In March of 1946, Lewis Hill, Eleanor McKinney and others began discussing the need for non-commercial, educational, cultural radio in the San Francisco Bay area. Frustrated with commercial radio, which they perceived as narrow in scope and rushed in delivery, Lewis Hill and this small group of people founded the Pacifica Foundation. Nearly three years after its incorporation date, Pacifica's first station, Berkeley's KPFA, went on the air.
From the station's beginning audience support was quite strong. Volunteers and donations arrived very soon after KPFA began airing, although more volunteers and more money were always needed. Pacifica was granted tax exemption on the basis of being an educational institution, and this also helped with the problems inherent in raising funds from listeners.
As Pacifica's first station, KPFA was the first listener-supported radio enterprise. The goal behind this revolutionary idea was to serve as a grass roots forum; to support diversity, freedom of speech, to be funded by listeners and to program according to their interests and needs, not those of a corporate sponsor. These ideals were supported by the programming style at Pacifica. Examples of this practice were allowing programs to be as long or short as would be appropriate for the subject (not cutting them off to fit into tight commercial schedules), using informal speech style in order to avoid any alienation associated with more formal speech, etc.
Much of this idealism that was so identified with Pacifica was a result of the influence of Lewis Hill, the prime mover of the organization. Hill was a pacifist, who above all else, felt that communication, especially via the arts such as music, drama and literature, could form bonds among people. He also considered discussion of science, religion and philosophy ways to form such bonds, and address the quality of the human spirit. Hill believed that open controversy concerning these and other such realms was a natural and necessary part of learning. As a result, Pacifica encouraged the broadcasting of differing points of view. Over the years, this dedication to freedom of expression created conflicts not only with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but with the Senate (1963 investigation concerning suspected Communist infiltration) and the FBI as well. In spite of a series of investigations and many complaints from listeners who were offended by their seeming lack of discrimination in programming, Pacifica stations did not lose their licenses. In fact, they set precedents concerning freedom of speech in broadcasting, from which communication media have benefited since.
Lewis Hill's vision set the stage for Pacifica and its open door programming policy. His time with the Foundation was not without problems, however. Between 1952 and 1954, KPFA experienced management related problems as a result of the clashing of the founding group's goals and new staff members' ideals. Hill resigned in 1952, and several other workers associated with the station's beginning left in protest of Hill's absence. The new management struggled, and in 1954, Hill returned.
Hill's suicide in 1954 shocked both KPFA staff and listeners. Because of his central role in creating the essence and style of the station, it was unclear how Pacifica would be affected. Instead of losing sight of Hill's vision, Pacifica began realizing plans to expand into other communities, and four stations have been added: KPFK, Los Angeles, 1959; WBAI, New York, 1960; KPFT, Houston, 1970; and WPFW, Washington, DC, 1977. Many affiliate stations have signed on in addition to these core stations. As with KPFA, each of these core stations has struggled to address its audience thoughtfully. For various reasons, each has also encountered resistance from sections of the community it serves. For example, KPFT was bombed twice in its first years, and other stations have experienced internal disagreements.
Pacifica has a unique status in broadcasting history not only for being the first listener-supported radio station, but also for breaking ground in freedom of speech issues, and for taking the risk of providing controversial programming and points of view.