Lewis Hill
A Report to the Listeners: January 4, 1952

It will not surprise anyone reading this script that Lewis Hill studied semantics and linguistics at Stanford University. This report is playful in a manner that is radically different from almost anything you hear on the radio today. It also reflects a different world (when was the last time you asked a "policeman" the time of day?). But beyond its humor, the talk reflects Hill's apprehension that even the act of asking for money for a noncommercial radio station can come off sounding like a commercial, or, short of that, similar to the rote fundraising pitch of a staid non-profit institution.

Beyond the occasional "[sic]", I have not edited this transcript in any way save one. Intended solely for radio broadcast, Hill did not bother to break his prose into visually manageable paragraphs. I have done so to make it easier on the reader. As this talk indicates, by 1952 KPFA's internal life was already a subject of considerable interest and gossip. This report, Hill coyly explained, "is intended primarily for the many people around the Bay Area who are already specialists in KPFA affairs . . . " Today, KPFA Studies is almost a recognized discipline--at least it should be, given the number of disciples.

--Matthew Lasar

This is Lewis Hill. The Report to the Listeners which usually occurs about this hour on Friday nights on KPFA is sometimes brief and monotonous, sometimes long and doubly monotonous; but still it serves a radically important end. At fairly regular intervals the KPFA audience, and especially that relatively small part of it which subscribes to the station's support [sic], must be kept informed on the project's progress, even if the staff can't think of any especially bright and entertaining way to do it.

I might put this more vividly. Sometime on Thursday afternoon of any week Al Partridge,1 Program Director of KPFA, will begin to amble a little nervously through the station's offices, in quest of a Report to the Listeners. In three or four different offices he will ask, the way one asks a policeman the time of day, Does anyone have a Report? What occurs at this moment cannot be defined exactly, because it takes place at a lightly sub-lingual level. The air suddenly becomes stale. Traffic noise from outside unaccountably increases and one cannot hear well. The face Al Partridge is addressing, although it remains fixed before him, actually evaporates in the direction of the far wall, where its eyes roam. The office room itself seems to contain a weak headache.

So the matter is very likely dropped until the next day, Friday, and Al makes another round in mid-afternoon, a bit more aggressive because, after all, it's on the schedule for this very evening. There are plenty of subscription and other data at hand; there are new program plans to announce and so forth; but still, even at the last moment, some genuinely disciplined or self-abnegating movement of spirit is necessary to get the Report to the Listeners on the air. It is only a kind of collective sense of guilt over this collective lack of ingenuity that finally propels someone into the studio with a few facts and a half-formed idea of what he might say.

The difficulty is found, it will be noted, among close friends, and it would be hard to account for that, perhaps, unless we understand that the problem is a categorical imperative. KPFA depends completely on a wide and rapid growth of subscription support among the FM audience. Obviously if that does not occur the station will not continue to exist. Hence a continuous and more or less colloquial growth of direct relation between the station and the audience is indispensable. And certainly, as a first step to that end, the audience must [be] informed of the facts. Thus the program. But you see, right here, the moment I become at all explicit, logical, direct and brief about the facts of the situation, a fatal illness sets in--ennui. It is this verbal death at such an important moment which no one at KPFA will willingly face on a Friday evening.

Maybe, while we are amusing ourselves on this subject, it might be possible to clarify the cause of such boredom. I said a moment ago -- KPFA depends completely on a wide and rapid growth of subscription support among the FM audience.2 Let us consider this sentence as a type. It is very much a Report-to-the-Listeners-type sentence. It produces an effect very close to that of what is called government gobbledegook. Every noun is modified at least once, so is the verb. Modification is piled upon modification, even though the sentence is relatively short, and the whole thing has a sonorous hum that reminds you of a swarm of gnats in front of your face.

But this is only because the sentence is so unrelentingly accurate. Consider for a moment what might be conveyed by an excised version of the same sentence: suppose we said--KPFA depends on wide support among the audience. The first thing we have left out is the word completely, and I think you will agree, something will have to take its place, or the sentence loses what soul it had. If you imagine there is an alternative in an entirely separate sentence, devoted to an elaboration of this word completely, pause a moment. That won't do. The idea in saying that KPFA depends completely, etc., is to emphasize the literal fact and avoid any misunderstanding. KPFA has no sou[r]ce of operating revenue other than listener-subscriptions.3 It is not a philanthropic enterprise, and its reserve funds for operation won't last too long. It must be supported by listener subscribers, or else. Really. Absolutely. Without exception.

