Pacifica Radio Comes to Washington

When I came to D.C. in the early 70s, the city was still reeling from the assassination of Dr. King and the “so-called” riots that followed. The District was just developing a predominantly Black city council. A lot of SNCC staff people had just come back from the South and had begun applying their organizing skills to issues in the District. There was an excitement and a belief that those developed skills could really make a difference in the District of Columbia!

Lorne Cress Love. Courtesy of Karen Spellman.

As all of this was happening, Pacifica Radio was attempting to get a radio station on the air in Washington, D.C. Pacifica kept facing roadblocks from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) because of its history and involvement in all kinds of progressive causes since the end of World War II. Around 1967 or 1968, Pacifica sent Phil Watson from California to D.C. to begin the groundwork for establishing a radio station in the nation’s capital. Phil put a local board together, hired a media law firm, Arent Fox LLP, and applied for the license for the last channel on the FM band. I think he was the one who actually presented the request to the FCC. However, the FCC or some entity within the federal government who did not want Pacifica on the air encouraged Howard University to challenge Pacifica’s request on the grounds that there was no Black presence on the FM band, and this was the last available channel.

Howard’s challenge immediately held up Pacifica’s license request. Fortunately, at that same time, communications conglomerates were being required to comply with the FCC’s new media ownership rules, and the Washington Post Company owned an AM station, an FM station, a television station, Newsweek magazine, and the Washington Post newspaper. The Post diversified by giving Howard University its FM license and FM station, so Howard dropped its challenge to Pacifica, formed WHUR, and WPFW Pacifica was eventually granted the license.

Next, the local WPFW board and one of its leaders, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, began to scout around for a Black general manager. Pacifica’s National Board of Directors had voted to have a Black general manager for this station because at that time, D.C. was a predominantly Black city and because Pacifica had never had a Black person in that position.

While Pacifica waited for its own license, Phil Watson used the Pacifica program model for Howard’s station. WHUR was originally a non-commercial radio station and came on the air with a news, public affairs, music, arts, and theater format that had been established by Pacifica. It was “360 degrees of the Black experience”; that was WHUR’s logo. This new radio station, together with Howard’s new School of Communications, really galvanized the city.

I had become familiar with Pacifica back when I started a Black radio project at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. So when I first heard about this Pacifica station coming to D.C., I was very interested, and I began looking around and listening to see who was involved. By that time, the local board had hired two people. One was Greg Millard from Texas; he was a friend of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. The second person, Denise Oliver, was hired as program director.

I first met Greg and Denise in 1976 when my friend, radio consultant and programmer Pepsi Charles came to D.C. to attend the Second National Conference of Black Writers at Howard University. She was doing a radio program on WBAI, Pacifica’s New York station. The people at ‘BAI told her to look up the people who were trying to get the D.C. Pacifica station going and help them out or give them any suggestions she could. Pepsi was staying at my house that weekend, and she asked if she could invite the D.C. Pacifica station people to a meeting at the house I shared with sculptor and artist-activist, Ed Love. I said “yes.” The people were Denise Oliver and Greg Millard. I just sat in on their meeting and happened to say, “Well, when you guys get this radio station going, let me know because I would like to do a program on housing.”

Before we put WPFW on the air, I was an organizer for the Shaw Project Area Committee, which was located in the Shaw community, one of the neighborhoods that had been affected by the so-called riots following Dr. King’s assassination. As a result of my work in that community, I realized that Black people were being forced out of the Shaw area and white people were moving in. This was in the 70s, and it was very quiet. Nobody talked about it, but this is what was happening. That was one of my reasons for wanting to become a part of WPFW.

The other reason was jazz music. When Greg Millard asked me if I would come on board as director of public affairs, I didn’t even ask him how much money I was going to get. I asked him what the music was going to be. He said jazz, and I said, “I am with you!” because I knew how important it was to continue this music. People don’t realize how extremely important jazz is. The energy, the creativity of the music positively impacts people’s minds. Listeners don’t even realize what it’s doing for them. But it’s a major effort, and when we don’t hear it, something happens to the spirit.

Building a Station from Scratch

So that was the beginning of my involvement with Pacifica in 1976. For several months, we met at Greg Millard’s house over in Adams Morgan. After a while I said, “You know we can’t keep meeting in this apartment. We need to have a regular office that people could come to.” But there were all kinds of problems going on. We were not yet on the air. We did not have any place for a station. We were trying to figure out how to start a radio station, but we didn’t know what to do, and we didn’t have any money.

We were told that the Pacifica Foundation was going to build a station in the general area around 20th and M Streets, N.W., where National Public Radio had just built its new facility. National Public Radio was very new then also. We did not get a lot of help from Pacifica, though, once Pacifica began to see the racial direction of WPFW, the jazz music format, and the number of Black people Greg Millard had hired in key positions: Denise Oliver as the program director, Sigidi Braudy as the music director, and me as the public affairs director.

Even though Pacifica had decided to have a Black general manager for the radio station, there were other people on the station’s early board who had been in radio and had their own staff positions already picked out. So the more Black people Greg hired, the more difficulties he began to have with the local WPFW organizing board. The Euro-Americans on the Pacifica D.C. board were in constant discussion with national Pacifica about not being hired for the positions that they had chosen for themselves. That was the beginning of a lot of the alienation between WPFW and the national board of Pacifica, which still exists 40 years later.

Gathering Our Crew

We were fortunate that just as WPFW was looking for programmers, a local university that had permitted many outside community collectives to use their airtime for programs suddenly put these groups off the air and took back their radio station. These programmers were not all students; some were community people. There was a women’s co-op, a gay co-op, a labor co-op, and a housing co-op. They had no place to go, so once they heard that this Pacifica station was about to come on the air and was looking for programmers, they flocked to WPFW. The vast majority of these programmers and producers were not Black, but they had programming and engineering skills. We embraced them because they could help us develop the foundation of our programming and operations.

One of the programs to evolve from this group of programmers was “Sophie’s Parlor,” WPFW’s women’s collective, which exists to this day. The members had learned how to “work the board”, having taken the engineer’s test and passed it. Sunny Pietrafesa, a  member of “Sophie’s Parlor,” possessed a 3rd class engineer’s license, which was necessary to run the board. She was the engineer of signature when WPFW first signed on the air in February 1977, becoming the first woman ever to perform that function for any non-commercial station in the U.S. We also had a number of collectives who brought engineers and equipment to WPFW because back in those days, there were engineers working independently. Robert Frazier was one of the original people responsible for production and engineering at WPFW.

WPFW’s connection to jazz music was critical, but as the public affairs director, I also felt we had a responsibility to let as many people know about as many programs going on in Black America, in D.C., locally, nationally, and internationally, as we possibly could. So I worked with public affairs programmers, including a lot of people from the collectives, and scheduled their airtime. Von Martin was one of the programmers whose program “Caribbeana” is still on the air. Ron Sutton, who was doing sports on WHUR, came with his good friend, Jerry Washington, who later became one of our most famous programmers, The Bama. But back in those days, he just carried Ron Sutton’s records.

Getting WPFW on the Air

The space we rented at 1030 15th Street, N.W., had two small offices that were connected. It was to be a place where we could meet, develop our program, determine the direction of the station, and recruit volunteers. Originally, we had not planned go on the air from 15th Street, but our options became limited, so we built a studio in those cramped quarters.

The final element necessary for the station to sign on the air was the acquisition of an antenna. We were able to arrange shipment of this antenna via flatbed truck from New Jersey to D.C. Our transmitter site was going to be on the tower at American University. Once all of WPFW’s equipment was hooked up, there was a 10-day period during which WPFW’s air sound was tested to ensure it didn’t conflict with other broadcast entities. Then the engineers were to send us a telegram telling us it was okay to start broadcasting.

We went through that whole 10-day testing period, and the engineers sent us the telegram that indicated we could begin broadcasting. However, American University said, “No, you cannot broadcast. Your air sound is coming into our master control.” They insisted that we would have to copper-plate the roof of American University’s air control.

Well, Greg Millard’s father was a building contractor, and he sent the copper from Texas to D.C. Robert Frazier and a few other volunteers were responsible for installing the copper plate on the roof of WAMU. That was how we finally got on the air.

Year One: Changing Places and Changing Faces

We first signed in on the air on February 28, 1977. Soon after we got on the air, the owners of 1030 15th Street, N.W., told us we had to move. We had a very difficult time finding another location. We would find a location and then not be able to negotiate a lease.

Then we got rescued. Brother Ron Clark, who was the founder and executive director of the nonprofit substance abuse program RAP, Inc., offered us space at the RAP Shop, a small storefront facility at 18th and U Streets, N.W. RAP, Inc., used the space sometimes for community meetings. We moved into the RAP Shop about November 1977 and stayed there for a year.

That year was full of adventure because we were down the street from a fire station. Air control was on the top of a little old grocery store, and every time the fire department would come out with their alarms and bells, the sound would go right into our air control, and you could hear background noises on the air. But having that space really was momentous because our station was on shaky ground.

By January or February 1978, Greg Millard had gone as far as he could go with the station and its lack of money and facilities. He resigned as general manager. Without a leader, we were very demoralized.

Then, the day after our first major event called Jazz Radio Jam, the Washington Post ran an article with someone named Russell Johnson commenting on the event and the station. He had been interviewed at the Jazz Radio Jam. Johnson described WPFW as a Black station of the 60s and said he was there to change that. He was on the faculty at Howard University’s School of Communications and evidently had been secretly hired by the Pacifica Foundation to become the general manager. We didn’t even know who this person was. We had never seen him or heard of him, but now he had a radio program on our air, and he was making public pronouncements about changing the station. So that was the next struggle.

