Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Not with band nor whimper but with something of a lurch, radio station WPFW-FM ended a nine-year marathon of bureaucratic rigmarole and frantic fund-raising and actually went on the air, at precisely 8 o'clock Monday night. Or approximately 8 o'clock Monday night.
At around 7:58, development director Pamela Peabody picked up a telephone and asked general manager Greg Millard for the number of the time lady. Millard said, "T1-4-2525," but by the time Peabody started to dial, someone else called out. "Thirty seconds, kids!"
Millard and Peabody rusheed into a tiny and definitely makeshift studio and got ready to make history. Washington's first Pacifica, listener-supported radio station was about to sign on.
Asked earlier if the station would be signing on with "The Star-Spangled Banner" as is traditional, Millard, a 29-year-old Houston-born poet and Harward Law dropout, smiled and said, "We're going to play some Duke Ellington." The first official sounds broadcast by WPFW were the strains of "Take the A-Train." This is entirely in keeping with the image of the Pacifica stations, which are known for rambunctious politics, minority-group programming and aggressive non-commercialism.
No, this is not your typical radio station. Operations director Robert Frazier, in beard, earphones and jeans, didn't even know if the station was on the air until he tuned it in on a clunky old receiver in the control room. "How do you spell 'inauguarl'?" he asked as he prepared to enter the first broadcast in the station log.
"I wonder if Marconi started this way," mused one of the volunteer staff members crowding the control room, which is crowded even when only the controls are in it. "I need a sedative," said another volunteer.
While a camera crew from a local TV station traipsed through the cramped quarters, Millard, Peabody, program director Denise Oliver, and veteran Pacifica organizer Phil Watson squeezed around a table for an on-air discussion of how nice it was to be on air.
"This has been a long pregnancy," Watson said.
"The longest pregnancy in history!" Oliver said.
During its first few weeks of life, WPFW will only broadcast from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily. That's because it's transmitter, added to the tower at WAMU-FM on the American University campus, is prankishly sending its signal not only out but down, straight down into the WAMU studios. So WPFW can only be on when the WAMU studios are not in use. The roof of the building will be covered with cooper shielding to correct this.
The programming will include a lot of jazz and a lot of talk: "meditational music" with Mark Yount, a recorded speech by Angela Davis, "Science Fiction Theater," Millard's poems read by Millard, and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) playing records and interviewing musicians.
"We don't know who our audience will be," Millard said earlier in the evening, in an office with an airsick bag tacked to the bulletin board. "We don't think so much in racial terms: I've never believed that people listen in little "black" or "white" boxes. We hope to reach a cross-section of the region."
For now, the offices and studios of the station are in an ironically officious-looking downtown office building. Once out of the antiseptic hallways, however, and through a door on which a hand-lettered sign warns, "Broadcasting - Quiet, Please," a visitor to WPFW finds himself in what looks like the electronic attic of the 1960s.
The decor is early debris and up against the walls are such items as a press release from George McGovern's office, a gay community newsletter, a "People - Not Profit, Alternative D.C.", phone directory, and the menu from a carry-out Chinese restaurant. Copies of The Daily World, The Militant and The Chicago Defender are stacked on rustic shelves in what might be called the newsroom.
There is a rather wonderful aura of omnidirectional activism here. On the air, Oliver invites contributions (the station's budget is about $120,000 a year), tells listeners they are tax deductible and adds, "So if you don't want your tax dollars to go to napalm and instruments of war, why not protest? Send your money to Pacifica."
News director Paz Cohen has been with Pacifica - which also has stations in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston and New York - since 1965, but came to Washington five years ago to get a job with the Federal Trade Commission.
"The job was watching TV commercials for deceptive advertising," she said. "But they lost my application, and by the time they found it, the position was filled. Then they decided they wanted me to go into the barrio - they'd never seen anyone bilingual before - and go into people's houses, cut up their curtains and burn them, to test their flamability.
"I said, 'No.'"
What does she hope to accomplish at WPFW? "For someone like me who's lived in other parts of the world, it's totally astounding to me what people don't know here," she said. "But there's a lot we don't know, too. We want to find out more."
By this time, the first hour of broadcasting had ended, Frazier had put on another record, and the talkers burst out of their sweaty little studio hugging and kissing each other elatedly. "It's been a nine-year struggle, and a lot of people didn't want us, but we showed 'em," Oliver exclaimed.
It normally takes only two years for the FCC to approve a license application, she said, but the Pacifica application was fraught with controversy. The station's frequency - 89.3 FM - is the last remaining noncommercial one on the FM band in Washington, and Pacifica faced competition from local groups. The controversial nature of Pacifica broadcasts in already existing stations was also an issue. Even now, WBAI in New York is off the air because of a staff political dispute.
Monday night at raggle-taggel WPFW, however, the mood was entirely harmony, in the key of life. "Come and hug us and kiss us." Oliver implored listeners, and Watson said, "One thing you must always add to such invitations on Pacifica stations is, "Bring your checkbook.'"
From the studios the staff (nine full-time paid workers) and the volunteers adjourned to the Rogue and Jar bar, where owner and erstwhile jazz musician Harold Kaufman was throwing the station a party, parts of which were broadcast live.
According to one listener in Northwest Washington, the signal was loud and clear and the local live jazz not bad at all. And the longest pregnancy in history was over.