The Problem with Pacifica

Especially for those that know me personally, it might have come as a shock when, during some of my previous posts on the subject of radio, I had some very uncomplimentary things to say about Pacifica Radio.  After all, I was an occasional contributor to Pacifica stations KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFA in Berkeley, California.  Especially in the days before the World Wide Web arrived in my life, I listened to them both quite often for their Grateful Dead specialty shows along with programs devoted to reggae, bluegrass, folk, the times they would cover important US Congressional hearings that were mostly ignored by television, and various other things that would delight me with their unusual outlook or different point of view.

However, over the past ten to 15 years, Pacifica has slowly been losing its grip on programming reality.  Sure, the network has always been a bastion of left-wing ideas and, even in better times, I did not always swallow what every program was trying to dish out.  Still, over the last few hierarchical shakeups in the people running Pacifica — some of which resulted in station walk-outs and take-overs reminiscent of something that would happen in a banana republic — the trend has been to pull back on music programming and, worst of all, replace it with people espousing views that are just as unrealistic and divisive as what is heard on right-wing talk radio.  They have even stooped to having programming that sure sounds a lot like an infomercial.

All of that being said, with the limited choices of tolerable radio in the area I live where the radio markets of Los Angeles and Riverside/San Bernardino overlap, I still find myself tuning to a Pacifica program on occasion whether it be on KPFK or one that is syndicated to another non-commercial station.  It was on the latter where I discovered what might be the last truly good public affairs program left on any of Pacifica’s five owned-and-operated stations across the United States.

One morning while driving somewhere or another, I got sucked into listening to a very interesting lecture on my current favorite radio station near where I live, KUCR.  Afterward, I was expecting music to begin but, instead, another “talk” program came on.  In the episode I heard, it was a wonderful political round-table discussion being led by a man with an Australian accent.  He seemed to be extremely knowledgeable, not afraid to ask a hard question, and, most importantly to me, fair.

The program is called Background Briefing and the host is a BBC-trained Australian named Ian Masters who also carries on his impressive resume having been a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs based at UCLA, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Relations also at UCLA, and serving as a consultant to the Center for National Security Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory (you know, where they made the atomic bomb so, obviously, Masters is not some bumpkin that failed at being a sports executive and ended up in radio like a more famous personality on the airwaves these days).  I try to catch at least part of his show every weekday now on KPFK when I drive home from work (at least when I don’t have to switch over to another station to get traffic reports).  If I miss something, I try to catch a rebroadcast of it later on KUCR.  The program also runs on Pacifica station WBAI in New York City as well as KRFP in Moscow, Idaho (and, maybe even more as Master’s website does not list KUCR…still, those four choices all have good streams so that’s good enough for this article).  The shows can also be heard as podcasts on Masters’ website although they are usually about a month behind.

Background Briefing has changed somewhat from when I first discovered it.  There are hardly any political round table discussions anymore, now replaced by one-on-one interviews on the pressing subjects of the day such as the long-term effects of the nuclear plant meltdown in Japan, excellent continuing coverage of the press for democracy in the Arab world, compelling updates on our progress (or, lack of same) in Afghanistan, how US-based corporations are continuing to fully corrupt our political system…the list goes on and on.  Despite the changes, I still greatly enjoy the show and there doesn’t seem to be a program that goes by that does not have at least one subject that interests me deeply.

So…I have now told everybody about my man-crush over Ian Masters. :-D  What does that have to do with how I started this all off about the problems I have with Pacifica Radio?

As I said above, the main thing I like about Masters is that he is fair.  If something is right, he says so.  If something is wrong, he is not shy about pointing it out even to somebody that, on the surface, appears to be on his side.

With that in mind, I now present this quote written May 27, 2011 on the blog portion of Masters’ website in an entry titled, The Tea Party of the Left.

Having driven away two thirds to three quarters of their audience over the past decade, in order to avert bankruptcy, Pacifica’s airwaves have lately been turned over to New Age quacks and peddlers of miracle cures, as well as right wing anti-government hucksters.  While proclaiming to be holier than NPR by not taking corporate money, Pacifica’s increasingly frequent and interminable fund drives have become free infomercials for corporate bottom feeders who promote their snake oil for profit while claiming the mantle of resistance, revolution and investigative journalism.

Much of the post is even more negative on the current state of Pacifica Radio.  Still, it’s a good read as it covers a wide range of causes and subjects as Masters makes his point…kind of reminds me of somebody else that like to take his readers on a long, wandering trip before he reveals what the destination is. ;-)

The most chilling thought Masters brings up is one that I have also been aware of for many years.  All of the stations owned by Pacifica are extremely coveted frequencies.  This is because they were assigned so early in the dawn of the FM era in the United States that they have massive power allocations and, in the case of KPFA in Berkeley and WBAI in New York City, are actually in the commercial side of the spectrum between 92.1 and 107.9 MHz.  For decades now, both commercial interests and religious groups have been scheming to find a way to destroy Pacifica and take these stations over.

Despite how I currently feel about Pacifica and most of its programming these days, that would still be a shame and a big blow to the viability of non-NPR, non-commercial broadcasting in the United States.  In an era where even colleges such as the University of San Francisco and Rice University are selling off their long-held stations to bigger entities that owe their existence to corporate America in one way or another, it is important to have Pacifica around even if I feel it is on the wrong track.

That being said, I am still not going to support Pacifica Radio and will continue to harshly criticize it as necessary.  If it ends up failing for whatever reason, they will only have themselves to blame…because, now, it is not a bunch of radicals holding out for some pipe dream that are throwing mud at them.  It is instead their most respected commentator, questioner, and journalist — a man that even some Republicans will talk to even though he appears on such “radical” radio stations and is not apologetic about his views on how his adopted country is being sold down the river by corporate interests.

I hope my readers will take the time to read Masters’ full blog entry on this subject.  I also encourage everybody to try to catch Background Briefing on any of the stations linked below (yes, even though he’s on Pacifica…check each station’s Programming or Schedule link for air times) or to listen to the show’s podcasts.

Ian Masters | Home of Background Briefing – http://www.ianmasters.com/

The Tea Party of the Left | Ian Masters – http://ianmasters.com/content/tea-party-left

Background Briefing can be heard on and streamed through…

KPFK in Los Angeles, California – http://www.kpfk.org/

KUCR in Riverside, California – http://www.kucr.org/

KRFP in Moscow, Idaho – http://www.radiofreemoscow.com/

WBAI in New York City, New York – http://www.wbai.org/

P.S. While I’m on the subject of Pacifica, let me add an open suggestion of ridding your network of Barry Smolin on KPFK and David Gans on KPFA.  Both of these hosts have become so full of themselves that they make their programs of Grateful Dead music completely intolerable.  Grateful Dead programs should be about the Dead, not about the hosts’ latest piss-poor effort at making their own music in order to leech off of a legendary band’s coattails. >:-(

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