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Broadcasting “Howl”

On a late December evening in 1956, public radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, broadcast a poetry reading by a young writer whose first book, Howl and Other Poems, had just appeared that fall from local publisher City Lights Books. Allen Ginsberg, who had recorded the tape in KPFA’s studios a few months earlier, performed three poems from the book, including the long poem “Howl.”[1] The broadcast was Ginsberg’s first appearance on radio and the first sound recording of “Howl” to reach a public audience.[2] While the audience for a late-night poetry reading on a noncommercial FM radio station would undoubtedly have been small by commercial network standards, listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area who did tune their FM receivers to KPFA’s frequency would have heard an early recording of one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century. They also would have heard a groundbreaking moment in the history of queer media. As David Lamble, a Bay Area reporter, cultural critic, and queer media innovator would later state, “the first truly gay broadcast occurred whenever Allen Ginsberg first ‘Howled’ on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA” (fig. 1).[3]

Fig. 1. Crop of page 7 of KPFA Folio 7, no. 18 (November 25–December 8, 1956), featuring scheduled Allen Ginsberg broadcast for Saturday, December 8, 1956. Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive,

A few months later, Howl and Other Poems was embroiled in the infamous censorship case that began with the attempted seizure of the book’s second printing by customs officials on the San Francisco docks in March of 1957, and that culminated in the trial and acquittal of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the sale of obscene material. KPFA followed the local case with interest as it developed. In June, soon after San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao of City Lights Bookstore, the station broadcast a special program on “The ‘Howl’ Controversy,” which featured an edited rebroadcast of Ginsberg’s 1956 recording followed by a live panel discussion on the obscenity charge.[4] At Ferlinghetti’s trial, defense attorney J. W. Ehrlich even cited KPFA’s broadcasting of “Howl” in his closing remarks as evidence that the work had been publicly received as having literary and social value.[5] But while Judge Clayton W. Horn’s decision resolved the issue of Howl’s right to circulate in print, raising the bar for determining obscenity in literary works in the state of California, the struggle to broadcast the title poem freely, without censorship, would prove long and discouraging.

These first radio broadcasts of Ginsberg’s “Howl” reflect the mutually constructing relationship between a local radio station at the vanguard of a change in American radio and a literary community at the center of a renaissance in oral poetry performance. The long-anticipated and simultaneous arrival of both television and FM radio in the 1950s transformed US media broadcasting, giving rise to a period of instability in radio that also opened possibilities for new, independent broadcasting models to emerge. KPFA—the inaugural station of the Pacifica Radio network, and the first listener-supported broadcaster in the United States—was among the first wave of FM stations to be licensed when it went on the air in 1949. Poets’ involvement with Pacifica Radio since its founding meant that poetry was a cornerstone of KPFA’s cultural programming, making the station an essential institution among the universities, independent bookstores, small presses and magazines, art galleries, coffee shops, and performance venues that fostered the literary flourishing known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Though KPFA gets only brief mention in most literary histories of the era, radio played a significant role in cultivating a local audience for the oral, communitarian poetics of the renaissance. Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters, in their capacious, anecdotal reference work on Literary San Francisco (1980), describe KPFA’s significance in the 1950s as “an intellectual center perhaps of more temporary influence than the university,” and accurately note that the station attracted “[p]ractically every important writer in the Bay Area.”[6] But the influence flowed both ways. The appearance on KPFA in the 1950s and 1960s of San Francisco Renaissance poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Helen Adam, Gary Snyder, Diane Di Prima, Ferlinghetti, and, of course, Ginsberg contributed to Pacifica Radio’s growing countercultural ethos as a beacon of free expression, political dissent, and experimental sound. As Pacifica Radio expanded to include independently operated stations in Los Angeles (KPFK) and New York City (WBAI) in the late 1950s and 1960s, and later to stations in Houston (KPFT) and Washington, D.C. (WPFW), its association with countercultural figures like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and its defense of free speech radio, was part of what made the network an innovator in the “FM revolution.”

