A Tale of Two Alternative Media Conferences
In June 1970, a charter flight was on its way from San Francisco to the Alternative Media Conference at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. The passengers consisted entirely of attendees. Larry Bensky, then KPFA news anchor, recalls, “It was one of the craziest trips ever taken by anyone, anywhere, I’m sure. Many on the plane were tripping on acid.”
Photographer Robert Altman was sitting next to an old friend, Dr. Gene Schoenfeld, also known as Dr. Hip for his weekly countercultural advice column, syndicated to underground papers around the country. He shared a joint with Altman, who said, “It stimulated the good doctor with enough brashness and playfulness that he took over the plane’s entire audio system. As he sent raucous rock’n’roll from his portable player through the plane’s microphone, we were dancing, and the crew loved it.”
In addition, KSAN commentator Scoop Nisker played his signature news collages, and Michael Goodwin from Rolling Stone (then a skimpy 25-cent tabloid) remembers somebody reading Allen Ginsberg poetry. “It might even have been me,” he admits, “and if it was, I hereby apologize.”
Forty-three years later, a few months ago, another Alternative Media Conference took place at Goddard. The keynote speech was delivered by Thom Hartmann, topflight progressive radio talk-show host. When he was fifteen, in 1966, he published an underground newspaper, The Jurist. “Our first issue called for the legalization of pot and for teachers to let us smoke cigarettes in classrooms. That got us really in serious trouble, and we were told, ‘Don’t ever publish this thing again.’ But the next issue was about the military-industrial-complex. That got us kicked out of school.”
Hartmann emphasized that, “Before Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it did not say, ‘If you carry an hour of Rush Limbaugh, you have to carry an hour of Thom Hartmann.’ That’s the mythology that Limbaugh and the right have put out all these years, and what they’ve used to beat up the Fairness Doctrine. But it said that the station has to serve public interest.
“In ’88, I was driving down the street, listening to the radio, and a news report came on that CBS had just moved their news division under the vice-president of entertainment. And I thought, ‘That’s it, this is the beginning of the end of any kind of media that is genuine.’ All the networks had been losing money on their news divisions, because they were necessary for radio and TV stations to keep their community service component of their license now that Reagan was saying, ‘Hey, that doesn’t matter anymore.’
“In addition, in ’82, Reagan stopped the force of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which said that any organization that gets big enough to basically dominate an industry can’t do that, it’s a crime, two years in prison and a big fine, something like that. So between those two things, and then Clinton just put the nail in the coffin in ’96 with the Telecommunications Act.
“It used to be that nobody could own more than forty radio stations, and so what we’ve seen is that local media has become national media, national media has become corporate media, corporate media has eaten everything, and alternative media has been increasingly marginalized as a consequence of that. And then came the Web, and now much of the alternative media is on the Web. We’ve moved our shows onto the Web, as well as livestream, and we have YouTube channels.
“But if we want to have vibrant media again –- real media, functional media –- there should be no mainstream media, that is, the concept of mainstream media, the concept of one corporation basically owning the programming -- the Limbaugh show, the Hannity show, the Beck show -- then owning the points of distribution. This should not be. This was done away with in television in the 1970s or 1980s. The networks had to have at least two hours of prime-time television programming that did not come from the TV networks.
“Just this whole concept of there being a mainstream media gives legitimacy to what has essentially become corporate media with a corporate message. There is this thing called the mainstream media that is a giant corporate echo chamber that serves multinational corporations of billionaires, and nobody else. It’s destroying this country. It’s destroying democracy….”
In 1970, the keynote speech was delivered by Ram Dass, a delightfully stimulating spiritual teacher. The 2013 event began with a celebration of the original conference. Organizer Larry Yurdin pointed out that Ram Dass, beside his outdoor talk, also “led a workshop on stress reduction and conflict resolution, and his guiding mantra and meditation helped to bring the many different clashing progressive agendas into greater harmony.”
Or at least he tried. Take, for example, the interruption of a presentation by the late Harvey Kurtzman, the creator and editor of Mad, and later -- after he was fired for demanding 51 percent of Mad’s stock or he would quit – he became the contributor of a monthly, mildly raunchy full-page comic strip for Playboy titled “Little Annie Fanny.”
Danny Goldberg, who was at the conference as a columnist for Billboard, and is now managing rock artists including Steve Earle and Tom Morello, wrote in his recent book, Bumping Into Genius: My Life in the Rock and Roll Business:
“Just as Kurtzman was beginning to describe his take on the Woodstock culture his work helped to spawn, a couple disrobed and started having sex on the floor. Several attendees started clapping their hands in rhythm with the couple’s movements. In response, two feminists angrily yelled at the lecherous attendees to stop clapping. Kurtzman and the other panelists looked perplexed, and the crowd that had come to hear them quickly dispersed.”
Art Spiegelman was also there. His first cartoon for The Realist in 1967 depicted a male soldier sitting on the lap of another male soldier, and they’re smooching in front of a sign on the wall, “Make Love, Not War!” Spiegelman has since been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 graphic novel, Maus, and he currently creates covers for the New Yorker, including the poignant one about 9/11, featuring dark ghosts of the Twin Towers against a mournful black background.
“Harvey Kurtzman was the granddaddy of the underground cartoonists,” Spiegelman recalls, “and he was in shock. Basically, it was my first real encounter with feminists. They kind of busted up the underground comics meeting. From my perspective, they were absolutely alien. ‘Why were those chicks so pissed off?’ It was really the very first time somebody was getting so angry in my earshot about the way men treated women. So amazing, what a few decades will do in terms of rearranging your brain circuits.”
Indeed, Rona Elliot, who was the PR person at KMPX in San Francisco, recalls, “I told the program director that I’d been invited to the Alternative Media Conference, and he said no woman would go representing his station, so I quit on the spot.”
At that time, the blossoming Women’s Liberation Movement had its own forms of protest: the demonstration at the Miss America pageant; the six feminists taking over the male-dominated underground paper named Rat; Robin Morgan embracing Valerie Solanas, who had attempted to kill Andy Warhol. No wonder a fuck-in taking place at a lake across the road was raided by feminists. “If there’s going to be a fuck-in,” shouted one, “then we’ll decide where and when there’ll be a fuck-in.”
At this year’s conference, one of the participants was Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch, the “Feminist Response to Pop Culture.” Their Fall issue features articles ranging from “Helen Thomas [who died after the magazine went to press], Off the Record: A few opinions from the First Lady of the Press” to “Laughing It Off: What happens when women tell rape jokes?” The back cover ad is from She Bop, “A Female Friendly Sex Toy Boutique.”
Nonetheless, Zeisler pointed out that there is still some question on the general utility of print, and that the superficial multi-tasking world of the web has diluted the power of print and constrained the audience power of that medium.
In The Bridge, an independent local newspaper, Dan Jones wrote: “It was evident that the zeitgeist had moved on, and alternative media had been reduced to pleading for access to the mainstream media. One fun session was run by a group of producers from the Onion. What I found truly fascinating was that none of them owned TVs or subscribed to cable. Their news came from NPR and the New York Times. In fact, anecdotal reports from many presenters showed that few admitted watching TV at all. This left me wondering why any of us should be worried about access to the broadcast media if the opinion leaders weren’t even paying attention.”
Statistically, a Times survey indicates that one in three millennials watch mostly online video and no broadcast TV. Meanwhile, in a video by a man-in-the-street interviewer, students at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, near Washington D.C., were unable to recognize the names of Vladimir Putin and John Kerry, but they gave detailed explanations on how to twerk.