A CONVERSATION WITH JOY HILL
By C.S. Soong
When Lewis Hill, the pacifist and media visionary who founded KPFA and the Pacifica Foundation, took his own life on August 1, 1957, he left behind his wife of thirteen years. She was - and is - a singular woman named Joy.
Joy Cole was born in Boston into an old New England family. By age eight, she was involved in children's theater. She went on to study journalism at Syracuse University and then took a job at WINX, a commercial radio station in Washington, D.C. There she met fellow employee Lewis Hill. Joy was engaged to someone else at the time, but she found Hill irresistible. The two married in a simple ceremony on Halloween Day, 1944.
Joy's attraction to Hill was not surprising. A committed pacifist herself, Joy wrote for both The Nonviolent Activist, a national pacifist newspaper, and Conscientious Objector.
In early 1946, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Lewis hoped to realize his dream of a pacifist-controlled radio station. Joy would soon devote most of her time to raising three children: Kit (born in 1947), Martha (1950), and Sarah (1954). Although Joy didn't participate in many of the meetings and strategy sessions around the formation of KPFA and Pacifica in the late 1940s, she strongly supported her husband's vision for a noncommercial, dialogue-oriented media outlet - and she was moved as much as anyone when she heard KPFA first go on the air in 1949.
After Lewis Hill's death in 1957, Joy and the children moved briefly to Oklahoma before settling down in Florida. She landed a job at WILZ radio in St. Petersburg. Her life's journey would later take her to Rochester, New York, where she worked as a librarian at the local Gannett newspaper's library; Alexandria, Virginia, where she established a picture library for USA Today; Madison, Wisconsin; and, just recently, Tennessee. She retired from USA Today in 1986.
At age 80, Joy Hill exudes energy and charm. She still has great affection for KPFA, and boundless enthusiasm for the concept - and practice - of community radio. When Joy agreed to a conversation with me in late October, she asked that I not bring up the ongoing KPFA-Pacifica conflict. (She said she didn't feel sufficiently informed about it.) There were, of course, plenty of other things to talk about. Joy, after all, is living history. . . .
CS: Describe, if you would, what Lewis Hill was like. What kind of a person was he in the late 1940s?
JH: Well, he was a very complicated person. I think the first thing to recognize is that he was very, very intelligent. He had a capacity for following an idea down a bunch of tracks - if it went this way, what would happen; if it went that way, what kind of consequences would there be. So I always sort of had the feeling he could see around corners without a periscope. It was a little disconcerting to live with at times! But this was, I think, very important in setting up the station. We tried a number of ways. We thought about dealing with it as a co-op. . . . How can you finance something that people can get for free? And always we came back to the point that you can always go to the library and read the paper or the magazines, but if you really want them, you'll subscribe. And I think that's what kept us going in this direction; it seemed like the most logical way to get us there. But as far as Lew was concerned, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and he liked to go to Western movies, because "Right" always won - and sometimes we were less than sure of that in our own lives. And also because it did not require any heavy thought, and that was sort of a relief.
CS: Was Lew more into politics or was he more into culture and the arts?
JH: Oh, culture and the arts, by all means. He went to Stanford as a junior and went directly into what they called the University Division, where he was just working for a Ph.D. He never took the other degrees. And he did his thesis - which his father bound in red leather - on the differences between the third and fourth folio editions of Troilus and Cressida. He also took Greek, and was very much interested in what words did to us and for us. He was a perfectionist in many ways, and grieved when he was not able to maintain his own standards; this was a source of difficulty for him. But he was an interesting man. I never found anybody that interesting, so I never married again. But I think you would have liked Lew. Most people did.
CS: You mentioned his intelligence . . . what about his determination? Certainly, beginning a radio station - any radio station, let alone what he wanted to do -would be a monumental task. Was he a stubborn man?
JH: Yes, I think so. He made commitments, and if they seemed important to him he really worked at it. There were times when things were difficult at KPFA when he would much have preferred to be up in the country with us, writing poetry. But he trekked down every week to deal with the needs of the station, because this is where his commitment had been made. And I think he felt that because he was a conscientious objector and because he saw what the war had done, so disastrously in terms of human lives and hopes and people that he knew who had died. I think he felt that peace was really the important criteria for him, and working for it was something that he could put his life into, and it would matter.
CS: April 15, 1949 - that's when KPFA first went on the air. What struck you most about the very beginnings of KPFA? What was the atmosphere like back then?
JH: It was very exciting. We were finally . . . you realize there were three or four years when we were trying to find the money, we were trying to get an assigned frequency. We thought we had an AM frequency, and lost it to somebody who had a lot more money to put in. The FCC wouldn't give us a channel because we didn't have enough in escrow. So when it finally did go on the air, I stood in the kitchen with tears rolling down my cheeks, listening. Because I told them somebody had to be out there; we had to know there was one person listening for sure.
CS: . . . And you were it, maybe.
