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Radio stations launch drive to save historic recordings

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Charlie Imes
Published: Wednesday November 29, 2006

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Stations to Air Classic Excerpts and Voices of Peace

Without a doubt, some of the most compelling and informative programming on the radio comes from listener-sponsored stations. The PBS network is by far the largest and most well-known, followed by NPR, which was founded in 1970. But it was the much smaller Pacifica Radio network that broke the ground for listener-sponsored spoken word radio back in 1949. Over the years, Pacifica was there to broadcast and record many history-making events and personalities, and today Pacifica faces a challenge to save our history through the preservation of its extensive library of tapes.

The Pacifica Radio Archives (PRA) is the oldest and largest audio collection of public radio programming in the United States. The archives consists of 50,000 master reel-to-reel tapes that represent the broadcast history of listener-sponsored free speech radio for over fifty years, from 1949 to today. For Brian DeShazor, Director of PRA, this daunting responsibility is a sacred trust.

"Visionary thinkers, the voices of the voiceless, the people in the fields, the people in the marches, women, the disenfranchised -- Pacifica was where these people went," says DeShazor. "If you think of the Civil Rights Movement before it really became successful, from the very beginning with Rosa Parks in 1955, Pacifica Radio put those voices on the air, free to speak their truth as they wished."

As those who are old enough will remember, the '50s and '60s offered people and moments that are forever etched in the landscape of American history. The early '50s saw the final rounds of testimony of the McCarthy hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee in its witch hunt for Communists in Hollywood. Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the bus to a white passenger, leading to her arrest and triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence. The later '50s saw the rise of the Beat Generation, led by a collection of poets, authors and artists that gave voice to the anti-conformist youth of the time.

PRA has built up an astounding chronicle of those times. "We have a 1956 interview with Rosa Parks, which is considered to be the very first surviving interview that she gave," Mr. DeShazor stated. "Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. Poets and political historic figures, artists, journalists, writers & authors all came through Pacifica not just to discuss their new product or what they'd written or what they'd produced, but they discussed the times that they're in, and who they were and how the things worked and what they thought. So if you imagine James Baldwin, the great author and poet, or Lorraine Hansberry, the author of "A Raisin In The Sun" (a Pulitzer Prize winning play), and Langston Hughes who wrote the poem, "A Dream Deferred" -- all three of those historic figures, in one room together in 1961 talking about the Negro in American culture. Talking about how they felt as black people in a time when they were not seen as human… it's an extraordinary recording."

Free Speech, Poetry and Protest

The original founders of Pacifica Radio were conscientious objectors, poets and journalists. The Beat movement in San Francisco came through Pacifica and found a voice. Allen Ginsberg's highly controversial poem "Howl" (1956) became the subject of an obscenity trial. It also became one of the most widely read and translated poems of the century and made its public airwaves debut on Pacifica Radio.

"'Howl' did change the world," according to DeShazor. "Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing the poem, as well as Ginsberg and the founders of Pacifica. After the FCC Regulations, they went back on the air to inform the public as to what censorship was about… why is it so difficult to deal with this poem "Howl" in terms of censorship and obscenity. It wasn't the language, it wasn't the words or the seven dirty words that you can't say on the air, but it was about ideas and that was the danger in what some people thought that poem was about."

As the '60s came along, so did an expansion of the rebellion against voices of authority, bigotry and war. The Beat Generation gave way to the Hippies, the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement, resulting in acts of incredible courage and cruelty. The era stands as both one of the brightest and darkest times in American history.

As this remarkable period of protest and activism began to ebb in the early '70s, Pacifica Radio found itself in the forefront of one of the final and most dramatic chapters of the era. After Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and subsequently swore her allegiance to her captors, they communicated with the public through a series of tapes delivered to KPFK in Los Angeles, a Pacifica station. Today all of those original tapes, including the tape of Patty Hearst's letter to her mother, are part of the PRA.

