Pacifica Radio, A Truly Progressive Voice of Dissent

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Everyone loves a good NPR piece. For a long time, it was my go-to radio station. Recently, however, I’ve found a new love in Pacifica Radio. What is amazing about Pacifica is, well, everything.

In an age of government spying, covert wars, and a crackdown on civil liberties, it is increasingly important to have a full understanding of vital issues and events within the United States and around the world. Pacifica is fiercely independent radio that is not afraid to confront tough issues and guide listeners through in-depth topics which most news organizations skim over.

But what is Pacifica? What makes it different?

First airing in 1949 in Berkeley, California, Pacifica is the oldest public radio station in the United States. In fact, it quite possibly is the oldest public radio station in the world. Interestingly, the strong, independent foundations that Pacifica was built upon was the basis of NPR’s structure as a public radio station. After starting up KPFA in Berkeley, four other Pacifica owned stations popped up across the nation over time: KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York City, KPFT in Houston, and WPFW in Washington D.C.

Pacifica founder Lewis Hill.

Pacifica founder Lewis Hill.

Pacifica was founded by Lewis Hill, a reporter who was fired from his job in Washington D.C. after refusing to misrepresent the facts about World War II. He moved to California and proved naysayers wrong when he started KPFA, running on public funds. With no broadcast limitations, Pacifica has been remarkably involved with the peace movement, women’s rights, worker’s rights and civil rights. The list goes on.

Some highlights of Pacifica’s coverage over the years include a variety of forward thinking and taboo topics. They aired a live discussion about the effects of marijuana in 1954, which was later impounded by the California State Attorney.

In 1965, it was the first station to broadcast an American reporter from North Vietnam. In 1967, they broadcast an interview with Che Guevara months before his assassination, and also gave complete coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973.

Their history is filled with many firsts, and many “heard only on,” broadcasts.  All of their reports have been saved in what is known as the Pacifica Archives. A great resource for historians.

As I mentioned earlier, Pacifica is fiercely independent. It is completely listener funded and is 100% commercial free. Meaning that it is not owned or financed by a corporation or a single person, who can spew their agenda through “news anchors.” Here is a good example of what I mean.

Free from the restrictions of commercial radio, Pacifica stations are given complete freedom with their programming and in the past, they have had to fight in order to keep their freedom of speech on the airwaves. For example, they were investigated in the early 1960s by the House of Un-American Activities and when the Houston based KPFT first opened, it was bombed twice by the Ku Klux Klan and KPFT was forced to stage a media campaign to get the federal government to act.

There have also been internal problems with Pacifica, mostly stemming in the 1990s. With recent events (including Hurricane Sandy) and a misguided board of directors, the New York based station WBAI was forced to lay off 19 of their 29 paid workers this August in order to continue running the station. As one previous radio host put it, “through all this internal turmoil and on-air rot, the audience predictably dwindled… Once a major presence in New York City politics and culture, [WBAI] became utterly irrelevant.”

Apparently, even public radio stations deal with politics.

Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

Luckily, the example of WBAI is far from the truth when it comes to KPFK here in Los Angeles. With a wide variety of programming and the widest broadcast reach in the country, KPFK offers a wealth of knowledge. Among the programming, each morning begins with the award-winning Democracy Now!, the flagship program of Pacifica. Democracy Now! is a non-profit news, analysis, and opinion hour, which broadcasts from under “the Shadow of the Empire State Building,” as the host Amy Goodman so eloquently puts it. With regular guests such as Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Scahill, and Julian Assange, this program is not for the faint of heart.

But not all of the Pacifica broadcasts are political. Over the years, some of the stations have hosted cultural events as well. In the 1960s, WBAI played Richard Wagner’s The Ring for 24 hours and in 1970 they read War and Peace, by Tolstoy, around the clock for almost 5 days. The stations have great musical programming and segments on the insights of life and spirituality.

I recommend listening to a Pacifica station, either on air or through their websites. If this article has sparked any interest, I’m sure you will be able to find a program, if not multiple, that you will enjoy. If you find yourself listening to Pacifica over time, don’t forget to donate! That’s the only way they survive. Also, remember to remain skeptical with all news and use the information to help you form your own opinion.

Spread peace, continue dissent.