida between the fourth and fifth folios, but he hadn't taken his orals, so he ended up with never having a degree, even though he had about six years of college."(HJI)
While at Stanford, Hill was introduced to the teachings of the Quakers and became a pacifist. When he was drafted in 1941 he registered as a conscientious objector and quickly moved to the top of the organization representing all objectors throughout America. (PRV p.8)

The exact chronology is hard to determine, but in 1942 and 1943 he spent about fifteen months at a compulsory work camp for conscientious objectors at Coleville, California, "moving rocks from one side of the road to the other," as he put it. Between then and 1944 he was Director of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and in that capacity he travelled extensively among the CO camps on the west coast, meeting like-minded people he would later ask to help him in his great radio project. He also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C., where he met his wife-to-be:

"I graduated from college in '43 and worked for about a year in Watertown and then I came to Washington. I got a job doing copy and public relations for a small radio station, and it was there I met Lew, who had just been hired as a news announcer. He had been in
Washington to do ACLU work for a couple of weeks or so, but he had to get a job to pay the rent and feed his face! He was also writing a book. He went back to radio as the simplest thing to do. The station asked me to interview him to do a little magazine article.
"He said he didn't think he ought to because he had done just one summer of radio when he was in college....
"Lew had a wonderful radio voice. This was one of the reasons why the little radio station wondered why he'd come to work for them. The reason was he didn't have confidence enough to go to a network!" (HJI)
Several sources testify that it was between 1944 and early 1946 that Lewis Hill began to formulate plans for a non-commercial radio station for the specific purpose of promoting peace, both interpersonal and international, by means of ethical, intellectual and artistic integrity. Eleanor McKinney tried it in commercial radio in San Francisco in the early forties and decided it was "like trying to teach non-violence in the army!" (MEI)

Christopher Koch, in his brief, pungent history of Pacifica, pinpoints the conception of Hill's brain-child to a day in January 1946 when Hill was asked to read on the air a news report which he knew from first-hand experience to be untrue. He promptly resigned and headed for California to start his own station. (KOC pp.10-11) Other versions are not quite so dramatic, but are not essentially contradictory. Joy Hill reports: He said that when he got to the point where they were talking about liver flavored cat food, he had reached the bottom!" (HJI) Eleanor McKinney recalls: He went up to one of the Japanese relocation camps and saw all kinds of things which he tried to put on the air and was refused permission to do so. So he knew this was not the field he wanted to be in, where censorship prevented one from telling the truth. (MEI)

Chronology aside, all three versions are probably true and complementary. Everyone agrees that Lewis Hill came to San Francisco in 1946 with the first of a series of constantly evolving, highly detailed prospectuses for a non-commercial radio station whose twin principles would be pacifism and civil liberties. Contrary to a common misconception, the name "Pacifica" related to pacifism, not to the station's geographical location.

Hill, of course, knew San Francisco from his years at Stanford. The intellectual and artistic climate he found when he returned in 1946 is vividly captured in a few deft brush strokes by Hill's immediate friend and collaborator Kenneth Rexroth in a 1966 BBC lecture on the Beat Generation:

San Francisco was the one community in the United States which had a regional literature and art at variance with the prevailing pattern...During the war work camps for conscientious objectors were established throughout the mountains and forests of California.
These boys came down to San Francisco on their leaves. They made contact with San Francisco writers and artists who had been active in the Red Thirties but who had become...anarchists and pacifists.
During the war, meetings of pacifist and anarchist organizations continued to be well attended.
Immediately on the war's end a group of San Francisco writers and artists began an Anarchist Circle...From this group and from the artists' C.O. camp at Waldport, Oregon, came a large percentage of cultural activities in San Francisco which have lasted to the present time -- a radio station [emphasis mine], three little theatres, a succession of magazines, and a number of people who are considered the leading writers and artists of the community today. (REX p.4)
Although Lew Hill was in touch with San Francisco bohemia from the very beginning, he seems to have already fixed on Berkeley as the ideal location for his radio station. Gertrude Chiarito, who, together with her husband Americo, were among the first staff members, says that Hill:
"...felt that Berkeley would be the only place that it could possibly happen, that it would be accepted, that there would be cooperation. It was a kind of universal place because of the University, and because the people at that particular university came from such widely scattered areas."(CGI)
Rick became the first Music Director and Gert would be in charge of the subscription department for many years.