Preserving History

Mr. DeShazor is providing various outlets with copies of these audio treasures. Many are being made accessible through transcripts or through streaming audio on websites. PRA also recognizes the educational value of the tapes. "As really good educational tools, most of the Civil Rights movement and African American studies collection -- once those were digitized we donated them to universities history departments, like Howard University and University of Pennsylvania's Research Dept., etc," DeShazor said. "So we're doing all we can to first rescue the tapes, preserve them for the future and then make them accessible as best we can with the modest funds that we have."

On November 29, Mr. DeShazor will testify before the Library of Congress' National Recorded Sound Preservation Board. "There are funds that have been allocated by Congress during the Clinton Administration, I believe, for the Sound Preservation Board of the Library of Congress to do a study on the state of sound preservation in the United States. They've invited me to testify to give them information to re-authorize those funds, and also to represent spoken word public media and what this archive has to offer as far as representing our American memory, our conscience and conscious memory of what we were."

Up to now, the Sound Preservation Board has been focusing on historically-significant musical recordings, such as those of Louis Armstrong, along with a few famous speeches like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream." However, the Library of Congress has few spoken word tapes. "When we look at Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of the recordings that we have, they really aren't represented anywhere else. The fortunate thing is that we're elevating this collection and these voices to the level of the Library of Congress to study them as historic artifacts to be preserved for our nation, not just the Pacifica Radio Company," said DeShazor.

From Magnetized to Digitized

The challenge is that all of these extraordinary events are recorded on magnetic reel-to-reel master tapes, which are deteriorating at a predictable rate. That's why PRA has undertaken an active campaign to preserve these tapes by transferring them to digital media. So far, their efforts have been funded by modest grants from the Ford Foundation and the Grammy Foundation, but that's not enough.

That's why PRA is presenting some very special programming to highlight their public fundraising drive. From Tuesday, November 28th through Wednesday the 29th at 8:00 p.m., they are pre-empting regular programming on all five Pacifica stations. "We'll be presenting some of these historic audios to the public, sometimes for the very first time since their original broadcasts in the 50's and 60's. Some materials have been recently rescued from a flooded basement in Berkeley," DeShazor said.

Mr. DeShazor elaborated on some of the special programming being featured during the fundraising drive. "We will also be featuring, or premiering a new radio documentary celebrating the life and times of Pete Seeger. It features a new interview… we took Academy Award winning actor, Tim Robbins, to New York to Pete Seeger's home and filmed and recorded a 5-hour interview and that is now mixed with some unique audio recordings from these master tapes. So we'll be presenting audio of Pete Seeger that some have never heard before. For instance, we have a concert in Nicaragua where he sang for the workers there. Just incredible stuff that I'm really looking forward to letting people hear. Not only what we have in the archives but these glimpses of people that have been our heroes, and we should be celebrating their lives and times."

Overall, according to DeShazor, the special programming will be focused on Voices for Peace and Non-Violence. "Going into our archives and pulling everything we can find from the very beginning of every voice for peace, of every action against war, every lecture on the philosophy of peace. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, a woman known as the Peace Pilgrim (Mildred Lisette Norman) who walked across America many times, put 25,000 miles on foot for peace. She did that for 20-some years. So we have interviews with her from 1961 to 1969 or something like that. So we're really interested in looking into the landscape of the American Conscience in terms of how we feel about war. All of these voices mixed together make the message of peace timeless, as war is… unfortunately."

DeShazor paused a moment before adding, "We sure hear a lot of justification for killing people, but we rarely hear these historic voices or even current voices about what's good about the other ideals."

Pacifica Radio is broadcast in the five cities listed below.

KPFA 94.1 FM in Berkeley, CA
KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, CA
KPFT 90.1 FM in Houston, TX
WBAI 99.5 FM in New York, NY
WPFW 89.3 FM in Washington, DC

Audio streaming of the broadcast is also available on their website. People are encouraged to stream the broadcast, participate, pledge and get thank you gifts of some of these rare materials.