Peter Franck's Onion Paper

The Onion Paper
Pacifica Network History, 1999
by Peter Franck

Peter Franck did a regular commentary on legal issues on KPFA during the 1960s. He was a member of the KPFA Board, starting in 1973, a member of the Pacifica Board from 1975 to 1984, and President of Pacifica Foundation from 1980 to 1984. He continues to be involved in ongoing discussions. His website is

This a paper by Peter Franck presented at a forum on Pacifica issues at "The Onion" in Los Angeles in 1999


“Radio should be converted from a Distribution System to a Communication System. Radio could be the most wonderful Public Communication System imaginable. A gigantic system of channels, could be, that is if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving; of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him [I should add: or her] but of connecting them.” Bertold Brecht in 1931. That's a kind of vision that I think we should be fighting for and re-dedicating Pacifica to.

I came onto the KPFA Local Advisory Board in 1973, served on the Pacifica Board, starting about 1975 and was President of the Foundation for four years, early in the 1980's.

How many of you know what microradio is? A lot of us have been involved in the fight for Micro Radio, it's very low power radio, it's cheap, you can get it on the air for a couple of hundred dollars. The FCC is seriously considering legalizing it . There's a few more day's left to file your comments to the FCC, I'll tell you how to do that later in the day. We're not going to lose Pacifica, but even if we did, we will have 10,000 small KPFK's around the country with Micro Radio .

Nine or ten years ago when the microradio Movement was starting, a few of us in the Bay Area attended a workshop organized by Paper Tiger television, where a Professor, from the University of Kyoto, showed us how to assemble a microradio Transmitter with $15.00 worth of Radio Shack parts. As he did this he was telling how they did this in Japan and in 45 minutes he was on the air. We asked him how powerful the folks in Japan thought microradio should be, what the range should be. And he said it shouldn't be any greater then the distance somebody could bicycle to the studio to participate in the conversation. I think that's the spirit that we have to get back to. At the same time there's a challenge to integrate that vision with the countries’ need for a powerful, progressive voice on the air.

For awhile in the 1970s the Advisory Board had been very busy people; Ron Dellums, a congressperson from the bay area (for so many years) was on that. At one of those meetings Dellums said to us; "Look, you guys have got to decide whether you want to be the newsletter of the Left or the newspaper of the Left." Whether you want to be a house organ or a means of reaching out. And I think that's a serious consideration. Marc Cooper who uses that line sort of got it from me and since I'm a Copyright lawyer I may go after him for copyright infringement. I'll just say, as an aside, don't listen to what the folks apologizing for Pacifica, or folks at the head of Pacifica are saying, watch what they are doing.

In the summer of 1960, I sat on the sidewalk here in Los Angeles in front of the Democratic Party’s 1960 Convention where John F. Kennedy was being nominated, as part of a Civil Rights demonstration against the party. Next to me were Marion Berry (who was much thinner than he is now) who was then the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee, the most militant part of the Civil Rights Movement, Tom Hayden (who was also thinner than he is now. Of course I haven't changed), and others from the student movement. We went from there, that night, to hear Martin Luther King speak at the Shrine Auditorium. This was the only time I ever heard Martin Luther King speak. Martin Luther King spoke to everybody in that audience. He spoke to the Ph.Ds. He spoke to the sharecroppers. He spoke to the students. He spoke to the activists. He knew how to get his message over to everybody who needed to hear it, and that is what Pacifica has to aspire to. Now we're not all Martin Luther Kings, and we can't do that all the time, but as I say, I believe that's what we really have to aspire to, and that takes a dedication and a seriousness and a commitment to the Vision and the Mission; which I think is being fretted away in terms of the current leadership.

To highlight the degree of change: 20 years ago, the manager of KPFK (Mark Schubb's predecessor), Will Lewis, went to jail rather than turn over to the Los Angeles Police, the communiqués that the station had gotten from the Symbionese Liberation Army, the people who had kidnapped Parry Hearst. We felt very strongly then that Pacifica, as a free speech news organization had no business being part of a chain of evidence to the Police. Our job was to get the word out, the information out, the Police’s job was to do their Police thing and those were entirely separate.

Fast forward 20 years to today [1999] when the leadership of Pacifica turns over to the Police all the communications, emails and letters they have gotten protesting the current policy. Now, what a difference, twenty years makes. How did we get here?