The Chiaritos were the only people on record whom Hill brought in from outside the Bay Area. Rick had been in a CO camp in Elkton, Oregon, which Hill had visited a few times, and Gert was the local postmaster. In our conversation she recalled, with a chuckle:

"We drove down here from Portland to meet with a few people and we met up with Lew and then we didn't hear much from him until about February of 1949, when we got a special delivery letter from him asking us to come down immediately! So we arrived in Berkeley on March 13th, 1949. [Gert's computer-like memory has been indispensible in piecing together KPFA's pre-history.] We worked the next month at the station getting everything together--it was a hodgepodge! And then, with great fear in our hearts, we went on the air..."(CGI)
The Chiaritos' immediate response to Hill's peremptory summons exemplifies his mesmeric ability to attract and hold support for his project. But of course he had more in his favor than mere charisma: the prospect of a mass medium becoming a genuine art form and a means of profound communication fired the imagination of everyone he canvassed.

It took Lewis Hill from 1946 to 1949 to assemble the staff and raise the money he needed to obtain a license and go on the air. His two overlapping pools of talent and information were the University at Berkeley and the bohemian enclaves of North Beach in San Francisco. One major figure who was equally at home in both was Thomas Parkinson, Professor of English at the University, whose influence in bringing the best of the Bay Area writers to KPFA, and thence to the whole of America, can hardly be exaggerated.

Of equal importance was the poet, essayist and critic Kenneth Rexroth, whose drawling, unedited, primitively home-recorded monologs, like an endless proliferation of Krapp's Last Tapes, captivated or infuriated listeners for many years. Their end product, in print, is some of America's most vivid cultural and personal history.

In the area of Public Affairs, the greatest single influence on Pacifica's founders was Alexander

Meiklejohn, an educator (President of Amhurst, 1912-24) and jurist who, in the 1950s, was to become the most noted defender and interpreter of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech.

This was both the "core of the constitution", as Meiklejohn defined it, and also, together with pacifism, the core of Pacifica's broadcasting theory and practice.

At the University, Hill sought particularly for intellectuals with ideas appropriate to his chosen medium. Robert Schutz, who was to become an early Director of Public Affairs and later Hill's second-in-command, was an early recruit:

"In 1948 I was going to school at Cal, getting a PhD and very interested in the idea of getting public exposure to the ideas which I thought were important for promoting peace in the world, so I put together a program that I thought would be a "situation comedy", got a lot of people involved with it, including professors at the University of California and people at the International House where I lived. Hill heard about this and contacted me and I decided that, although it was a pretty small operation, at least it was something to start with and so I joined up with him."(SRI)
Schutz, like other members of Pacifica's extended family, would be alternatively one of Lew Hill's most indispensable helpers and one of his most vociferous critics.

Although Hill's own radio experience was not extensive, professionalism was to be one of his guiding principles. An invaluable collaborator in this effort was Eleanor McKinney:

"I was one of the founding members from late 1946 and was KPFA's first Program Director. I had been in broadcasting in San Francisco, with NBC and later with an advertising agency where I did programs with all the local stations of ABC, NBC and CBS. I had done a number of dramas through NBC there, so I knew a lot of the actors and musicians in the area. When Lew Hill came out from the east, there was a gathering of people we already knew in the fields of poetry and literature.
"He had a prospectus already of this idea he had when he was back east. He was frustrated with commercial broadcasting. He had a party and Tom Parkinson and Richard Moore [who would himself later be head of PBS stations in San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul] and myself went to this party and that's where I met them--or perhaps it was in Richard Moore's apartment on Post Street in San Francisco, where we had several meetings of poetry and anarchist philosophy--I think that's the first time I met Lew and Joy. That would be in 1946." (MEI)

Eleanor McKinney would go on to help build and document Pacifica Radio for many years. She is the editor of The Exacting Ear (MEE), an anthology of representative program transcripts and the only book devoted to this seminal cultural phenomenon.

Another member of the original team, according to Schutz, was Bill Triest. He had been with the only independent classical music station in the Bay Area, KSMO in San Mateo. He would later be one of the many KPFA alumni who moved on to KQED, San Francisco, one of the first listener-supported TV and FM stations in America.

So far as I can determine, the other original staff members were John Lewis, and Edward Meese who was the station's engineer for many years. Lewis was the first Public Affairs director and a member of the board before the station began broadcasting, but, according to Eleanor McKinney, he wasn't there for long: "he had a hard time financially and a family and he couldn't stick it out." (MEI) Through the years, many staff would leave for the same reason.

It is difficult to identify those who were staff and those who were volunteers in the early days. Even sources who were with the station from the very beginning differ among themselves as to how many actual staff members there were. Pacifica's own 40th anniversary souvenir pamphlet identifies both Eleanor McKinney and Richard Moore, on different pages, as KPFA's first Program Director. (PRV pp.1,8) Some volunteers worked as hard and were as omnipresent as staff, and no program participants were ever paid for their appearances on the air, so that even payrolls are misleading.

A sequence of technical and social changes had to occur in order for this unlikely project to take to the air. When Lew and Joy Hill came to the Bay Area, they assumed that they would be starting an AM station, and they worked from that premise for some time. But they came up against the financial realities of media control:

"We anticipated getting on the air a lot sooner than we did. Our son was born in March 1947 and we were hoping to get on the air around his birth time, but were not able to. There was an AM channel available, but we did not qualify for it because we didn't have the money for it. This was a great blow and we had in effect to start over...Perhaps the hardest part of the whole thing was switching from AM to FM, which was brand new and no one had access to it." (HJI)
FM radio was just being launched in America. Therefore there were open channels available which were not yet worth a great deal of money, since there were very few receivers and only a small audience. The new medium was especially suited to the kind of broadcasting Hill intended, which was to achieve a high technical as well as intellectual and artistic standard. A few years earlier there would have been only low-fidelity AM channels, prohibitively expensive to acquire; a few years later FM would also become expensive, though not in the same league as AM, whose broadcast radius and therefore its audience were much greater. In the meantime the asset, a greenfield site, would become also a liability as KPFA struggled to reach an audience without FM receivers.

FM was so new that, like some primitive witchcraft, its technical parameters were still clouded by superstition. Gert Chiarito reports that, incredibly, ... the original plan was for the transmitter to be at Point Isabel in Richmond. That was because at that time they thought that FM transmitters had to have their feet in salt water, and Point Isabel was the ideal location to reach all sides of the Bay Area. If we had been able to get property at Point Isabel, which would have been very cheap, we probably would have tried to build something there or use some trailers.

The location finally chosen and successfully negotiated was in Berkeley at the top of the Koerber Building, a six-story structure at 2050 University Avenue. As Eleanor McKinney reports in The Exacting Ear:

"The studios and control room were custom built, mostly from used equipment. Friends and strangers heard about the new venture and came up to help stuff sound- proofing materials into the studio walls, hammer on sound tile, help with the carpentry and painting...
"The offices were jammed with different groups rehearsing programs, with carpenters, engineers and staff members trying to be everywhere at once.
One night the first signals of the new transmitter were tested. At home, in the early morning, we turned on a radio. There came the familiar voice of our engineer. The thing actually worked. It was a miracle. At three o'clock in the afternoon on April 15th, 1949, Lew Hill stepped to the microphone, and the workmen, hammering down the carpet at the last minute, paused at their work. The rest of us were busy pounding out program copy and continuity on typewriters nearby. He announced for the first time: "This is KPFA, listener- sponsored radio in Berkeley." For a moment the typewriter copy blurred before our eyes--and the project was underway." (MEE, pp. 11-12)

Going on the air was a remarkable achievement, but it was only the first step. The continuing problem, as Lewis Hill knew, was how the station was to be supported. In spite of the dangers, limited advertising was at first considered but was soon rejected because it would have prevented the foundation being granted charity status, which was essential for survival. It was also seen to be the worm in the bud, as Eleanor McKinney explains:

"The commercial thing was absolutely woven into the fabric of broadcasting. That's why Lew wanted to disengage listener-sponsored radio from any kind of commercial structure, because it goes into every area: you then have to devote a large percentage of your staff to all kinds of work for commercial ends."(MEI)
During the three years' gestation, several prospectuses appeared which indicate the constantly involving nature of Hill's thinking, but the most useful source of information is Hill's own book, Voluntary Listener Sponsorship, which he wrote in 1957 as a report on the station's progress.

An alternative to conventional commercial backing had to be found. Hill and his associates were aware of earlier experiments in which audience support was solicited:

The idea of obtaining money directly from a radio audience, to help pay broadcasting expenses, has had numerous applications in post-war America. A decade before World War II, in New York City, the idea was anticipated in the first publication of a monthly program bulletin, by a commercial 'good music' station.

Here the audience paid a nominal subscription for the bulletin alone, covering its printing and mailing costs. Later years however saw stations of this same type in Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, and Seattle both publishing program bulletins for subscribers and setting aside a particular day's schedule or a single program series. Other 'good music' stations have resorted to their audiences with random appeals for emergency operating funds, as necessity warranted.

Though many of these arrangements or appeals involved an effort to organize listeners into participating councils with positive cultural objectives, they were generally a last resort of the stations employing them. They marked not a chosen course of listener-oriented broadcasting, but the failure of the specialized station to make its way in the competitive market. Several such stations relying on random audience appeals to supplement advertising revenue were forced to close, or to abandon specialization, after response to the appeals dwindled. So far as is known, no plan embodying a concept of continued listener-payment for operating expenses has survived in commercial radio. Efforts of this kind to place a measure of responsibility on the listener for what he receives have labored against the fact that the listener was free to receive the program whether or not he helped pay for it. (HVL pp.1-2)

Hill went on to consider the possibility of "scrambling" signals so as to make the listener rent an unscrambling device in order to receive them. Such technology, still experimental in the late 40's, is now commonplace, but Hill's rejection of it would still apply to any medium wishing to reach a large audience of the unconverted: 'A signal excluding non-subscribers from the listening privilege would not have served its purposes. The KPFA signal was to be available to the entire public...'(HVL pp.3-4)

Lewis Hill arrived at a theory which he set out to prove: a non-commercial radio station could survive if two percent of its potential audience could be persuaded to pay a voluntary subscription to support it. He was convinced from the beginning that the paying audience would be predominantly middle- to upper-class liberals.

This "2% theory", as Hill formulated it, was to be one of the philosophical as well as economic cornerstones of Pacifica Radio. In its early years, Pacifica was never remotely proletarian except in sympathy:

Here [is] perhaps the most profound implication of the theory of listener-sponsorship. As a general rule, it is persons of education, mental ability, or cultural heritage equating roughly with the sources of intellectual leadership in the community who tend to become voluntary listener-sponsors. In the KPFA experiment this correspondence was empirically unmistakable, although the subscribing audience apparently touched every economic stratum. It is thus clear that the 2% theory, when we speak of supporting serious cultural broadcasting by this means, represents also a way of extending the legitimate functions of social and cultural leadership [emphasis Hill's].
Obviously, to earn systematic support from the community's intellectual leadership, the listener- sponsored station must give the values and concerns of that leadership an accurate reflection at their highest level...Because the resulting broadcast service is public, the community at large-no doubt by slow accretion and assimilation--is enabled to participate in the best aspects of its own culture as few communities have done before. (HVL pp.13-14)
This is both a statement of intent and of history, for Lewis Hill wrote it after KPFA had been on the air for eight years. Although the ends were democratic and egalitarian, the means, and even the broader cultural premises, were unambiguously, unashamedly elitist. The history of Pacifica Radio, and then of National Public Broadcasting in America, is a saga of conflict among those who wished to shift the emphasis towards one pole or the other.

