Not far from the plush and vast headquarters of the Voice of America sits a maverick radio station whose cramped offices offer a stark contrast: the Voices of Washington. Bright posters from the international struggle dot the wall of WPFW-FM's general offices; dozens of gaily painted but well-worn chairs surround a half-dozen tables that look like they're waiting for a meeting. The phones in the third-floor offices ring constantly, exuberant whoops mix with shouts of frustration directed at malfunctioning equipment. The airwaves crackle with the sounds of jazz a la Mingus, Monk and Miles.
WPFW's paper-strewn newsroom seems like a cross between "Low Grant on Strike" and "Between the Lines," a clearinghouse for left-leaning ideology on a number of national and international issues. In the studios one flight down, technicians try to stem the natural decay of equipment that's like a wedding tradition: something old, something new, something borrowed -- oops, something blew. "When we first put the station together," laughs station manager Lorne Cress-Love, "we did it with things that were donated . . . and some that I think were thrown out."
Four years ago, WPFW signed on the air for the first time with Duke Ellington's "Take the A-Train" instead of the traditional "Star-Spangled Banner," and it has run on its own aggressively non-commercial schedule ever since. Having weathered a seemingly endless flow of crises -- chronic underfunding, a series of station managers, makeshift studios, frequent moves and questions of audience delineation -- the minority-controlled and listener-supported station finds itself in the most stable position of its four-year existence. The City Council has declared this past week "WPFW Week" in the District of Columbia for, among other things, the station's "commitment to providing access to those voices within the community who have least access to the airwaves."
Those voices include Washington's black community, women, gays, senior citizens, children and the metropolitan area's substantial ethnic and international communities. WPFW's outreach program has articulated the problems of the disenfranchised, a tradition drawm from but not dictated by its parent network, Pacifica. Pacifica originated the listener-supported concept in radio 32 years ago, and over the years has developed a reputation for positioning itself at the heart of controversy with rambunctious political and ideological activism. During the Vietnam war, the network flooded its five stations with anti-war broadcasts, and it has a long history of civil-rights advocacy for blacks and women.
According to Cress-Love, that '60s community-directed spirit, absent in the '70s, is "an idea whose time has come back. I felt in the late '70s that we would need Pacifica and PFW in the '80s, that it would be critically important for the country. People have to have access, as well as a place where they can hear other opinions."
With a base of 10,000 subscribers and a much larger listenership that's half black/half white, WPFW has become the 16th largest public station in the United States. Unlike National Public Radio stations and the other Pacifica outlets, the Washington station's existence has never been tied to grants. Less than 10 percent of its $200,000 budget for 1981 came from grants, though there is a National Telecommunications and Information Agency matching grant proposal to upgrade the equipment.
With deregulation eliminating local stations' requirements for community service, the value and responsibility of WPFW becomes greater. This is particularly true of programming for national minorities, according to Senegal-born program director Cheik Soumare. "The communities that exist here do not have access to the airwaves . . . but they do have a lot to say," he points out. The Spanish-speaking community is estimated at 200,000 to 250,000 with Africans representing another 40,000 to 50,000; and the influx of Asians over the last few years has led to new programming considerations. There are already programs for Southeast Asians and Indians, and there may be a new program for Koreans. "These people are concerned not only with things here, but with their countries of origin," Soumare says. "WPFW gives them tremendous moral support. But it's also important that American people in general understand other countries from an historical perspective. We attempt to provide music, news, information, short interviews -- to inform as well as to entertain."
Besides its ethnic programming, WPFW broadcasts many magazine-format shows, and more jazz than any other Washington station. Its casual, on-the-air approach leads to some decidedly freewheeling programming -- a landlord talk show, taped consciousness-raising sessions of women's groups, aimless rapping between musical selections by disc jockeys carried away with themselves. There have also been controversies, including last year's "War of the Worlds"-style simulated nuclear attack used in an anti-nuclear program -- many people believed it and were visibly shaken.
Occasional amateurism might be expected from a station that depends on 11 paid workers and more than 200 volunteers (including a number of collectives) to keep it on the air. But many volunteers have found radio-related jobs elsewhere after on-site training at WPFW. The station recently unveiled a special training program directed at Latin youth. "To have access to radio, you must train people to have the skills," says Soumare.
Cress-Love sees the station widening its audience in the '80s, particularly under the conservative, social service-cutting Reagan administration. "The '60s concerns were with blacks' and women's issues" she says. "But, you see, none of those things has ever really been won. Nobody's gonna give blacks or women their rights or equity. How can they say that if they look at the fiber of the country? We stopped struggling, we stopped believing we had to struggle. But a lot of us never got out of that." And a lot of them ended up at stations like WPFW.