JH: I was it, yeah. But we had been up 'til quite late the night before stuffing that pink stuff into the walls to minimize the reverberations and so on, and we just barely made it. We'd never have made it if it hadn't been for the wonderful volunteers. We've always been blessed by the people who were drawn to the meaning of the station, and I'm sure you are still, from what I have seen of the crowds that came recently to stand up and be counted. That kind of care and loyalty has remained and increased.
CS: I assume you mean the 10,000 people who rallied for KPFA last year.
CS: Let me ask you more about April 15, 1949. You were at home listening on your radio to the beginnings of this now 51-year-old station. Do you remember what Lewis Hill said to you when you next saw him, when he came back from the station?
JH: I think there was a meeting that night, and I had been taking care of three small children, and I don't remember his coming in. I remember him over breakfast the next morning, discussing what it had sounded like. One of the things that I think we were both most pleased about, because I had been in commercial radio also, and it pleased us that we were not going to shut down something that was exciting, that we left cushion periods so that it could go on to a little more logical conclusion.
CS: Cushion periods? Meaning?
JH: Well, the start of a program in the beginning was not cast in concrete. There would be like an hour for discussion of some idea, and then there'd be five or sometimes even almost ten minutes before the next program, which would be maybe a half-hour program or maybe a fifteen-minute program that was not awfully important, so that if we needed to, we could let the discussion go over and get to some conclusion about the idea that was being presented.
CS: And just to tie in what you were saying earlier about Lewis Hill being more interested in cultural things than in political things: certainly at the beginnings of the station and for as long as he was at the helm, he did not intend its emphasis to be solely political.
JH: No, he did not. It was one of the aspects of it, and we thought one of the real justifications for our being there, because we saw clearly that more than one side of a question was not being offered the audience at the time. And frequently there's more than two sides. And we were trying very hard to cover the spectrum. So that was certainly of vital importance. But he wanted, and I think we had, a balanced program. I still remember the children sitting listening to Jaime de Angulo and The Indian Tales, and the little bear who got the Ha Has when he was feeling obstreperous. We used that term in the family for a long time. And Lori Campbell with her guitar and the children going down and sharing the program with her, in a very spontaneous fashion. Of course, you have to remember there was nothing you could do; you couldn't record outside the studio. There were no tape recorders. Everything was done live; it was exactly as it was presented. You heard what was happening, goofs and all. And I think this gave it an immediacy and a kind of . . . integrity. You knew that we couldn't fudge it. This was the way people felt, and we weren't trying to dress anything up or peddle an idea by slanting it in some subtle way through cuts and so on. And that is something that I think is lacking, at least in television these days. You just donít feel that same level of competence, of certainty about what you're hearing.
CS: Do you remember at the beginnings of KPFA what your favorite radio program was?
JH: Oh, I think I liked the drama and the reading of the books, because I'd been in theatre. And we did a good bit of it. A lot of people used to come to San Francisco to do programs or shows or concerts or whatnot, and they would be paid hundreds and thousands of dollars - of course, we're talking about a completely different financial monetary scale, the '50s and the '40s, than we are now - but they'd come over to KPFA for thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents, which was union wage for the show, you know, this was the minimum. Because it was something to be on KPFA, and most of them cared about it. We saw everybody from Pete Seeger to Dylan Thomas, and it was most exciting.
CS: Other than the beginning of KPFA in 1949, what do you think was most satisfying to Lewis Hill? Was there a single incident or situation in which he came home or saw you somewhere and said, This is my finest moment?
JH: I think perhaps, not in terms of the station itself, but I think when the Ford Foundation gave us that huge three-year grant. It meant that he had reached a level of professionalism, acceptability . . . I don't know what to say exactly, but that they felt that it was important enough to put several hundred thousand dollars in was just tremendously satisfying. [To be precise, the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education awarded Pacifica $150,000 in late 1951. [C.S.] It also meant that we could pay a few salaries. And there were an awful lot of people going hungry. I talked to one of the other "widows" not too long ago and she said they used up all her premarital savings when KPFA started, and her husband finally left because he had to get a job that would pay for the baby that was coming. You know, they used to call us "Prolifica Foundation."
JH: Well, it was after the war, and everybody was home and starting families, us included.
CS: Let me finish by asking you what Lewis Hill might think if he knew that KPFA was still around today, especially in this atmosphere of corporate-driven mass media.
JH: I think he would be terribly pleased. I know we all are. And I'm even more stunned and thrilled that there are so many little brothers and sisters out there like KPFA, who look to KPFA as kind of their Founding Father, as it were. Because this is terribly important. It's still hard to do, it's still expensive to do in terms of what you give up as an individual in order to do it, and I just feel so strongly that it's really wonderful, and I'm very grateful to you and to all of the people at KPFA and all over the country, who are doing this for all of us.
C.S. Soong is the producer of Living Room, a daily noontime public affairs show on KPFA. He formerly worked as co-host and associate producer of Flashpoints.