Poetry & Freedom of Speech
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Poetry and freedom of speech are doing just
fine in these United States. That is, if you are not trying to speak freely
on Pacifica's KPFA in Berkeley or its sister station, WBAI in New York.
As a poet and editor, I have a live interest in the present battle for unfettered freedom of speech on KPFA/FM. Lewis Hill, KPFA's founder, always signed the station off the air with a poem. For a long time KPFA was almost the only station in the San Fancisco area where a poet could read his latest work. (KPOO/FM was another.). Truly listener-supported and free of advertising, KPFA has been for over 50 years a bastion of free speech and independent intellect. It's still 100% free of commercial underwriting, but no longer free in what it is allowed to say on the air, as was obvious recently when WBAI in protest changed its motto from "Free Speech Radio" to simply "Speech Radio."
KPFA was the first alternative station in the nation, founded in the late 1940s by Hill and a group of pacifists, many of whom had been Conscientious Objectors during World War II. And their vision was to broadcast on the highest level of human discourse, with the ultimate aim of world peace.
But in the 1960s, as Matthew Lasar puts it in Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, "McCarthyism forced the Pacifica radio network to define itself less as an institution in search of humanist dialogue--the goal of its founders-- and more as a defender of the right of the individual to speak."
The Pacifica National Board has in the last few years made mockery of the founders' idealistic aims, throttling progammmers, even removing them bodily from the air and banning them from station premises, firing staffers and managers without consulting the locals. The Board wrested local control from its stations, centralizing it in Washington D.C., and it most recently re-wrote the foundation's by-laws, further empowering itself, and making it easier to sell its stations to the highest commercial bidder.
If this is judged to be legal for this non-profit foundation, dissident poets and other KPFA participants whom I have edited and published-- among the latest is historian Michael Parenti-- may no longer be heard uncensored on 94.l FM as it becomes more like straight mainstream radio driven by audience ratings. The National Board's desire to broaden the base of listenership and increase its audience naturally results in a lowering of intellectual content, all of which contributes to the "dumbing down of America."
Centralizing network control in D.C. is the very opposite of what the Pacifica founders intended: giving voice to people of all points of view on the local level. And they were prescient in fearing concentration of media in the hands of a few. A later Pacifica policy called the Fairness Doctrine at one time stated that "By restricting the flow of information essential to political discourse and citizen participation, media trusts imperil democracy." Today the same peril is seen in the corporatization of America, with conglomerates concentrating more and more control of broadcast and print media in fewer and fewer hands. Famed M.I.T. Professor Noam Chomsky has said that under the American system of inter-locking corporate directorates, public opinion is as effectively controlled as in most dictatorships. You can discount this as the usual "paranoia of the Left," but the founders of Pacifica must certainly be turning rapidly in their graves.
The crisis at Pacifica radio today is crucial, to put it mildly. Programmers on KPFA, in violation of a "gag" rule enjoining them not to discuss such matters on air, have said "this is crunch time-- a very desperate situation in the fight to save KPFA and everything we have worked for all these years." And other speakers are urging listeners to support "this last bastion where you can speak out. At WBAI in New York they can no longer say anything."
The press in the Bay Area has covered the conflict to some extent, but what about the schools and departments of journalism in the universities here and the professors in them? You would think they would be the first to rise in defense of freedom of speech at our beleagered local station. And isn't it about time that First Amendment lovers all over the Bay Area spoke up much more loudly in its defense? (Try logging on to www.savepacifica.net.)
If a great new poet arises to speak out on our airwaves, will there be any station left to put him on the air uncensored? I still hear America singing in all its crazy wisdom on FM radio, and I don't want to hear it drowned out by those who don't want to hear it uncensored.
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