The lifeblood of alternative radio is sometimes the celebrity that they create among themselves. And on Monday, Oct. 7, Lincoln County’s KYAQ radio station will welcome one of the biggest stars from the bottom of the dial as David Barsamian visits Newport on his Rise Up and Resist tour.
Barsamian grew up in New York, the son of Armenian refugees who fled the genocide unleashed in Turkey by the Ottoman government from 1915 to 1917. More than 1.5 million people were murdered.
The 74 year old will be at Oregon Coast Community College talking to the Central Coast as part of his contribution to and evening of “inspiration.”
“I will be drawing on not only my experiences,” he said, “but those historical examples of people fighting back with sometimes dangerous and deadly consequences.”
Barsamian and I talked via phone while he finished his regular bike ride and settled into one of his favorite Boulder, Colorado, coffee shops, Beleza, which in Portuguese means beautiful.
From growing up in the neighborhoods of New York, where he tells me he ditched school and barely graduated from high school, Barsamian enrolled in San Francisco State before dropping out after a year and then signing up to crew a Norwegian freighter out of San Francisco. He ended up in East and SouthEast Asia for two years and then three years in India.
He learned the sitar, and embedded himself in the cultural cornucopia of India: "I was surrounded by some of that country's greatest musicians and poets,” he said. “I learned so much, including Urdu, Hindi and Bengali. It was like getting a graduate education in South Asian studies."
He got back to the US in 1970, finding work in Pakistani and Indian restaurants playing sitar, as well as teaching English to students first in Rockefeller Center and later in the World Trade Center.
While David Barsamian is not a household name, his Alternative Radio out of KGNU-Boulder is syndicated to more than 250 stations in the country. He has interviewed heavy hitters of the intellectual, writer, scholarly variety, again, many not household names.
Barsamian is a touchstone for most supporters of alternative radio — sort of like IF Stone for some, or Studs Terkel for others, and really more like a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Gore Vidal.
Mile High With a Sitar and Eastern Sensibility
We are talking 1978, when he ended up in Boulder when the radio station just opened. Barsamian volunteered at the public station, making a living teaching ESL, Hindi and performing music. His first show was a music program, “Ganges to the Nile.” His sitar playing and knowledge of India and Eastern music helped.
Alas, when I ask Barsamian if there was a moment in his life when he realized he would be following a path less traveled in the US, he tells me there isn’t.
“I’ve been a rebel since I can remember,” he tells me. “I’ve always questioned authority, beginning with my parents. With the shadow of genocide hanging over our family, I wanted to learn more.”
That included reading books at a young age, and listening to talk shows on the radio coming from his hometown, New York City.
“Radio back then was quite a sober affair. Nothing like what we have now with all this shouting and screaming.”
He has stated many times that founding Alternative Radio was Barsamian's personal attempt to meet the goals of public broadcasting: “To serve as a forum for controversy and debate. To provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard."
As an activist myself, I am always challenged with bringing voices like Barsamian’s to my communities – homeless veterans, just-released prisoners, students in military compounds, adults in night school at the many community colleges where I have taught.
In a kind of parallel universe, David Barsamian states the same rational I have used to bring great voices and minds – many times very alternative, outside the box – to my clients and students as he too purports his battle is against mainstream media oversimplifying debate and shutting out so many important voices.
"It was unacceptable that many of this country's greatest and most articulate radical voices had no forum on public radio” Barsamian said. “Alternative Radio was created to be the vehicle for progressive perspectives that are otherwise ignored or given short shrift.”
Radio Waves on the Pacific
For Franki Trujillo-Dalbey, board president of KYAQ-91.7 FM and sponsor of Barsamian’s trip to Newport, there are not enough alternative voices out there giving listeners a sense of other countries’ perspectives and the unfiltered history of our own country.
Trujillo-Dalbey proudly states this is the third trip to the Central Coast for this radio personality who also has more than 20 books and a few documentary credits to his name.
A regular contributor to Sun Magazine, Barsamian just finished an interview of Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” and one of the co-founders of 350.org.
Drawing from that October Sun Magazine interview of McKibben on the heels of the release of this environmentalist’s new book, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” Barsamian poses a rhetorical point sure to be broached liberally at his Oct. 7 talk in Newport:
“In your new book, “Falter,” you talk about how scientists at both Exxon and NASA confirmed that climate change was occurring back in the 1980s.”
