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Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio's Civil War Paperback – October 20, 2005
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by Eesha Williams
The Pacifica Foundation owns five FM radio stations, each with powerful transmitters, in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Houston, and Berkeley, Calif. The network airs the popular radical daily news program Democracy Now! which is also heard on hundreds of independent stations across the country.
Anyone who donates $25 or volunteers three hours a year, can vote for delegates who in turn elect Pacifica's board of directors. By comparison, the board of National Public Radio is chosen by a byzantine method by which each member station gets one vote, regardless of whether that station has 1 million listeners or 1,000. And, NPR spokesperson Andi Sporkin tells the Commons, the person who casts the vote on behalf of each station is often him- or herself chosen by an unelected person, such as a university president.
Pacifica rejects corporate money. NPR's lifeblood is money paid by every company from Wal-Mart to your local SUV dealer for "underwriting messages," also known as commercials.
Pacifica started broadcasting in 1949, more than two decades before NPR went on the air.
Uneasy Listening by Matthew Lasar, who teaches history at the University of California in Santa Cruz, focuses on Pacifica's recent history, up to 2001. Published this year in England, Uneasy Listening has not yet been published in the US, but it's available from Amazon.
Lasar's 1999 book Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, published by Temple University Press, covered the first half of Pacifica's history.
Both are fascinating reads filled with colorful mini-biographies of the quirky people involved in Pacifica. The newer book, which is considerably longer, tends to ramble and would probably have been just as useful if a third of its pages were cut.
The 1999 book should serve as inspiration to today's generation of non-commercial radio pioneers who have in the past few years launched dozens of so-called "low-power FM" stations around the country - many with help from the Philadelphia non-profit Prometheus Radio Project.
Starting with very little money just after World War II, the founders of KPFA in Berkeley built a radical institution that grew to become a nation-wide network and has endured for more than half a century.
Lasar's second book tells a more cautionary tale. Uneasy Listening focuses on the mid-life crisis that beset Pacifica from 1999-2001 and which, at the time, seemed to many observers to mark the beginning of the end of Pacifica as an alternative to NPR and commercial radio. Instead, the network emerged stronger, with a new and far more democratic constitution. But by the time that had happened, activists had revealed to the public acts of corruption by Pacifica's leadership including squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars on corporate PR and security firms. The revelations, picked up by the New York Times and other national media, brought thousands of protesters into the streets in front of Pacifica stations.
Uneasy Listening can be read as an inspirational tale whose moral is that even the most corrupt and least democratic of institutions can be democratized by the efforts of thousands of ordinary people acting together. The book can also be read as a warning to the new generation of non-profit radio stations, newspapers, community news web sites, and public access TV stations that are appearing across the country. Too often they are run by boards of directors that are self-appointed or otherwise not elected by the public.
In writing an exhaustive and sympathetic history of Pacifica, Lasar has performed a valuable service for those who care about the future of locally- and democratically-controlled news media.
Eesha Williams writes for the Valley Advocate newspaper in Easthampton, Mass. A revised edition of his book Grassroots Journalism will be published by Dollars & Sense in the fall of 2006.
It does so by placing these struggles in the historical context of media and communications consolidation in the U.S., as well as the struggle of the American left and American alternative culture to find media outlets and be a serious part of the politics of this country.
The story told here is not the typical story that those involved with the stations know. I think it is a story that has great importance for understanding why leftist discourse has become so marginalized in our time. The standard narratives are (1) that establishment corporate forces descended upon Pacifica in the late 90s and were repelled by the heroic true Pacificans; or (2) that childish out-of-touch leftists compulsively bash each other, imagining they are fighting to save the world. Lasar carefully introduces the reader to all the forces that play out in this struggle, leading the reader to appreciate the complexity of those forces, and to appreciate why it is so hard for progressives and supporters of noncommerical media to not repeat the rhetorically overheated infighting that sadly continues to dominate Pacifica politics.
Since what is ultimately at stake here is the possibility of
having an honest and truthful media outlet in America, both
those who listen to Pacifica and those who have barely heard of
it should find this book very important and very compelling.