Principle, not profit: Seattle's history of alternative media resistance

by Jonathan Lawson

In our present North American cultural and political climate, the need for media alternatives has never been clearer. Thankfully, northwest communities are host to a splendid array of thriving, or at least feisty, independent media outlets. In fact, the last few years have seen a new explosion of tech-enabled grassroots internet and broadcast media, a trend heralded by the 1999 launch of the Indymedia movement in Seattle. These new media alternatives have carved out a lasting space for themselves at the margins of a vast establishment media system designed to serve the interests of powerful elites. Their staying power lies not only in their undeniable creativity, but in the fact that they're the inheritors and extenders of a rich history of radical media in the Pacific Northwest.

It's worth remembering, for example, that in the first decades of the previous century, Seattle's still-small population enjoyed a quite broad range of media--including some distinctly radical voices. The city's four or five major papers included one species now all but extinct: the labor-owned daily newspaper. In 1917, Union Record 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." Ault posted a sign at the paper's offices at 6th and Union as an accusation and challenge to the local capitalist establishment press: "Published for Principle, not for Profit."

Even as the Union Record's fortunes declined in the 1920s, the labor paper and its critique of the media mainstream paved the way for many more radical, community-based, fiercely independent media experiments in Seattle, up to the present day.

Seattle has long been a vital laboratory, for example, for radio broadcasting, in cultural programming as well as news. Years before Dorothy Bullitt launched the region’s first FM station, (KING, in 1948), Seattle’s airwaves had become a playground for the musical avant-garde. In the late 1930s, Cornish College of the Arts founder Nellie Cornish instituted a radio training program at the school, the first such program in the country. Apart from providing journalistic training to young broadcasters, the college's state-of-the-art radio 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 world's first electro-acoustic compositions, combining turntable sounds with live instruments (imagine tuning the knobs of a radio set in 1939, unexpectedly encountering the gurgling cacophony of Cage's "Imaginary Landscapes No. 1").

In the 1980s, a later generation of radio experimenters formed a creative and highly fruitful scene at KAOS, the student-run station at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. On one hand, KAOS music director John Foster and Evergreen punkers like Bruce Pavitt (Sub Pop), Steve Fisk, Slim Moon (Kill Rock Stars), Lois Maffeo and Calvin Johnson (K Records) created a post-punk renaissance by re-imagining college rock radio social networks as the infrastructure for an anti-establishment cultural flourishing. Meanwhile, fellow ‘Greeners Steve Peters and Robin James were also seeking out more experimental audio arts landscapes. James’ Cassette Mythos project celebrated and documented an international scene of tape-trading musicians and sound artists. Peters, who went on to form the influential avant-garde music distribution nonprofit Nonsequitur, organized and produced his first experimental radio art broadcasts at KAOS.

The Northwest’s primary contribution to radical radio history, however, was Seattle’s trailblazing community station KRAB. In 1962, community broadcasting pioneers Lorenzo Milam, Jeremy Lansman and Gary Margason founded the fiercely independent station, one of the original spawning grounds for freeform programming and, according to some, the very first modern community radio station. Milam (who chronicled his radio adventures in several books including the deservedly well-read Sex and Broadcasting) left the station in 1968, but he and his colleagues spread across the country, Johnny Appleseed-fashion, birthing a dozen or so more community stations based on the KRAB model. Most of these stations, which formed the “KRAB Nebula,” are now defunct (the most prominent exceptions are Madison’s WORT and Portland’s KBOO). In 1973, some of these stations sent representatives to Seattle, to talk about the need for a more formal advocacy organization representing the interests of grassroots radio stations. These discussions led to the founding of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters two years later. KRAB itself 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 former KRAB staffer Joan Rabinowitz is currently 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 cultural and political 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.

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--KRAB providing training facilities--before settling in the Yakima Valley in 1979. Working out of 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, others are still working to inspire new generations of media producers and consumers. KRAB co-founder Lansman is still building radio and TV stations in Anchorage, and sharing his self-taught skills with younger media troublemakers. Community activist Sharon Maeda, KRAB's general manager in the late 1970s, is now organizing a statewide media democracy campaign for Reclaim the Media, and training South Seattle at-risk youth in media production skills. Before launching his run for Senate on the Green Party ticket, former Panther Dixon led media literacy workshops at the Garfield Community Center as part of his work with youth of color in Seattle. In one project, Dixon helped a group of young women produce a video for's "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest. Unitarian minister Paul Sawyer, in the 1960s a guiding angel for the Helix, is now working for structural media reform 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 in 2000.

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 still-young 21st century has seen a resurgence in independent media production and media activism in the Northwest. Like their radical predecessors, many of these new media outlets are animated by a similarly radicalized sense of opposition to mainstream media, culture and politics. While often breaking new ground themselves, our new generations of grassroots writers, broadcasters and audiences are also carrying on the region's long history of principled, creative alternative media resistance.

A version of this article was first published in the now-defunct community paper Tablet.

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