Lee Felsenstein

written July 19, 1999 

Some thoughts on the KPFA/Pacifica crisis:

After living in Berkeley for several years I came to the realization that KPFA was the reason why Berkeley was Berkeley, and not just another university town like Palo Alto. The closed-loop direct feedback loop from the community through the news and public affairs programming back to the community allowed issues and actions to be augmented with an absolute minimum of editorial interference.

KPFA was not just our outlet for information, but an attractant. We knew that the people there would be sympathetic and informed about our issues, and that we could get an announcement on the air without too much trouble.

I remember in 1962 Burton White of the KPFA news department touring with the notorious "Operation Abolition" film and setting the record straight about the HUAC protests of 1960. Here was a reporter who would be there with the protestors! What kind of station supported him in that kind of reportage? Later that year I heard a tape of subversive songs (by the standards of the time) played furtively -- at the end came a KPFA station ID! Here was a radio station that would broadcast illegal songs! I headed for Berkeley as soon as I could.

KPFA taught us the lesson that we put into practice with the FSM -- that "little, ordinary people" (as Mario said later in another context) could be entrusted with the power to control their own communications. That free speech, though a little messy and not always showing its best face, worked better than any system of control. And it happened in Berkeley because we knew that we would not face a politically hostile reception when we tried to get our story told on KPFA.

Community is implemented through communication. Any political entity must control its own lines of communication. The threat of a neutered KPFA is the threat of a neutered community. Until we can replace that channel with a panoply of others as easy to use (and the Internet is nowhere near as easy for end users as a radio station), KPFA remains vital to the kind of analytic activism that typifies Berkeley.

I do not yet hold to the idea that the conscious motivation for the Pacifica board is to destroy the community of activism that relies on KPFA, but I must admit that there is growing evidence of a confluence of interest between these self-described "progressives" and the powers of political reaction.

Those of us who fought to secure free speech rights on the UC campus have a responsibility to raise our voices in support of the institution that supported us then and which continues (with this hopefully brief interruption) to support the later generations of activists in their fervent causes. We are elders now, and we might as well get used to our responsibilities. We have our role to play, just as we had then.

Lee Felsenstein Palo Alto, CA  lee_f@interval.com


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