WPFW Celebrates Three Spirited Decades on the Dial

Jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins accepts a Peace and Justice Award on Saturday at the 30th anniversary gala for WPFW (89.3 FM).
Jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins accepts a Peace and Justice Award on Saturday at the 30th anniversary gala for WPFW (89.3 FM). (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Three decades after WPFW (89.3 FM) went on the air, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was packed with people and significance for a celebration of the legacy of the station as an outlet for community activists, world issues and progressive thought juxtaposed with pure jazz.

WPFW, one of five stations in the Pacifica Radio Network, for 30 years has mixed the volatile with the peaceful, whether covering an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African Embassy or playing the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the other jazz masters.

More than 17,000 people attended the station's 30th-anniversary gala Dec. 15 at the Convention Center, where Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), District Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and others talked about the importance of the station in the city's history.

The anniversary was also an opportunity to honor civil rights activists, entertainers, a member of Congress and a journalist with Peace and Justice Awards, given by station officials and the Pacifica Foundation.

Among the honorees were Dorothy Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women; singer-actor Harry Belafonte; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins; and comedian-activist Dick Gregory, who joked that the station is even important to God, who kept it from snowing on the night of the gala.

"WPFW, we thank you, I never thought I would see the day when things would change so fast in 30 years," Gregory said during a serious moment in his humorous acceptance speech.

The other honorees were Howard Zinn, a former World War II pilot who became a Spelman College professor and civil rights activist in the 1960s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Ron Clark, co-founder of the Regional Addiction Prevention program and the station's first programmer; and Amy Goodman, producer of the Pacifica show "Democracy Now!"

Reflecting on May 12, 1970, when members of the Ku Klux Klan blew up the transmitter of the Pacifica radio station in Houston, Goodman said that WPFW and other Pacifica stations have paid a price for being a forum for independent and progressive thought.

"The Ku Klux Klan strapped dynamite to the base of a transmitter. They understood how dangerous Pacifica is," Goodman said. "Dangerous because it allows people to speak for themselves."

Goodman's words came between music by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Gloria Lynne, a Harlem-born jazz diva whose steamy ballads stirred up old passions in the crowd.

"WPFW is a direct voice into the community," said Acie Byrd, chairman of the gala committee. "It would be a great spiritual hole in the ground not to have WPFW liven up the citizens of Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan area. It has been a public radio station that speaks truth to power."

Even though much of WPFW's airtime is devoted to issues programs, Harold King of Mitchellville listens to the station for the music. As he and his wife, Ruby, left the convention center, they paused as Lynne crooned a jazz melody they both knew well. King looked at his wife and said, "That's our song."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company