Throw a stone into the San Francisco Bay, the ripples spread out far, far. When I got to Vermont in Summer 1970, to sit in on the Alternate Media Conference at Goddard, I found representatives from 300 "underground" radio stations. It was hard to remember how unique the first one had seemed only three years earlier -- and saddening to realize that the problems of freeing air-space were still unsolved, and that no one had succeeded in creating a better model since then.
I. A Testimonial
How long ago was it, when someone turned us on to that odd little station -- it took a while before we could remember its name or its place on the dial -- where we could turn for a few hours -- and later an evening -- and hear some quiet unknown friend playing all those records we'd heard of but hadn't heard because no one had them yet to borrow from, and also the best of what we had come to claim as Our Music? We knew it had to come, that now a Good Rock Station was appropriate to our dawning community and would appear; and it did, and we said, "Aha," and settled down appreciatively to listen. It was so right that we never questioned the phenomenon.
Less than a year ago, that was. Suddenly that polyglot ethnic/religious station on the edge of the dial is gone, its mosaic of private messages displaced segment by segment. And KMPX, the Voice of Community, has the largest FM audience in the Bay Area (which has the densest and livest concentration of kids in America), and our listening habits have changed completely.
We used to rely mostly on records. At first it was radio that broke us out of the classical bag: on long drives we switched back and forth between KYA and KOIA, new both to white rock and black soul. Later we kept the radio on in the house. But the commercials yammered so, and the programming was to a jangly moronic formula, really a drag. So we had to get records, and we came to rely on them, buying new ones by word of mouth, and not much using the dial at home.
And then KMPX appeared, and we put the records up for a while to give it a hearing. They're still there, though on sentimental evenings we shut the station off and late Dylan gets a considerable play from us. For KMPX is like an intelligent friend who can often surprise you, moving in the other room with playful taste through all the records you could want to hear and can never afford. And KMPX is like a good classical music station with a happy sense of experiment: it treats rock music like a living art form, as it is, with its changing reaches now rich enough to be worth researching and displaying. Karen wrangled us a tape recorder for Christmas from her folks. "Oboy," we said as we prepared to play, "now we can tape all the groovy new albums over KMPX." The tapes are gathering dust on the bookshelf: we seldom play them, we'd rather listen to KMPX. That's how thoroughly it's taken over our ears.
Along the way, the station kept changing. It started catching commercials. Some were as stunning as music, like the ones the Congress of Wonders did. But then commercial commercials, with their familiar sleazy jangle, started crowding in. Luckily, there were healthier changes. Programming grew more inventive. Ravi became a staple; Bach appeared appropriate; jazz and music concrete stumbled in, and then our childhood melodramas, segmented like centipedes. Drop-in interviews of people worth hearing happened. KMPX started semi-sponsoring things, and could pack a dance by itself.
The station started giving Sunday afternoons over to a sort of forum on mattcrs of community interest, Iike the Great Pot Test Case and abortion and Vietnam. During the long newspaper strike, it picked up Ralph Gleason (in too clipped a form: better he should rap once a week for thrice the time), and presented the Ramparts news summary. And people listened. The politicos still haven't got it straight, that the way most people found out about the Rusk demonstration during the press blackout was through KMPX, which is why that surprising crowd was there.
A live broadcast of the Dead from Winterland, an analysis of the anti-draft demonstrations. The station's changes were linked to the changes of an emerging community, trying to find and shape its identity; and KMPX began to serve many as a Community Voice. Always its tone was the one in which we most deeply believe business should be done: taking it easy. KMPX's trademark: the programmer or someone blowing something, matter-of-factly up front on the air, backed by a chorus of giggles from the bird engineers. I remember after one song an announcement: "It's okay, Rusty, wherever you are, it's not coming in on the plane tonight, you can relax. This is a public service." Silence. Then a shocked voice from the background: "But you can't say that on the air!" "'Well ... guess I just did," and Procul Harum flicked on.
May I telI you other random images, how warmly I feel about that station? I never had a station to love before, or one that didn't snigger about pot. Waking up on Sunday morning to Otis Redding singing at Monterey (where we saw him), the radio left playing softly overnight. The evening the engineers ganged up and took over programming, playing their sexist music: nothing but chick singers for hours. The regular casting of the I Ching for us, coming up with the convenient hexagram Revolution at New Year's. Our audible Oracle, experiment in mythology.