Six years earlier in 1951, after two cliff-hanging years of success and failure, Lewis Hill had discussed the theory of listener-sponsored radio in a broadcast talk. It rested, he said, upon two assumptions: First, that radio can and should be used for significant communication and art; and second, that since broadcasting is an act of communication, it ought to be subject to the same aesthetic and ethical principles as we apply to any communicative act, including the most personal. (MEE p.20)

Hill was aware that within the context of commercial radio such assumptions are utopian:

The purpose of commercial radio is to induce mass sales. For mass sales there must be a mass norm, and the activity must be conducted as nearly as possible without risk of departure from the norm...By suppressing the individual, the unique, the industry reduces the risk of failure (abnormality) and assures itself a standard product for mass consumption...
This is the first problem that listener sponsorship sets out to solve--to give the genuine artist and thinker a possible, even a desirable, place to work in radio. (MEE pp.21-22)
Paradoxically, the problem was part of the solution. Pacifica could never have afforded to pay the hundreds of program participants that appeared on the air, but the very fact of commercial radio's awfulness meant that they were prepared to work for nothing, simply in order to find a mass audience for the things they were unable to say and do in the commercial media:
America is well supplied with remarkably talented writers, musicians, philosophers, and scientists whose work will survive for some centuries. Such people have no relation whatever to our greatest communication medium... [This] is actually so notorious in the whole tradition and atmosphere of our radio that it precludes anyone of serious talent and reasonable sanity from offering material for broadcast, much less joining a staff. The country's best minds, like one mind, shun the medium unless the possessor happens to be running for public office. Yet if we want an improvement in radio worth the trouble, it is these people whose talent the medium must attract. (MEE p.22)
So far Lewis Hill might have been writing a prospectus for a government-sponsored public service such as the BBC. But he and his fellow-founders set out to establish a degree of self-regulation, which would have been impossible in a quasi-official institution:
The people who actually do the broadcasting should also be responsible for what and why they broadcast. In short, they must control the policy which determines their actions... Whatever else may happen, we thus assign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio are normally denied him.

KPFA is operated literally on this principle. (MEE p.23)

Hill anticipated that autocracy would be tempered by "market forces":
Some self-determining group of broadcasters might find that no one...gave a hang for their product...What then? Then...there would be no radio station...and the various individualists involved could go scratch for a living. But it is the reverse possibility that explains what is most important about listener sponsorship. When we imagine the opposite situation, we are compelled to account for some conscious flow of influences, some creative tension between broadcaster and audience that constantly reaffirms their mutual relevance. (MEE p.24)
Listener subscription was therefore intended to be more than just a means of meeting expenses. Unlike the BBC, subscription to KPFA was to be voluntary. Anyone could listen for nothing; it was up to the staff and the excellence of the programs themselves to persuade the listeners to contribute. Subscribers to the station received the Folio, a monthly publication which listed and described the programs. But Hill emphasized that they were subscribing, not to the periodical, but to the station itself:
Actually sending in the subscription, which one does not have to send in unless one particularly wants to, implies the kind of cultural engagement, as some French philosophers call it, that is surely indispensable for the sake of the whole culture. (MEE p.25)
So far the audience has been an abstraction; it has not been defined or described. Before beginning in detail an analysis of Pacifica's programming, we should give our attention to the prospective audience as Lewis Hill perceived it.