Fortunately, Jack O’Dell, a civil rights activist, had become chairman of the Pacifica national board. We didn’t know Jack, but we did know that he was closely associated with Jesse Jackson and other progressive politicians and organizations. We were able to appeal to O’Dell through a statement signed by the programmers expressing their displeasure with the person the Pacifica Foundation had put in as general manger. Johnson was removed from his position, and Denise Oliver, who had been our program director, took his place. She kept that position until December 1978, when she resigned due to illness, and I became general manager.

Finding a Home for Jazz and Justice Radio

In the fall of ‘78, artist and entrepreneur Vernard Gray, one of our new local board members, called and asked us to share space with him in a building he had found at 700 H Street, N.W. However, because we needed 3000 sq. ft. of space to qualify for an equipment grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), we were unable to share the space with him. Later, he decided not to rent the space. We leased the space at the corner of 7th and H Streets, and it became home to WPFW for nearly 15 years. Ultimately, we got the CPB grant, and that saved WPFW from closing.

By this time, I think we had become a community force. I don’t believe that anyone on the management team had ever consciously asked the question, “What do we want to accomplish with this radio station?” There may have been some discussion, but I don’t remember that because radio was and is an immediate, in-the-moment, everything-is-happening kind of experience, and we worked so hard back in those days just to keep the station going. You almost had to intuit what needed to be on the air.

There weren’t a lot of manuals around that spoke to managing community radio stations. We were flying by the seat of our pants. We tried to deal with community organizations, people who were having fundraisers, people who were doing programming. It was as though we were engaged in community organizing on the air.

We had no real support for WPFW’s programming philosophy—our unique blend of jazz, blues, world music, and public affairs. The Pacifica Foundation was not particularly supportive. But the Washington D.C. community was very responsive to what we were doing.  

Back in the day, the community really supported the station. I remember looking out the window once and seeing someone coming across the street with mops and buckets, and they cleaned all three floors in 700 H Street. Another day, somebody told us we could get free furniture from the old Howard University Medical School/Freedmen’s Hospital. We collected all kinds of furniture that served WPFW for years to come.

I think it’s a tragedy that we have not intentionally passed the history of WPFW on to future generations in a consistent fashion. It’s important that new programmers are given a solid understanding of the institution they are joining, why it’s so necessary, and what it took to build and sustain it.

Jazz IS Justice!

WPFW highlighted the importance of jazz in the District of Columbia and ultimately, for much of America. At the time of WPFW’s emergence, jazz clubs in D.C. were closing. I think there were one or two clubs left that played jazz: Blues Alley and the Top of the Foolery. When WPFW first came on the air, our music announcer played Duke Ellington’s “A Train.” A listener told me that he was driving to work one morning when he heard Duke Ellington and the “A Train” on his car radio and almost had a wreck! He couldn’t believe he was actually hearing it!

Featuring jazz music was a major programming effort. I would have to give A. B. Spellman and Sigidi Braudy many props for helping programmers understand the music. It was not easy; a lot of programmers got angry with Sigidi for getting upset about the absence of jazz in the music lineup. He’d ask them: “What are you playing?” or “Why are you not playing jazz?” Understandably, he had to draw a hard line back in those days just to get jazz heard on the air. On the other hand, many of the programmers were really committed to featuring jazz on WPFW.

WPFW’s Honor Roll

A roll call of a few of the people who were critical to the early development of the station includes: Greg Millard, Denise Oliver, Sigidi Braudy, Robert Frazier, Sunny  Pietrafesa, Jude Franco, and the other members of Sophie’s Parlor, Grace Cavalieri, Patty Newman, Askia Muhammad, Von Martin, Ivy Young, Judy Howell, Kay Pierson, Kay Shaw, Maria Rivero, Brother Ah, Ed Love, Phil Watson, Sandy Rattley, Karen and A. B. Spellman, John Conyers, Vince Godwin, James Garlington, Ambrose I. Lane, Sr., Ron Sutton, Jimmy Gray, Larry Neal, Ron Clark, Roach Brown, Paz Cohen, Tim Frasca, Joyce Hill, Essex Hemphill, Jerry Washington, Bill Harris, James Earley, Wade Middleton, Larry Applebaum, Tom Cole, Bill Barlow, Patti Neiman, Judy Howell, Bahai Paul, Kaye Pierson, and Baba Zulu. These folks made a major contribution to WPFW. If I inadvertently left out any names, please forgive the oversight.

So many more people in the community were important to the growth and development of WPFW. If they were not on the air programming, they were listening and supporting the station. It took a major effort to do what we did, and it makes me cry to think about what would be lost in D.C. if the music stops. We have to keep the music going for as long as we can. It’s extremely important.

Lorne Cress Love is an educator, SNCC veteran, and a founder and former general manager and public affairs director for WPFW Radio. Content for this narrative was obtained from her interview with Karen Spellman. 

Copyright © 2020 Lorne Cress Love. All rights reserved.

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