Principle, not Profit: Seattle's History of Alternative Media

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by Jonathan Lawson

In the first decades of the last century, Seattle wasn't a two-newspaper town, as it is barely managing to remain today. Its four or five major newspapers included one of the country's most prominent examples of a now-extinct species: the labor-owned newspaper. In 1917, editor Harry Ault described his paper's mission this way: "The Union Record... is opposed to capitalist control of the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. It gives you all the news the other papers give, and, in addition, the news the other papers will not print. It is the one paper that stands between you and industrial slavery." The newspaper's offices at 6th and Union bore a sign with the motto, "Published for Principle, not for Profit."

That slogan set a basic moral standard for the practice of journalism, and carried an implied criticism of the local establishment press. Even as the paper's fortunes declined in the 1920s, the Union Record foreshadowed and paved the way for many radical, community-based, fiercely independent experiments in media production in Seattle over the decades since.

Seattle has been a vital laboratory, for example, for radio broadcasting, both in news media and cultural programming. Classical music fans still benefit from the intrepid spirit of Dorothy Bullitt, who launched KING radio in 1948, the first FM station in the Northwest (and part of a small media empire that also included the region's first television station), still affiliated with the Seattle Symphony and the Seattle Opera. But even earlier, Seattle's airwaves had become a playground for the musical avant-garde. In the late 1930s, Cornish College of the Arts. Founder Nellie Cornish had instituted a radio training program at the school, the first such program in the country. Apart from providing journalistic training to young broadcasters, the facility's state-of-the-art production and broadcasting facilities sparked the creativity of composer John Cage, then a young member of the school's faculty. Cage used the studios to produce and broadcast the first electro-acoustic compositions, combining turntable sounds with live instruments (imagine turning the knobs of a radio set in 1939, suddenly encountering the gurgling cacophony of Cage's "Imaginary Landscapes No. 1").

In the early 1960s, Seattle broadcasting pioneer Lorenzo Milam and a group of co-conspirators founded community radio station KRAB, one of the original spawning grounds for freeform programming and, according to some, the very first modern community radio station. Milam left the station in 1968, but the station continued for several more years before selling its Seattle frequency, using the proceeds to underwrite the launch of KSER-Everett and the non-profit Jack Straw audio production facility in Seattle, where early KRAB broadcaster Joan Rabinowitz is executive director.

During its heyday, KRAB was home to a broad range of music and ideas, and provided a cross-pollination zone for activists and journalists in Seattle's underground . Frequent on-air volunteers included Paul Dorpat, founder of Seattle's legendary psychedelic counter-culture rag the Helix, and the late Guy Kurose, a community educator, martial artist and one of a handful of Asian-American members of the Black Panther Party in Seattle.

The Panthers were a particularly media-savvy group, in fact, who skillfully used both mainstream and alternative media as elements of their political program. Led by Aaron Dixon, the Seattle group put out a local newsletter, the Ministry of Information Bulletin, to supplement the Party's national weekly newspaper. The free, local Bulletin covered political and social issues affecting the local black community -- listings of slain Panther activists, problems with local police, and such.

Spanish-language activist communities also made use of independent media in the 1970s. The groundbreaking educational station KDNA ("La Voz del Campesino") broadcast in Seattle for a year or two before settling in the Yakima Valley in 1979. In the basement of Seattle's El Centro de la Raza, poet raul salinas founded the self-publishing operation Prensa Rescate. There labor activist Ruben Solis, salinas and others published the tri-state Spanish newspaper La Expresion.

While many of the pioneers of Seattle's best media experiments have moved on to other endeavors, many are still working to inspire new generations of media producers and consumers. As part of his work with Seattle youth of color, former Panther Dixon leads media literacy workshops at the Garfield Community Center (in a recent project, Dixon helped a group of young women enter a video spot in MoveOn.org's 'Bush in 30 Seconds' contest). Unitarian minister Paul Sawyer, in the 1960s a guiding angel for the Helix, is now working for structural reform of the national media landscape through his work with the San Francisco-based Media Democracy Legal Project. Even the Union Record made a brief reappearance just over 100 years after its founding, as media workers on strike at the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer resurrected the name for a print/online strike edition.

A 1970 announcement of the Black Panthers' Black Community News Service began: "We found we as citizens of this country were being kept duped by the government and kept misinformed by the mass media... [the News Service] is the alternative to the 'government approved' stories presented in the mass media... not stories as dictated by the oppressor, but as seen from the other end of a gun." The young new century has seen a resurgence in independent media production and media activism in the Northwest--much of it animated by a similar sense of opposition to mainstream media and culture. While often breaking new ground themselves, these new generations of grassroots writers, broadcasters and audiences are also carrying on Seattle's long history of principled, creative alternative media resistance.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey