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A profile of America's first listener-supported alternative radio station

Pacifica Radio

The Rise of an Alternative Network

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Updated Edition

Matthew Lasar

"Far more than a study of one unusual radio station and its sometimes eccentric cast of characters, this book offers fresh insights on a host of issues essential to understanding modern American culture, from the shift in radicalism toward individualism during the McCarthy era to the rise of the counterculture, and the economics of radio broadcasting. It is enlightening and entertaining and makes a real contribution to the history of postwar America."
Eric Foner, author of The Story of American Freedom

In the public radio landscape, the Pacifica stations stand out as innovators of diverse and controversial broadcasting. Pacifica's fifty years of struggle against social and political conformity began with a group of young men and women who hoped to change the world with a credo of non-violence. Pacifica Radio traces the cultural and political currents that shaped the first listener-supported radio station, KPFA FM in Berkeley, and accompanied Pacifica's gradual expansion to a five-station network.

In the expanded paperback edition, Lasar provides a postscript ("A Crisis of Containment") that examines the external pressures and organizational problems within the Pacifica Foundation that led, in early 1999, to the police shutdown of network stations KPFA. Lasar, an admittedly pro-KPFA partisan in the conflict, gives a first-person account, calling it "the worst crisis in the history of community radio."

Yet Pacifica Radio is about more than just the network's recent troubles. It is the story of visionary Lewis Hill and the small band of pacifists who in 1946, set out to build institutions that would promote dialog between individuals and nations. KPFA took to the air in 1949 with stunningly unconventional programs that challenged the dreary cultural consensus of the Cold War. No one in the Bay Area, or anywhere else, had heard anything like it on the airwaves.

The first edition of Pacifica Radio, which made the San Francisco Chronicle's non-fiction bestseller list, was praised as "fascinating reading" by In These Times.

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Excerpt

Read the Prefaces and an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).

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Reviews

"Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network is indispensable reading for anyone who wants to understand what's happening now at KPFA and for all those who would like to know the perils that confront activists who create counter-cultural institutions. ... Lasar has an eye for paradox, irony, and contradiction, but he is first and foremost an able and astute historian, not a satirical novelist, and he does a lot more than air KPFA's dirty laundry. He shows how much the philosophy of the station was shaped in part by the political atmosphere of the Cold War and McCarthyism, though KPFA was opposed to McCarthyism and the Cold War. Pacifica Radio describes all the cultural, political and economic barriers that KPFA had to surmount to get on, and then stay on, the air."
Jonah Raskin, Santa Rose Press Democrat

"...a critical assessment of Pacifica's early years.... [Lasar's] work represents the kind of detailed scholarship that provides historical narrative with a theoretical underpinning."
H-Net

"[Lasar] captures the chaotic excitement of the station's founding in 1949.... The book offers contributions and context to those interested in the history of American progressive politics and the history of public broadcasting. And the book will also provide insights to those seeking to understand the passion and politics that public radio can arouse."
The Journal of American History

"Pacifico Radio provides a deeper intellectual history of pacifism and the ideological debates of the day."
Whole Earth

"Lasar chronicles internal struggles, the most decisive the contest that decided that Pacifica would not be merely the advocate of pacifism but an exemplar of the First Amendment, open to views of many individuals and groups."
Columbia Journalism Review

"Of the two [authors/books] Lasar is more inclusive and broader in its approach offering a macrocosmic survey of the entire station group to the mid-1960s...In many ways, this is a study of Lewis Hill, the founder of Pacifica, and those around him who gave birth to the idea of a listener-supported station, and later a network of stations."
Communication Booknotes Quarterly

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Contents

Series Foreword
Preface to Updated Edition (Paperback)
Preface to the First Edition

Part I: War
1. The Road to Coleville
2. The Pleasures of the Harbor

Part II: Dialogue
3. Utopia in Richmond
4. The 2 Percent Solution
5. 1949
6. A Hedonist's Millennium
7. Three Gurus and a Critic

Part III: Dissent
8. Palace Revolution
9. Room for Dissent
10. The Man at the Door
Conclusion
Postscript
Notes
Index

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About the Author(s)

Matthew Lasar was a reporter for KPFA's news department through most of the 1980s. His essays on the social history of free speech debates have appeared in The Journal of Policy History, The Journal of Radio Studies, and Pacific Historical Review. He has a Ph.D. in United States History from the Claremont Graduate University.

Subject Categories

American Studies
Mass Media and Communications
General Interest


In the series

American Subjects, edited by Robert Dawidoff.

The American Subjects series, edited by Robert Dawidoff, will introduce readers to unfamiliar areas or figures in American culture. All of the titles in this series will be the first on their particular subject. Each will tell an unfamiliar story and will emphasize the cultural side of how Americans have lived and what they have created or thought.

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