KPFA On the Air chronicles a singular experiment in democratic media. It became a lightning rod for many of the social aspirations and conflicts that have transformed America in the last half of the 20th century. Dramatic archival footage, a wealth of interviews with participants, and the many voices of KPFA programming through the years bring the story of this extraordinary community radio station to life.
Though it has survived for over 50 years, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California has never been a sure thing. The brainchild of poets, pacifists, and assorted utopian dreamers, the pioneering “listener sponsored” broadcaster went on the air in 1949, playing in the commercially ignored new FM band that almost no one had a radio to receive. With an innovative approach to radio, KPFA captured a passionate and activist audience with its humanist mission “to promote ideas rather than products.” As richly detailed in Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood’s KPFA On the Air, the station has walked a troubled line between its devotion to free speech and its commitment to progressive ideals of peace and social justice. The station’s idealism held that the former would naturally support the latter. The reality was far messier.
Langston Hughes being interviwed on KPFA. Credit: Courtesy of KPFA Archives
Life at a community radio station that could encompass on-air personalities as diverse as Alan Watts, news analyst Elsa Knight Thompson, Dick Gregory, Caspar Weinberger, Sovietologist William Mandel, and poet Kenneth Rexroth could hardly be expected to be smooth. Station founders, led by Lewis Hill, had hoped it would provide a place for the diversity and complexity of American culture. To this end, in the 1950’s, acting as a pro-peace counterpoint to American cold-war hysteria, KPFA invited Communists on the air at the height of McCarthyism. The station was branded Communist though the station’s anti-authoritarian bent said otherwise. Then, KPFA broadcast Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and faced down the FCC over charges of obscenity. In the militant sixties, the station was one of the first to seek out activist voices from the deltas of Mississippi to Vietnam. By the seventies, those voices wanted to hold the microphone themselves, and a new generation came in, giving the station an angrier, more confrontational tone, bringing new energy and greater diversity, but also new divisions. Recently, KPFA has been rocked by a bitter dispute between staff and the station’s national governing board over KPFA’s direction.
This unique history drew filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood to their subject: “KPFA was founded on a very deep-seated faith in people’s possibilities, a faith we wanted to celebrate in the film. One of the things KPFA consistently does that other media doesn’t do enough is stimulate people to think. It might make them excited or happy or angry, but it doesn’t encourage passivity. It reveals the possibilities for engagement, for communication, for action. And in a democracy, that’s an invaluable contribution.”