Rather than attempt to imagine and then address a "typical" listener, Hill tore up the advertising manuals and started from a totally different premise:

The audience was believed to consist of an individual, whose intention was to listen. The listening individual was assumed to have an alertness, an intelligence, an interest and an attention span commensurate with those of the persons preparing and airing the program. There was no wish to persuade persons in the audience to listen beyond the range of their interests or at the sacrifice of their preconceptions. The number of persons who might be expected to listen to a given program at a given hour was not a governing criterion for either its method of presentation or its scheduling. The station was frankly against the idea of "background" programming, especially in music, and urged its audience to listen with complete selectivity. It was, in fact, a hopeful assumption that the radio would be turned off, or to another frequency, when KPFA's particular program had less than a compelling value for an audience of one. (HVL p.44)
Having established two totally revolutionary principles--absence of commercial sponsorship and indifference to a mass audience--Hill went on to describe in detail some of the attributes of a broadcasting medium which would conform to these criteria. The very fact of non-commercial broadcasting led at once to two interlocking principles: there was no time-ownership and no need for commercial breaks:
On examination of the tradition and uses of second- hand timing in commercial radio, it appeared that this practice had an entirely economic origin and meaning. Since at best it poses an obstacle to programming freedom, there appeared no reason whatever for its continuance in educational radio not engaged in the sale of time segments. (HVL p.53)
This had two highly pragmatic results: (1) the absence of commercial breaks meant that broadcasts could assume whatever attention span was required by the subject matter; and (2) this could be extended to its logical conclusion; i.e., a program could be as long as necessary or appropriate. This was particularly important in accommodating live broadcasts, which were an integral part of Pacifica's programming policy.

These principles may not be remarkable to those familiar with the BBC Third Programme (now Radio Three), but it had only been on the air since 1946, when Hill was already beginning to formulate his plans. Within the context of American commercial radio, they were revolutionary.

In order to give flexibility to programs listed in the Folio but not yet timed or timeable, "miscellany" slots were scattered through the day:

The occasional...use of a Miscellany period denotes KPFA's particular approach to this old and vexing problem in broadcasting...Its length, as scheduled, varied from 5 to 15 minutes. A variety of reading matter and brief music selections was kept on hand for use as...the announcer on duty thought interesting and appropriate to occupy the time before the next scheduled program. (HVL p.53)
Another important factor in communicating with the audience in a totally different manner was the use of voices on the air which did not sound like typical radio announcers. We have already quoted Lew Hill's ironic description of a typical audition procedure; KPFA attempted to be, at all times, one intelligent person talking to another.

"Theme music", although not prohibited, was not encouraged and rarely occurred:

Programs were put on the air with a simple announcement of their content or purpose...It was not thought necessary to lure the listener with titles, or in any way to attempt to disguise the fact that an event of broadcasting was taking place, as distinguished from an event of the lecture-hall, auditorium or theater. (HVL p.54)
Thus the attributes of commercial radio were examined one by one and for the most part rejected.

All these factors taken together meant that a listener could tune in the station at any time and instantly determine that he had arrived at something unique. It is no wonder that KPFA quickly gathered an enthusiastic audience which had little in common except discrimination and intelligence.


The cornerstone of Pacifica's structure was pacifism/non-violence; this was intended to be not only the content of its programming but also the guiding principle of its organization. Its successes and failures were to be a microcosm of human history. As Eleanor McKinney remembers:

I've seen comparisons in Pacifica's history with all kinds of things since, even America and Russia. It is the human story. Our bylaws said that: we were to study causes of conflict among individuals and nations, and ways to resolve those conflicts. (MEI)
As important as non-violence, and integrally related to it, was allegiance to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech. It was no accident that Alexander Miekeljohn was one of the first and most influential advisers to KPFA. In a famous speech which he first gave before a congressional committee and later as a prize-winning radio broadcast in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunt, he set forth the principles which more than any other were to unite Pacifica's broadcasters:
...in our popular discussions unwise ideas must have a hearing as well as wise ones, dangerous ideas as well as safe, un-American as well as American...To be afraid of ideas, of any idea, is to be unfit for self- government. Any such suppression of ideas about the common good the First Amendment condemns with its absolute disapproval. The freedom of ideas shall not be abridged. (MEE pp.131, 137)
The pursuit of this ideal was to keep the Pacifica stations in constant trouble. Their regular airing of avowed and suspected radicals would subject them to constant right-wing attack and occasional government investigation. But Pacifica's scrupulous civil libertarian principles also gave air time to the very forces that were attacking them. Casper Weinberger, who would become President Reagan's bellicose Secretary of Defense, was a regular commentator and KPFA supporter in the 1960s. I also remember the elegant precision with which Byron Bryant, a public affairs programmer for KPFA in the fifties, interviewed two principal leaders of the American Nazi Party.