And then strange rumblings. Happenings in the station on the air became less frequent, visitors became less welcome, calls for pizza or coffee less frequent. That kid Larry with his eccentric sometimes lovely programs was fired or something. The Public Forum programming cut out; I was away traveling when it happened. People weren't allowed to talk so freely on the air any more, "station policy," and they bitched about it audibly. Suddenly Tom Donahue was out, which meant management had nudged out the people who made KMPX into a creative center. And suddenly all the rest of the staff goes out on strike: I hear them take turns announcing one long last program. Then they cut out at 3 A.M., to join the bands and the station's lovers present in the street below: striking in protest of a Voice being strangled.
ll. A Proposal
Let me cut straight to the heart of the matter by asking: Is a community-supported rock station, free to move in response to the community's needs and sensibility, possible now?
Even if public outcry forces the KMPX management to pull back a bit, allow enough freedom to cool revolt, that's still no answer. Their bit is making money, not community-building or joy; they have shitty taste, and they'll always be fucking up. To grow well, and to meet our needs, a station needs more space than Owners can afford. We need some sort of free station (in the sense of that word we all understand by now), a station responsive and responsible to its Community in everything from taste to politics -- and to its Community only, not to outsiders (l think we can tell the difference).
KMPX has an immense, active, expanding, and partisan listener base. What can be done with and for it? The example of KPFA suggests that a community-supported FM rock station may be possible. KPFA, with 10,000 subscribers and a $300,000 yearly budget, has more varied and expansive programming than KMPX had. It's a little structure-heavy to be a good model, with its Departments and Directors and Board. But some competent legal and architectural work could settle the problem of building a minimum framework to ensure that the station's audience had ultimate (and fairly immediate) control over the station's philosophy of programming, and perhaps in some ways over programming itself. (I say "audience" rather than "subscribers" because I'm convinced that it's important to let everyone who actively listens to the station have some control of it, regardless of whether they feed it directly. That's part of what free means.)
I'm not suggesting a hippie KPFA. The most notable thing about KPFA, aside from its considerable virtues, is that it hasn't grown or changed much at all in the last ten years, while an immense youth population has grown through rapid changes, ignoring it. But the nice thing about KMPX was that it seemed to be comfortably and naturally adapting itself to our nature and needs. We need that. And any design for a community free rock station should try to provide for that vital flexibility, perhaps even at the risk of not looking like much of a design at all. Anyone who wants to can think up models of how to accomplish this, or at least reasonable experiments; I won't bore you with mine.
At any rate, the place to start is with KMPX as it has been at its variegated best, and go on from there: mostly with those people, and with some sort of organized and responsive procedure for new programs and programmers to get test airings. About buying out KMPX or getting some other slot, I don't know. If people want to try to build something like this, it's probably going to take a lot of work and a lot of bread. All I know is that I'd be more than glad to lay up $20 a year to preserve the warmth of KMPX, let alone to have some control over it possible in areas in which I feel myself strongly involved, like in its public forum aspect. And be glad as well to work with it occasionally, because it's a thing of value to me and the people I live with.
I should add a word about organizing. In this day of McLuhan, electoral organizing is really sort of an anachronism, don't you think? Bonnie and Clyde changed more heads than the Scheer Campaign, not to mention Dylan, the televised Haight, and FSM. Locally, people are plugging precious energy into the Peace and Freedom Parry: it struggles, threatening to fragment, and is really only a sub-communications network within the larger Movement, no more. Much better those energies should be put into Media Organizing. A free KMPX would do more to change the political climate of the Bay Area than ten PFP's, not to mention its other effects. Soon, thanks to Godfather Technology, videotape will be the thing, our new medium: already kids on the educational reform frontier of the Movement are negotiating its use with the huge corporations and beginning to learn its tricks as a tool in inciting and recording change. Can you imagine a free KMPX of the tube: the tremendous power, the total classroom that would create? The public participation forum, the spectacular play of individual invention, and our own peculiar ransacking of the treasures of our foundering ages. Shit, if you wany to organize with scope, organize toward that!
And here, oddly, is where Liberals might be most helpful: in negotiating and broadening the delicate links and flows between foundations, businesses, and artistic entrepreneurs. For a lot of brash open guerrilla training in a new medium will have to go on, and many policies of media freedom must be negotiated and established -- see the COMSAT case, and NET's legislation and experiments -- before a free community telly station becomes possible. But it is something worth working for, and a free KMPX might even be a first step toward it.
17 March 1968