Lew Hill was a World War II pacifist, a Consciousness Objector (CO). He went to CO camps, believed in peace and non-violence. He was a Journalist in Washington DC, right after the war, heard Churchill's, "Iron Curtain" speech, saw the gathering of cold war storm clouds, was very worried about the threat to peace that that was. He was not allowed, by the radio station, he was a reporter for, to talk about it because they were afraid of offending the sponsors, the advertisers. So he quit and came out to Berkeley and found some kindred souls and he decided, he realized, that the only way you could have a station dedicated to Peace and Justice and Free Speech was if the only sponsors were the listeners. Hence: Listener-Sponsored Radio.

Now a very interesting litmus paper test on where people are coming from is when they talk about the station. Is it listener-sponsored or is it listener-supported? There's been a drift, a strong one to “listener supported”. Frankly, the only time now, even on KPFA that the term is mostly listeners-sponsored is when they're Pitching. Listener-supported is a different thing from listener-sponsored a different kind of relationship. Sponsors call the shots. Supporters are passive.

If you know you're going to start a grocery store, unless you're going to own it personally as a sole proprietorship, you have to have an entity. So if you're going to start a grocery store around here you might have the name Northgate Groceries Inc. In the 50's, KPFA, had to have a legal entity holding KPFA and that was the Pacifica Foundation. A California Non-Profit Corporation set up at the beginning.

Folks down here in Los Angeles, led by the late Lloyd Smith and others around the ACLU, in the 50's, were very concerned about the fact that you couldn't say much about McCarthyism and the Red-Scare that was going around at that time. They felt correctly and knew that Los Angeles needed a listener-sponsored station; raised the money, formed it and approached Pacifica and said, look, we'd like to link up with you and be part of you, and they did and that's how we got KPFK.

Louis Schwitzer, a New York millionaire who had started a fine music station (mostly as a hobby) got tired of it. One day he picked up the phone and called up Russell Jorgenson, then president of the Pacifica Foundation and manager of KPFA and said, "Would you like a radio station in New York?" Well it took him quite a while to convince Jorgenson that this just wasn't a hoax call. When he found out it was for real, he picked himself up from the floor and WBAI became part of Pacifica. I was in law school in New York at the time, and heard Malcolm X and so on, it was a wonderful addition to New York.

Then people concerned with the Civil Rights Movement started KPFT in Houston. It was bombed off the air twice by the Klan. And it has come out since then that the FBI was very much involved in that bombing. Not in solving it, but doing it.

When it was just KPFA and KPFK, the Board of Directors of Pacifica Foundation, a single group, could meet. California is not that big. After WBAI came along it became unwieldy, the members of that Board felt they couldn't stay in touch enough with the sense and pulse of the community so that's when they set up Advisory Boards.

The Advisory Boards then selected the members of the Pacifica Board. They decided that it was important to have a station in the Nation's Capitol and applied for a License, WPFW. There was an eight-year fight to get that License and finally it came on. Now both KPFT and WBAI broadcast mostly music. What's important about this is, what had grown up, what had been created by these people, a lot of hard work was: Listener-Sponsored Radio.

Now this Country one doesn't have to believe in a conspiracy theory: people who meet in the same room and decide everything. But there is an elite. There are people who have enormous amounts of power, they know each other and they are on interconnecting Boards and clubs. In those circles the big Foundations do a lot of the planning.

The Carnegie Foundation commissioned a study on broadcasting and the Carnegie Commission came up with a proposal that there should be Public Broadcasting. If you read the "Carnegie Commission Report" carefully, what it really says is that, the people in this room, the upper classes, the intelligentsia, the activists, aren't listening to the mass media, aren't watching television, aren't listening to popular radio. We need, they said, a way of reaching them with a message of the wholeness of the United States, and how good things are. We need a channel for to the elite, to the educated classes, to the opinion leaders. That is why the Carnegie Commission recommended and why Congress did set up Public Broadcasting. Public Broadcasting originated as a very different animal, for very different kinds of purposes. In the middle there came Community radio, smaller stations, more or less modeled on Pacifica.

Since that time, there's been a pull, and I think its been going on for almost 20 years. There's been a sucking sound from Washington; sucking listener-sponsored radio into the world of public radio. But Public Radio is really Government radio. That’s were they money comes from, that’s who runs it.

Robert Coonrod, who precipitated this crisis, since 1967, made his career running the propaganda system for the US Government overseas. Running a system whereby the US Government puts out its views and its ideas to the people of the world, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, Radio Marti and so on. The new President of National Public radio has exactly the same background. What's going on here? People who were in charge of sending U.S. Government propaganda to the peoples of the world are put in charge of what's called Public radio, and are using those same skills to send their message, the Government's message, to the people of this Country. Pacifica is a giant exception to this.

