Radio Pacifica

In 1978 I lived in Monterey, California, and would occasionally drive up the coast highway to San Francisco. As I neared the Bay I could pick up radio station KPFA-FM, Radio Pacifica, which I thought was named for the wide blue Pacific Ocean. I liked its eclectic mix of music and opinion.

But Radio Pacifica is not named for the Pacific Ocean, as I thought, but for the now almost forgotten political movement called Pacifism, a total rejection of all war.

The story of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, the first non-profit radio station in the U.S. is a fascinating one. Lewis HIll, the founder, was a Pacifist, a WWII Conscientious Objector, interested in creating a means of encouraging the breakdown of ideological barriers. He wanted to communicate through a medium which would also be completely free of the influence of commercial advertising. At first he thought to start a magazine, but later was inspired to found an FM radio station, the first listener-supported station in the world.

In the early years it was a struggle to stay financially afloat, but soon Hill and his rogue radio station attracted the Beatniks, nationally known poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, teenage musicians like Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, Philosophers like Zen proponent Alan Watts, commentators such as Anthony White extolling the wonders of opera, and Pauline Kael with her needle-sharp critiques of the East Coast literary world. By 1955 it had become the true voice of the arts in the San Francisco Bay area and was being called ‘alternative radio’.

As the counterculture spread across the nation and the world, other ‘alternative radio’ stations sprang up and became the voice of political protest and the counterculture. As times changed, the central theme of Pacifism faded.

When we think back to 1949 when KPFA went on the air, we may think Hill and his colleagues hopelessly naive. But, paraphrasing Martin Luther King “…they had a dream…” and they tried to make that dream real, which is a rather noble thing.

The interwoven history of KPFA-FM and the San Francisco Bay area’s explosive growth of alternative arts, music, and lifestyle, is a fascinating story too long to fully explore in this blog post. I recommend a book entitled “Pacifica Radio: the rise of an alternative network” by Matthew Lasar.

I will mention one anecdote about Tony White, an opera commentator on KPFA during the 1950s and early 1960s. He was also the very influential editor of the magazine “Fantasy and Science Fiction,” which under his editorship (using pen name Anthony Boucher) became a sophisticated, successful, and well–loved magazine of that era. I have kept my run of issues from the 1960s and from time to time, reread the stories and editorials with great fondness. Leafing through my back issues of his magazine I think of Tony White lugging an armful of 78 RPM vinyl opera records through the foggy Berkeley night to play on KFPA. Perhaps through his magazine, by some strange osmosis, that’s how I learned to love not only fantasy and science fiction, but also opera. Thanks, Tony.

Lewis Hill’s vision of world-wide Pacifism has, alas, died, but alternative radio lives on, changing with the times.


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