Published on

Howard Zinn, Pacifica, and the People's History of Today

Alan Minsky

The other day I was talking with a friend who was dismayed over the departure of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC. She expressed a hunch that I think many progressives share: that Olbermann's exit foreshadows the inevitable transformation of the cable news outlet by its new owners Comcast into a less progressive, less "left", voice.peoples_history.jpg

She then turned to me and said, "Air America's gone, MSNBC is doomed, you guys (Pacifica) are going to be the only game in town again, the only voice of sanity."

As Program Director at KPFK, Southern California's Pacifica station, it's a sentiment I've heard before -- in particular when the Air America Radio Network closed shop after five years of progressive advocacy and constant fiscal crisis.

From the point of view of Pacifica, it's not surprising that advertising revenue is in short supply for media outlets critiquing society from the progressive side; while, in turn, money is ever-abundant for conservative voices.

No matter how much a progressive programmer consistently advocates support for the centrist Democratic Party (which is what most MSNBC and Air America's programmers do, in effect), the very fact that these programmers need to attract an audience pushes them to take positions opposed by the Chamber of Commerce. As poll after poll reveal, the people who vote Democratic actually support policies well to the left of the Party. But, in contemporary America, you're going to have a hard time funding a daily commercial network without toeing the pro-business line.

So, Pacifica, with its model of reliance based solely on listener support, lumbers on. It's here to stay, with the full range of progressive voices it features on the airwaves every day.

I told my friend, "It's a shame about Olbermann and it would be if MSNBC loses its progressive angle; but let's face it, the real voices of social change don't make it onto the moderate-left outlets."

"Yeah," my friend said, "I was thinking about what Howard would write, if anything, about Olbermann and MSNBC. After all, folks like him are never on there."

My friend was very close to Howard Zinn. She was working with him on a project when he passed away in Southern California last year. Today is the anniversary of his death.

She hit the nail on the head. If you go through the People's History of the United States chapter by chapter; and ask the question: "if the movements that produced positive social change were active today, where would their voices be heard?" The answer is simple: it would be Pacifica, and only Pacifica among broadcast media outlets with a national scope, that would provide them coverage.

Sure, there may be a stray mention here or there on MSNBC about people fighting for immigrant rights in Arizona, but not extended segments like those found consistently on Pacifica. We need those lengthy conversations, not just soundbytes; real social commentary in order to change the dialogue about what to do in this country. And we need to hear from progressive social commentators that don't fit within the Democratic Party narrative -- which includes almost everyone on Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Alternet, Truthdig, Z Magazine and even The Nation, let alone the tens of thousands of grassroots activists across the nation -- that make up the segment of society presented magisterially in Zinn's work.

The socialists and organizers who fought for the eight hour day, the peaceful soldiers from the broad array of civil rights movements, the early nineteenth century abolitionists, the indigenous people who fought European colonialism, the farmers of Shay's Rebellion, WEB Dubois, and Emma Goldman - were they alive today, they'd be heard on Pacifica and virtually nowhere else in broadcast media.

The revitalization of the left in America, which this society so desperately needs -- the growth of a movement that unabashedly supports the interests of the vast majority of the population, and not the power elite -- can only come from today's analogue to the heroes in the People's History.

So yes, it's sad when the lights are turned off on someone like Olbermann. But there is a silver lining, if it returns more people to a media outlet such as Pacifica and others, where voices of real social change - the people Howard Zinn documented - are still front and center.

As has always been the case, we need those voices now more than ever.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Alan Minsky is the interim Program Director at KPFK Radio Los Angeles.  Next week (Jan. 31 – Feb. 4) he will be producing a special radio series about revitalizing progressive and radical political movements entitled: “Building a Powerful Left in the United States.”  He can be reached at

Share This Article

More in: