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Television Review

Documentary Airs Passions of KPFA

September 19, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The history of Berkeley's KPFA-FM, sister station of KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles, is as messy and contentious as the democracy that accommodates its existence more than a half century after its inception as a platform for "ideas rather than products."

Those fermenting ideologies, and the political conflicts framing them, resonate forcefully in "KPFA on the Air," whose "P.O.V." filmmakers Veronica Selver and Sharon Wood deliver an admiring but fair and incisive history of a pioneering "listener-sponsored" station known for its gusto for social causes and its controversies.

Many of the latter have been self-generated. While celebrating its 50th birthday last year, this documentary notes, KPFA employees were locked in a bitter dispute with owner Pacifica Foundation over control of this community station and "who could say what on the air."

That cannibalizing regarding speech rights--ironic given the station's humanist roots--has extended to Pacifica-owned KPFK here as well. I recall tuning in last year to a phone-in show and hearing a caller abruptly cut off when starting to take the station to task, as if criticism were an obscenity.

One can sense the exhilaration, though, as the Bay Area's KPFA is shown tonight entering life in 1949 as the airwaves of last resort under its pacifist founder, Lewis Hill, then earning attention when rebutting Cold War hysteria and brashly inviting Communists on the air at the peak of McCarthyism.

Just as Caspar W. Weinberger (later to become Ronald Reagan's defense secretary) and other conservatives were granted regular commentaries in the early years of KPFA, the station gave even greater voice to activists on the left before acquiring a meaner tone as warring disenfranchised minorities began battling for air time. Great energy, even greater anger.

For all their problems, Pacifica stations still provide fresh perspectives at a time when the vast bulk of radio talk originates from the right. That comes across clearly in this small, minimalist film. It's also a stunning one for its ability to convey passions--those of KPFA and its supporters and those of the station's severest critics. Radio that's a beacon to some listeners and a royal pain to others is something to keep in business.

*

* "P.O.V.'s" "KPFA on the Air" airs tonight at 10 on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).

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