When the United States wants to subjugate Yugoslavia, what does it do? One of the first targets it bombs is the radio and television stations. Now I believe that what's going on, led by people and money at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a bombing of listener-sponsored radio, the bombing of the American public, trying to mute the independence and the message of listener-sponsored radio.

Let me shift slightly to the dynamics within Pacifica, which are important. Things have got to change. Its not the case that everything was honky-dory and perfect in the last period of years, or ever. Pacifica has been very important and very good but there are some serious problems with its structure. For most of Pacifica's existence, until about the last ten years, paid staff was really dominate, staff really ran things and mostly made the decisions, and there was a great deal of good to that but there were also some problems. People tended to hang onto their programs, there tended to be a tacit agreement among staff: “I don't question your program, you don't question my program.” People who started out having a lot to say maybe ran out of things to say; and maybe there should have been some rotation. There was no mechanism for doing that because, as I use to say, the managers really had very little authority, they floated on a sea of volunteerism where they couldn't do a whole lot. That did lead to some ossification.

Then a shift started to happen under Reagan era deregulation. Non-commercial stations were allowed for the first time to rent out to commercial outfits what's called their sidebands. Each transmitter, like KPFK, has two other signals it can send out which are good for sending out data, to hand held stock quotation things, reading for the blind, others kinds of information, specialized information services. These are very valuable and the administration of them is a bit complicated. So Pacifica, as a national entity, took on the job of making these deals. Renting out the ten sidebands on the five stations (two on each). And Pacifica kept that money.

Now up until that time, the Pacifica National Office (which was always small) got all of its money from the stations. There was a tithe the stations paid to national which was two or three percent of their listener income. The managers had to actually write those checks and that gave the managers a lot of defacto power. When Pacifica suddenly had large amounts of money coming from another source, unaccountable to the stations, power started to shift in a very serious way.

Part of the mechanism for Public Broadcasting making its influence felt on community radio (and muting it) was something called the "Healthy Station Project," funded by CBP and run by Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick's ex-husband. He went around to community stations, Pacifica stations and others; dangling money and saying, You've got to professionalize. You've got to have less volunteers. You've got to take the power of the volunteer away. You've got to be slicker and go for a wealthier audience. A lot of stations felt that pressure and there was a definite move in community radio in that direction, in some stations and the distinction between listener-sponsored radio and public radio got blurred. The healthy station project was fairly influential in Pacifica stations too.

Fast forward to recent events and these have been alluded to today, but I think it's very important to understand how we got where we are now. The current crisis has been precipitated by the firing of Nicole Sawaya, who was the manager of KPFA, all factions, up and down, thought she was terrific and believe me, if you can get that reputation in a Pacifica station, that's a miracle. Managing a Pacifica station is not an easy job. So she must have been doing a terrific job.

Two years earlier, wanting to insulate themselves from local board and community criticism, the Pacifica leadership had solicited an opinion from CPB President Robert Coonrod, an opinion that the current structure (of station board electing the national board0 violated the Public Broadcasting Act. They got Coonrod to say that if they didn't change this structure quickly they would lose the next CPB check, which was 1.4 million dollars. I'm a lawyer, and I went back and looked at the Public Broadcasting Act and this legal opinion is entirely bogus, just looking at the text of the Statue, in fact, the Statue was based on, it was modeled on the Pacifica structure at the time it was passed. We were the model for this law, which they are now saying that we're violating, and at the time that they set up this law, the entire Pacifica Board was selected by the stations’ Local Boards. To put pressure on wobbly national board members, the Executive Director asked the managers to do a budget laying out where would they cut if they lost this 1.4 million dollars.

Now there's a multiplier effect in a Pacifica station’s budget. The fixed cost of Pacifica stations are about fifty percent of their budget, the rent, the mortgage, the electric bill and all that; so the only place that you can cut is staff, that's the only fungible cost. So if you lose 15 percent of your income you have to cut your staff by 30 percent. If you lose 20 percent of your income, you have to cut your staff by 40 percent. Cuts like that are (obviously) devastating and disruptive both to the people cut and to the operation of the stations. None of the stations are fat. That would be a drastic thing to do.

I told you, Pacifica used to get 2 to 3 percent of the Station's income, now it gets 17 percent. Nicole Sawaya, alone among the managers, presented a plan saying she would cut that 17 percent to make up for lost CPB funds, if Coonrod carried out his threat.

