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Saving voices of a generation

Special to The Times

Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abbie Hoffman, Cesar Chavez -- these and other famous figures from American history may be gone, but their voices live on in a massive library of recordings at the Pacifica radio network. But those are in danger of fading away too.

Housed at the network’s local affiliate, KPFK-FM (90.7) in North Hollywood, most of the 47,000-tape collection resides in a packed storage room, cooled by an air conditioner meant for a space half the size.

Faced with inadequate facilities and deteriorating acetate and magnetic recordings, Pacifica’s five-station network, which includes stations in Berkeley, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., is planning a daylong pledge drive Tuesday to raise $200,000 to help restore, preserve and house the tapes.

“It’s a recorded history of the 1st Amendment,” said J. Brian DeShazor, the Pacifica archives manager. “Every American should understand it and appreciate it and help fund it. It is our collective history.”

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Among the selections from the network’s 53-year history is a recording of King’s 1968 jailhouse visit with Joan Baez, imprisoned in Northern California during an antiwar protest. A Pacifica reporter was there and taped the meeting.

“That tape has already deteriorated in sound quality. We could lose some of those rare, valuable recordings that represent our 1st Amendment,” DeShazor said.

The recordings are significant not just because of the speakers and the messages they convey, he said, but also because of the power of the voices themselves -- greater than simply words on a printed page. For example, DeShazor described a recording of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who was brutalized by police for leading voter registration efforts in Mississippi.

“You hear in her voice how she had been beaten for so many years, but you can also hear how she had been empowered,” he said. “You can hear all of her struggle. It’s very powerful.”

Tuesday’s programming will feature selections from the archives, focusing on topics including civil rights, civil liberties, women’s studies, Native American rights and the peace movement, and donors can receive excerpts as premiums.

“They are sitting on a treasure,” said Ruth Seymour, general manager at KCRW-FM (89.9), who was arts director at KPFK in the early ‘60s and program director in the 1970s. “If you really wanted to go back and do a compendium on American life, they have stuff that boggles the mind. It’s very valuable.”

But the recordings aren’t all political rhetoric and firebrand speeches.

The library also includes landmarks of arts and literature, with performances by jazz great Duke Ellington, folk singer Pete Seeger, blues singer Big Mama Thornton and pianist Bill Evans, among many others. Ernest Hemingway reads “In Harry’s Bar in Venice,” Bette Davis discusses youth and age in Hollywood, and Maya Angelou recites a poem about womanhood.

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And in a nod to the radio drama that had been a staple of Pacifica programming, the network commissioned a remake of the classic thriller “Sorry, Wrong Number,” starring Shirley Knight and Ed Asner. That will air at 4 p.m. Tuesday on KPFK.


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