Leftoverture

Alternative rockers are getting behind Alternative Radio.

The same can be said of Barsamian, who decided in 1986 to start disseminating his program via satellite in hopes that the citizenry at large would embrace his work. He became the KGNU news director the following year, but in 1991 he quit that gig to concentrate more of his attention on AR. Since then, his reputation has spread, thanks in part to six books based on his interviews with Chomsky (the most recent, The Common Good, was issued in 1998) plus collaborations with Zinn (The Future of History), Eqbal Ahmad (Confronting Empire) and Edward Said (The Pen & the Sword). His success continues to strike Durlin, who's helmed KGNU for the past thirteen years, as thoroughly improbable.

"If someone had told me, 'I'm going to make a living out of recording dissident intellectuals and putting them on the air uninterrupted,' I would have said, 'Right -- good luck,'" she notes with a laugh. "I'm amazed that there's that big of a market out there for this. But David has found it."

Not that he's swimming in Rupert Murdoch-type waters. Because AR is free to any public-radio station that wants to air it, Barsamian supports himself mainly through sales of tapes and transcripts. But while he has a couple of staffers to assist him, he lacks high-volume tape duplicators or an adequate computer system -- deficiencies the Keep Left collection is intended to address. "We need to move into the 21st century," he says. "We have a Web site [alternativeradio.org], but we don't have mp3 technology, and we don't have the capability to send stations or individuals audio files. If we did, you could go to my Web site and download the audio -- and that way, we'd also be doing an end run around the stations that refuse to broadcast the program."

David Barsamian leans to the left on his Alternative Radio show.
Susan Goldstein
David Barsamian leans to the left on his Alternative Radio show.

There are loads of those, including Denver's KUVO and KCFR (the flagship outlet of the Colorado Public Radio system), both of which have brushed off Barsamian's entreaties for years. In addition, AR has been yanked from some stations that once broadcast it, including state networks in Michigan and Wisconsin. Predictably, Barsamian views the reasons generally given for these decisions -- lack of ratings and sponsors -- through a sinister prism.

"If you put a program in a bad time slot and don't promote it, poor ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says. "And a similar concept comes into play for underwriting, which is Orwell-speak for 'commercials.' If you were the head of a Fortune 500 company, would you be inclined to sponsor a program that features people like Ralph Nader [the star of an AR installment slated for September], who challenges the very legitimacy of corporate power, or would you rather spend your money on a program that reflects your views? The answer is self-evident; today program directors are very reluctant to put on programming that could be perceived as unfriendly to corporations, which are the major sponsors of public radio.

"I don't want to whine and moan," Barsamian adds. "I'm glad to be on the stations I'm on. But one of the things AR is about that makes some public-radio stations very uncomfortable is that it's dedicated to the founding principles of public broadcasting, as embodied in a 1967 report by the Carnegie Commission. The report said public radio was intended to serve 'as a forum for controversy and debate' and to provide 'a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.' That may not be the mission of a lot of public radio anymore, but it's still ours."

Poli-sigh: According to David Barsamian, the coverage of the season's presidential politics by mainstream radio has been superficial in the extreme. "The commentators are almost invariably prognosticators, asking, 'How are they going to do...?'" he says. "It's like listening to a movie review: 'He looked confident as he strode to the platform and immediately established a rapport with the audience.' What is that?"

Typical, unfortunately. The local station that's providing the most reporting about the recent Republican convention in Philadelphia and this week's gathering of Democrats in Los Angeles is KWAB-AM, a left-leaning Boulder commercial outlet ("Radio for [Lots of] Change," May 25) -- but its modest, 1,000-watt signal can be tough to hear beyond the Boulder turnpike. As a result, Denverites have had to turn to talkers such as KOA and KHOW, few of whose national-politics broadcasts could be described as in-depth.

For instance, the programming devoted to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's naming of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his proposed veep has largely neglected to examine many of his previous public stands, including his mid-'90s attacks on pop culture made at the side of William Bennett, the ultra-right-wing taste arbiter who wrote The Book of Virtues. (Gore's election would give two of the Democratic figures most likely to blame societal ills on a movie, album or video game -- Lieberman and Al's wife, Parents Music Resource Center co-founder Tipper Gore -- a bully pulpit from which to wag their fingers.) Instead, the conversations have generally centered on Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish faith, thereby attracting a disturbing number of calls from covert or overt anti-Semites whose bigotry hasn't been challenged often enough. Even worse was a song parody heard on the syndicated Michael Reagan yakfest beamed forth weeknights on KTLK -- a mocking "salute" to Lieberman wailed cantor-like to the melody of "Hava Nagila."

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