Because Nicole Sawaya would not cut the Pacifica share (rather then staff in that revised budget) she was fired. So what we have is a close collusion with the current Pacifica leadership and CPB, the resistance of one courageous station manager, and the present crisis.

The other thing to say is simply this. Lew Hill would spin in his grave if he knew that the head of a federal agency was the head of Pacifica. I don't care what Mary Frances Berry did in the past, we have to look at who and what people are. She is a Clinton appointee, a consummate Washington insider, to have such a person as head of a counter-cultural independent media organization, makes absolutely no sense. Its a total contradiction.

What's happened, I believed is that a flying wedge came from Washington, taking advantage of a structural weakness of Pacifica, that has always been there. There's always been a structural weakness, which is its lack of accountability to the communities it serves, not only to the subscribers and the listeners but the social movements such as peace, labor, civil rights, which it serves. Lew Hill was worried about a takeover by a small group, well Lew Hill, guess what? It's happened.

This crisis has got to be resolved by a restructuring of Pacifica so it's Democratic and really accountable to the people that it serves. Pacifica's asset, the licenses, (are probably) worth $200,000,000 to $300,000,000. Anybody would be tempted by that amount of money, I would be. The only way you can keep them honest is if they are accountable to their communities and that change ultimately has to happen.

Thank you.

Moderator: If you have any questions for Peter Franck.


Gary: Could you just go over again because I think it's important that Radio Marti connection, I didn't quite catch that.

Peter: From the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Web page here is the "Bio" of Robert Coonrod. Prior to joining the CPB, Mr. Coonrod was deputy director of Voice of America, the Global Radio and Television Network. He oversaw VOA, The office of Cuba Broadcasting, both Radio and TV Marti and Worldnet television. I'm skipping a little bit. He's been with USIA since 1967. He's also held senior positions in USIA's bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.”

Now, let me skip ahead to National Public Radio, because that's part of it. Kevin Close, the new president of NPR, again from their Web page: “Before joining NPR, he served as Director of the US International Broadcasting Bureau in Washington, he managed the US Government's Global Radio and Television Services with studios and stations worldwide. Under Close's leadership RFE, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty forged new Broadcast partnerships with newly Independent Radio Stations in Central Europe and Russia.”

So these two people, who are the heads of the two parts of the Public Broadcasting System, made their career in the US Government's Overseas Propaganda Arm. The solution to the current problem is to get back to understanding that this is listener-sponsored radio and acting in terms as listener-sponsored radio and realizing that that's very different from Government radio and there's got to be a separation.

Michael: I'm Michael Turner Thomas, I'm formerly the black guy with Free Radio Berkeley. I realize what's going on especially with Micro Power being shut down, that KPFK is the last voice we have. What's going on now is just an obvious Big Brother push, you know it's obvious to all of us here today. I must say I'm reluctant to really embrace KPFK because I see the same gate-keeping attitudes that throughout communication permeating within this and I mean the only place Black men are over represented in this Country is in Prison. I certainly do not want Jesse, the logo corporate, Ventura president, like the corporate fascist media is pushing right now. So how can you expect us to really jump on this bandwagon when you really haven't shown the community support, especially from where I'm from?

Peter: That's the reason that it has to be open to the whole community. I'll tell you we can really thank the leadership of Pacifica. If you would have heard the Hip-hop section of the Joan Bias concert last Friday night. Or seen the diversity of people out in front of KPFA everyday and every night, this will open things up in a really wonderful way and we've got to make sure it stays that way.

2018 UPDATE: Peter Franck continues to be involved in ongoing discussions. His website is

KPFA 94.1 FM is one of five stations of the Pacifica radio network which are located in major cities across the country. The other stations are WBAI 99.5 in New York, WPFW 89.3 in Washington DC, KPFT 90.1 in Houston, and KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles. There are also about 300 affiliate stations.

DISCLAIMER: This is not an official Pacifica Foundation website nor an official website of any of the five Pacifica Radio Stations (KPFA Radio, KPFK Radio, KPFT Radio, WBAI Radio, WPFW Radio). Opinions and facts alleged on this site belong to the author(s) of the website only and should NOT be assumed to be true or to reflect the editorial stance or policy of the Pacifica Foundation, or any of the five Pacifica Radio Stations (KPFA Radio, KPFK Radio, KPFT Radio, WBAI Radio, WPFW Radio), or the opinions of its management, Pacifica National Board, station staff or other listener members.

Labels: , , , ,