KPFA's balance was in its totality, not within any single program. As Elsa Knight Thompson, the station's most long-serving public affairs director, was to put it laconically in the early sixties, balanced programming did not consist of having someone say yes every time someone else said no.

But there was another aspect of program balance which Hallock Hoffman, a later President of Pacifica Foundation, was to set forth during an investigation by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1963:

In my opinion, Pacifica should lean toward programs that present either opinions or information not available elsewhere...I think Pacifica serves the ideal of balance if it spends little time reinforcing popular beliefs...I feel Pacifica should be on the lookout for information that is hard for people to get from other sources...I believe Pacifica should regard its audiences as composed of mature, intelligent, and responsible adults, who can be trusted to make up their own minds...I do not believe Pacifica should tell its audience what to think about the content of its programs... (MEE pp.32-3)
Lewis Hill's intention was to address a series of minority audiences, which would not necessarily overlap. The principles and predilections of Pacifica's broadcasters evolved into a list of program categories, each supervised by a departmental director. These, as set forth by Hill in 1957, provide an accurate overview of approximately the first fifteen years of KPFA's programming. I have added some personal comments in brackets, as well as percentage figures for each category taken from Hill's book.
Music, including ethnic and folk music and studies in the jazz genre, but with the principal emphasis on serious music, "classical" and contemporary. So-called semi-classical or light music, and popular dance music of the day, were not used. [Pop music was not yet taken seriously.] The analysis of music forms and history was part of this category. [48%]
Public affairs, through individual commentaries and group discussions incorporating as broad an opinion spectrum as possible, and with the deliberate intention of enabling minority views on important issues to be heard alongside the more orthodox. [By the early 60s,the battery-operated portable tape recorder would add one of Pacifica's most distinctive and distinguished formats, the public affairs documentary.]
It was meant to include in this program category the broadcasting of news compiled and edited from sources not usually brought together for radio. [18%]
Literature and Drama, again with particular attention to contemporary work in these fields, but drawing also upon the excellent work of the BBC in classical drama. [As serious drama gradually faded from commercial radio, Pacifica's productions would gain national attention.] The station aimed to function as a direct outlet for new poetry and the presentation of contemporary poets [which it achieved with great distinction]. Reviews and lectures were included. [16%]
Philosophy and Science, the latter viewed also in its philosophical ramifications. Technical lectures in science were not part of the format, but considerable emphasis was given the relationship of modern scientific thought to traditional western philosophies. Oriental philosophy, particularly the variants of Buddhism, had considerable treatment [thanks principally to Alan Watts, as we shall see]. In addition to a relatively few programs formally oriented to topics in these fields, there was a general intention to relate discussions on public affairs to questions of fundamental philosophical import. [7%] [As this low figure indicates, there were not enough programs to justify a specialist department, and they were subsumed under Public Affairs and, in some cases, Drama and Literature.]
Programs for Children, ranging through the subject matter of the four categories mentioned. The emphasis fell on pre-school programs with some instructional value, although material in this category was often conceived simply as an effort to provide wholesome entertainment alternatives [then, as now, a losing battle in American commercial broadcasting]. Programs designed specifically for children were scheduled in the hour between 5 and 6 p.m. [10%] (HVL, pp.41-2, 50)
From the very beginning, program participants included names which were or would become familiar throughout the country. The sample week's programs which Hill included in Voluntary Listener Sponsorship is worth reprinting here because it presents more of the flavor of KPFA's broadcasting than any means short of listening to the programs themselves. Several of the names merit parenthetical identification:

Continued in part 2

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