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A History of Pacifica

From: William Mandel
Date: Thu, 10 Jul 2003 12:29:22 -0700

This was posted July 8th, but did not reach you for technical reasons. I prefer to repost it without amendment, so as to indicate that it was my personal response to what I heard on the air and not a rejoinder to the extensive discussion that has followed.

William Mandel wrote:
I have stayed out of this discussion for the last months because I believe that any by-laws are better than none, and that the energy going into vituperation has to be put to more constructive use.

I am posting now because something I heard on KPFA News this evening cannot go unanswered. Excerpts from the final iPNB meeting were being broadcast, if I understand correctly. One member from New York attacked Berkeley and KPFA for treating non-whites, presumably African-Americans, as "niggers" (his language on the air), and regarded the adopted by-laws as returning power to the middle-class white Berkeley elite.

Assuming this individual's sincerity (I admit that that's hard to do), I must conclude that he knows nothing of KPFA history and has made no effort to acquire such knowledge.

When I went on the air in 1958, the station (which was all there was of Pacifica then) had a single paid on-air person, an announcer. He was an American of Ethiopian parentage, Black of course. He still lives in the Berkeley-Oakland area. I do not believe any other station in the country had a Black voice. I think I'm right in saying that there were no Black stations at the time.

This was done by a station founded by white conscientious objectors to World War II.

Of the unpaid staff when I went on the air, the one individual who is still broadcasting -- as a reader of literature, which is what he has always done -- is the Black poet, Adam David Miller. As such, he is the single individual whose voice has been heard on KPFA for more years than mine was.

Those who saw the film, "KPFA On the Air," which has been shown repeatedly on national public television, know that it broadcast Paul Robeson when he was anathema to the Establishment. They know that it broadcast Langston Hughes.

When the Sixties began, KPFA, now joined by newly-founded KPFK and by WBAI, whose private owner had given it to Pacifica, covered the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South as no commercial media did.

When the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland (its headquarters building was in Berkeley, across the street from La Pena (for northern California readers), Huey Newton got his first and continually enthusiastically supportive air time from KPFA's program director, a white woman, Elsa Knight Thompson. When kids went South with SNCC in the deadly voter-registration campaigns of 1963 and 1964, they got time on KPFA to report when they came home. For the rest of the Sixties, no station in the country came near the time we gave, KPFA in the lead, to the Black figures who emerged from the Southern struggle, female and male.

After the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964-5, led by a Mississippi veteran, Mario Savio, a whole new generation of broadcasters was brought in to KPFA, to a considerable degree on my insistence. I was able to exercise influence because surveys showed mine to be the most popular show on the station in those years.

These developments led to a demand for a Third-World Department at the station. It was established, and the question arose of where to find time for its broadcasts. Everyone agreed in principle, but no one wanted to make the necessary shifts. I proposed that we give the Third-World Department what was then regarded as the best time slot of all (this was before "drive time" existed), namely, that right after the evening news, when a country still essentially working 9-to-5 and not at home would be back at the house, finishing dinner. Inasmuch as I was in that slot, on Monday evenings, and would therefore have to be shifted to a less advantageous spot, the rest of the staff went along. I was exiled to Sunday night, pretty much at bedtime, for quite a while.

When, in the 1980s, a Black Panther, Larry Pinkney, finishing a nine-year prison term, was on the verge of being framed for starting a riot which, in fact, he actually prevented (I visited him regularly, and knew the situation intimately) and the KPFA News Director did not respond to my insistence that she cover the story, Bari Scott, African-American head of the Third-World Department (not to be confused with Patricia Scott), did so. We got Congessmember Dellums and important members of the State Assembly and Senate to intervene with the prison system, and the News Director then did interview Pinkney by phone from the prison.

Until the hijackers temporarily stole the station from us physically in 1999, addition of Black and Latino programmers was incremental. But when youth of those populations, plus Pacific Islanders and Asians, established and maintained Camp KPFA on the avenue in front of the station, round the clock, during that occupation, this resulted, when the station was liberated, in the establishment of a wonderful program by them, "Hard Knock Radio," and an exponential increase in non-whites in all capacities, on and off air, at the station. They are very much in evidence in the closing minutes of "KPFA On the Air."

The fact that the former mayor of Berkeley, Gus Newport, Black, elected when the city was predominantly Anglo, is the new manager of KPFA, speaks for itself. The station's broadcasting had a great deal to do with his being elected mayor, as it did with the election to Congress of the first African-American to represent a then predominantly white district: Ron Dellums.

Race relations at KPFA are not perfect, any more than anything else is. But, with all respect to the other Pacifica stations, none of them, and no other mass medium in the country of any kind, can present a record matching that which I have set forth here from memory.

Bill Mandel


The title of my autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER (Introduction by Howard Zinn), is based on my demolition of Sen. Joe McCarthy and later of HUAC in hearings of 1953 and 1960. It is a history of how the American people fought to defend and expand its rights since the 1920s (I'm 86) employing the form of the life of a 30s AND 60s activist, one who was involved in most serious movements: student, labor, 45 years of efforts to prevent war with the USSR and Cuba, civil rights South and North, women's liberation [my late wife appears on 50 pages], 37 years on Pacifica Radio [where I reinvented talk radio, of whose previous existence I had been unaware], civil liberties, and opposition to anti-Semitism and to Zionism. You may hear/see my testimony before the three different McCarthy-Cold-War-Era witch-hunting committees [used in six films and a play]) on my website, http://www.billmandel.net I am the author of five books in my academic field, have taught at UC Berkeley, and earlier held a postdoctoral fellowship, by invitation, at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The book may be ordered through all normal sources. For an autographed copy, send me $24 at 4466 View Pl.,#106, Oakland, CA. 94611

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