The radio personality declares he has limited time for a telephone interview, as he is working on an essay by an Iranian writer for a new book of essays “ReTargeting Iran” — interviews with Ervand Abrahamian, Christopher de Bellaigue, Noam Chomsky, Nader Hashemi, Trita Parsi and Laura Secor.
“At the Newport event I hope to be drawing on the energy and strength from voices like these and others questioning authority and the status quo,” he said.
An electronic umbilical cord: part II
I had just listened to Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and chief editor of LeftWord Books, on Democracy Now, aired daily on KYAQ. His latest article for Salon is headlined, “World leaders gather at the UN in the face of war, climate catastrophe & global worker exploitation.”
That was a 10-minute interview. David Barsamian just completed a two-hour interview with Prashad, talking about Kashmir, the eco-crisis, neoliberalism’s attack on all sectors of the world, “and a whole range of international issues.”
We talk about Vijay being one of the amazing contemporary voices with deep intellectual acumen and knowledge of a vast range of issues.
“Vijay is in the same mold as Tariq Ali and Edward Said.” Tariq is a British political activist, writer, journalist, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual. He is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review and Sin Permiso. Said (1935-2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. A Palestinian American born in Palestine, he was a citizen of the US by way of his father, a US Army veteran.
There is no mincing words when one broaches the Donald Trump presidency and chaos to Barsamian: “Trump is taking up too much oxygen in the room,” he said. “I am more concerned with Christian radical Mike Pence (Vice President) waiting in the wings.”
For several decades, 90-year-old Noam Chomsky — author of more than a hundred books, MIT linguistics scholar and considered the left’s go-to public intellectual – has been featured on Barsamian’s shows and in the related books of collected Chomsky-Barsamian interviews.
“I was just with him in Tucson, and Noam didn’t miss a beat. He was razor sharp in 80 minutes.”
The Chomsky-Barsamian radio relationship started more than 33 years ago, with Barsamian’s show, “Hemispheres," a political program. It was a two-and-a-half-hour program with Noam Chomsky which Barsamian uplinked to the public radio satellite. Back then, most radio stations preferred half-hour or one-hour segments, although a few stations picked up the program. It was that long conversation with Chomsky that birthed Alternative Radio.
For many followers of Barsamian, they know he has accolades for Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate and senator from Vermont. “I interviewed him when he was first elected to the House of Representatives, when he was still mayor of Burlington.” Barsaminan, however, doesn’t spend much time interviewing politicians because, in his words, they already have a platform and bully pulpit.
Country Roads, He Calls Home
Boulder, Colorado, has been more than a radio station location for Barsamian. He calls it home, and is seeing more locals developing socialist collectives, community supported agriculture and farmers markets, co-housing, or collective housing.
For Barsamian, it may be two steps forward and three steps backward for progressives. However, he sees righteousness in the struggle. He quoted American statesman Daniel Webster: “Justice, sir, is the great interest of man on Earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together.”
The list of people on Barsamian’s radio show is impressive – Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, Ralph Nader, Edward Said and so many others. Interviewing his mother, Araxie, and other witnesses of the Armenian Genocide was a pivotal moment.
The genocide trauma his mother expressed was what Barsamian calls the most difficult interview of his life. However, that discomfort helped him heal and his mother deal with difficult personal and political history.
From that day forward, Barsamian dedicated his life to listening to unheard voices. While those voices are definitely important to true democracy, as Howard Zinn wrote in the “Peoples’ History of the United States” and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in “An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States,” this retelling gives the narrator holistic healing through the very conduit of communication.
“I have been lucky to have connected with a whole galaxy of social activists and authors,” Barsamian tells me. “It is a kind of a gift of an electronic umbilical cord.”
For anyone interested in a deeper look at the construction and deconstruction of American democracy, David Barsamian has had a front row seat with history makers. He has been one of the clearer voices critiquing American media, also known as the press:
“Corporate media are largely weapons of mass distraction. Language is manipulated to manufacture consent and to limit the bounds of permissible thought. A golden Rolodex of so-called experts produces a mono-chromatic one-note samba of drivel. That's one reason I started Alternative Radio out of my house many years ago. You can't simply whine and complain. You need to come up with positive alternatives that give people hope.”
For anyone willing to take a ride on the alternative side, and push aside American exceptionalist mythology, curb blind patriotism and listen to someone who has been with history’s great minds, coming out to the Newport event, 7 pm on Monday, Oct. 7, at Oregon Coast Community College, 400 SE College Way, will be well worth the suggested $10 donation at the door.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”