In other words, if you listen to KPFA but don't subscribe, you are denying the station the only support that makes it possible for you to listen to it. The existence of such a station is in your hands. All this, do you see, is stated and connoted in one word completely, which added three boring and indigestible syllables to the sentence. But if we devoted a separate sentence to this emphasis, then we run the danger of over-emphasis. Consider it, now. If the Report to the Listener consisted of negative declarations one after another, like those I just made for the sake of illustration, what would follow. Sitting at home and suffering this bombardment you would think, Hmmm, sounds like they're about to fold up ... guess I'd better wait and see. Does this do you an injustice? I'm only supposing that you're as canny as we are. Hmmm, you'd say, good bunch of people but maybe they haven't a chance...sounds pretty shaky...one subscription from me wouldn't help if it's that close.

Now the original sentence, even if it put you to sleep, had the advantage of conveying in one word, completely, the whole truth of the matter without arousing disproportionate fears. It put you on the spot, but it didn't suggest that you were being called on to support a sinking cause--which indeed would be far from the truth. I am perfectly aware, of course, that KPFA stands no chance of obtaining your supporting subscription while you are sound asleep. But my point here, for the moment, is simply that what put you to sleep was a perfectly accurate statement of the greatest brevity, delicately guided to avoid misleading you.

In the sample abbreviation we tried a moment ago--KPFA depends on wide support among the audience--there were also omitted from the original sentence the key words ... rapid ... growth ... subscription ..., and ... FM. I could make at least as painful and difficult a case for each of these words as I have for the word completely. Omit any one of them and an essential aspect of the facts about KPFA will be left out. But devote separate sentences to the meaning of any one of them, and all confidence collapses, or rather, having been put to sleep, one begins to dream4--are there enough FM sets? do they have too far to go? will there be time? and so on until, sometime in the Fall of 1952, the dream turns out to be true.

No, we don't want to run that risk. So I repeat--KPFA depends completely on a wide and rapid growth of subscription support among the FM audience. Obviously if that does not occur the station will not continue to exist. ...This sort of thing, and the facts that can be added to it from week to week, such as that KPFA now has 1,600 subscribers, and during this year must find 3,000 more, and that this would represent about 1-1/2% of the FM audience,5 which in turn represents about 20% of the public--this sort of thing will continue, I am afraid, to constitute the Report to the Listeners, may our nightly rest be better for it.

It is apparent to anyone that certain other alternatives I have not yet mentioned have been rejected. If we were to employ the basic promotion techniques of some of the highly reputable medical charities, the format of Report to the Listeners might be made simple and familiar. We would let you listen to the babbling of an institutionalized moron for two or three minutes, till your hair rose or the tears ran down your cheeks, depending on where your ego is kept; and then the voice of our announcer would come in solemnly and stern: "Do you want your child to be like this? Then act at once. Support KPFA's children programs.6 Subscribe...today!"

We have rejected the alternatives represented by that technique, and trust there will be no complaint. But suppose that on this Report to the Listeners program, and in KPFA's schedule at the occasional points where brief mention is made of the subscription plan, the need for subscriptions, etc.,--suppose that in all these places where you hear Bill Triest7 or someone else on the air saying, for example, KPFA accepts no advertising, broadcasts no commercials. Instead.... and so on--suppose you heard the kind of thing that a good live wire advertising man would recommend for getting listener subscriptions. We might imagine Bill Triest hurling at you one of those high flat baritones that the disk-jockeys and the network commercials use, and right after the station break he says, to your amazement--

Shoot in your subscription friend
the means will justify the end!

or something of the sort. How would you like that?

I am referring to an approach to human relations which would also present a solution to our sentence problem. It would give us the gist of our problem sentences in a slogan--I refer to the sentences which began, you remember, KPFA depends completely... and ended, will not continue to exist. What the slogan would be I can't imagine, but the gist of the slogan would be, shell out, or we'll flop. Well, alas again there is a problem of accuracy. When I look at the words...will not continue to exist...I am ready to believe that no phrase could be compounded that better illustrates the ugliness of the English tongue--what a killing collision of consonants!

But the fact is, if I were to say KPFA must have subscriptions or it will flop, I would fail to give any hint that that would not happen tomorrow; that it is not the station's immediate past and present, but its continued existence that is in question. While on the other hand, if the word continue be felt as too vague and implying a more or less indefinite ability to struggle on somehow, I have the word existence, which is an absolute concept, to indicate that I mean business. Even if accuracy were not in this way at stake, I'm afraid no one at KPFA has the stomach anyway to sloganize you to death or try to promote you out of your wits. Everyone to his occupation, but if it comes to that, the case here simply that everyone would rather go up to Sonoma County and pick apples.

The Report to the Listeners has a problem in getting facts across and at the same time stimulating supporting activity that will result in new subscriptions. I haven't meant to commit us to the idea of the dull sentence. We will do our best to make these programs interesting. But the Report to the Listeners is intended primarily for the many people around the Bay Area who are already specialists in KPFA affairs anyway; so we will assume, unless contrary voices are heard, that we can eschew any programmatic approach in this period and simply approach the microphone with substantive information.

One of the reasons, it may be, for which the staff finds it hard to do this is that KPFA's audience seldom indicates what it would like to know. There is a very satisfying volume of audience mail about the programs, most of it indicating that they have served well, a little of it arguing with us and often very constructively. But only rarely does someone write with suggestions, criticisms or questions which reveal an area of KPFA's organization or history it might be worth commenting on.

There was such a letter in the mail this morning, from a San Francisco physician. To indicate the importance of this for the substance of our weekly Report, I might add that next week at this time I plan to comment on the questions the letter raises. This will have a dual benefit: it will relieve Al Partridge, for once, of his deadly visitation on Thursday afternoon; and I think, also, it will provide the occasion for illuminating a good many whys and wherefores about KPFA's [sic].

The gentleman writing states that he feels KPFA's whole program is a fine well-rounded one culturally speaking, and he wishes he could believe a large audience would stop and listen to it. But he doesn't. And for this reason he advances specific suggestions for changes in our medium, from FM to AM, in our hours of broadcasting, in the types of our programs, in our signal power, and in our publicity procedures. He concludes by saying that he believes we at KPFA are very stubborn and set in our conviction that we are doing the job in the best way, and that he does not expect we will adopt his suggestions, but wishes us well anyway and hopes to cooperate to any extent possible in what the project is doing.8

Needless to say this communication is very challenging and sweeping, and also a very warming one. Next week perhaps you will join me again for a discussion of it.


Notes

1Al Partridge was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He later served as KPFA's manager during the height of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, in 1964 and 1965.

2The marginal status of FM during the 1950s was the bane of early KPFA's existence. Long before America On Line gave away its software to subscribers, KPFA's staff gave FM sets to their's. Not until manufacturers began attaching FM receivers to stereo equipment did the station's subscription base really take off.

3This statement appears disingenuous in light of the fact that the Pacifica Foundation, KPFA's owner, had recently received a 150,000 dollar grant from the Ford Foundation. Perhaps Hill slept more easily that night by defining this windfall as capital rather than operating revenue.

4Perchance we've got a veiled reference to Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1 here: " . . . to sleep, perchance to dream."

5In 1951 Hill first published his argument that a listener-supported radio station could sustain itself with the contributions of 2 percent of the area's radio listening audience. Apparently at the time of this talk the station had failed to meet that goal. Today it does. Ironically, Pacifica's leaders now regard 2 percent as a woefully inadequate figure.

6About 20 percent of early KPFA programming was intended for children. Most of it, however, was listened to by adults.

7Bill Triest was an early KPFA announcer. His brother, Frank, was also conscientious objector and probably the poet Kenneth Rexroth's only close friend. Bill later worked at public radio station KQED-FM in San Francisco.

8The physician in question was one Dr. Howard A. Schaper. I found Schaper's long hand-written note attached to Hill's script. Hill must have found the AM recommendation a bit irritating. Pacifica had desperately tried to get an AM license for two years, only to be turned down by the Federal Communications Commission.

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