My aim in this article is, in part, to argue for the value of listening to “Howl” as a radio text. While scholars have documented the complexity of the poem’s manuscript and publication history across multiple printed forms, live performances, and audio recordings—all of which destabilize the notion of an original, authoritative, printed text— KPFA’s recordings and broadcasts of the poem have so far eluded serious study.[7] Recovering this broadcasting history, however, does more than fill a gap in the textual history of “Howl.” It documents a moment of crisis and change in the cultural meanings ascribed to radio that resonates in Ginsberg’s early poetry and the oral poetics of the San Francisco Renaissance more generally. I begin by contextualizing the poem’s sounding (and subsequent censorship) in broadcasting media in relation to a transitional moment in radio history and Pacifica Radio founder Lewis Hill’s dream of transforming radio into an outlet for the pacifist movement and a vehicle for authentic, reciprocal communication, in part through the broadcasting of the poetic spoken word. I then turn to the “Howl” broadcasts, examining radio as both a medium for and a figure within Ginsberg’s poem. It will be my contention here that censorship, surveillance, and silence are formally central to “Howl”—not only to the poem’s publication history or to its representation of a repressive postwar society, but to the most utopian and transcendental aspirations of Ginsberg’s poetics of presence. Listening to the recorded broadcasts of “Howl” on KPFA thus calls for a reconsideration of the phonocentrism of Ginsberg’s early work, but it also draws our attention to the rich connections between literary and radio culture that were sustained and reinvented in the postwar era. Radio’s emergence as the paradigmatic mass medium alongside literary modernism in the early twentieth century has generated a lively and growing body of scholarship on the inextricable relationship between early radio and modernist literary culture.[8] The specific connections between literature and radio in the U.S. after 1945, however, have not received the same attention.[9] It’s my contention that a fuller accounting for the continuation of literary broadcasting would help us to understand how this unique cultural form changed over the century in the context of American poetics, politics, and media.

Radio’s “Constant Voice”

According to Lewis Hill—committed pacifist, sometime poet, and founder of Pacifica Radio—American society after World War II was in the midst of a vast communication crisis in which radio operated as both a contributing cause and a potential cure. In a 1952 lecture given to the Mental Health Society of Northern California and broadcast over KPFA, Hill described this communication crisis as analogous to the situation of an individual locked alone in a “private room.” In a society where “the individual and the electrical appliance alike are plugged into a socket of uniformity,” and “the rules and customs of communication that might otherwise effectively link one private room with another” has undergone “a general breakdown,” each of us is helpless to respond to the threat approaching our door—a threat that promises “to destroy everything we possess or every hope of possession, and extinguish the individual identity completely.”[10] You can scream if you’d like (if you can even remember how), but the sound will only reverberate against the walls of your private room. This condition of modernity, Hill goes on to explain, bears a certain similarity to “the plight of the radio announcer, who like the rest of us, has his private room,” and whose “contribution to collective life consists . . . in daily entering a studio, opening his mouth before a microphone, and simulating the use of his own faculties in a communication of values he does not believe or possess” (“The Private Room,” 2). Mechanized into a transmitter for the voice of the sales pitch or the state propaganda office, the radio announcer must suppress individual conscience and self-expression to the extent that the very act of speaking becomes a form of silencing.

Hill spoke from experience. After his 1943 discharge from a Civilian Public Service camp for conscientious objectors (COs), Hill moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the ACLU lobbying on behalf of fellow COs for the remainder of the war. During that time, Hill also took a job as a news announcer and writer for radio station WINX, but the strain of repressing his own voice while speaking in the voice of the state and the commercial advertiser convinced him that commercial radio contributed to the degradation of communication in American society. For Hill, the unprecedented cooperation between the private radio industry and the federal government immediately prior to and during WWII offered only the most recent example of how commercial media stifled dissent and minority views, blocked public debate necessary for a functioning democracy, and facilitated the spread of propaganda on a massive scale.[11] He quit abruptly in May of 1945 and soon after left Washington for San Francisco, where he would pursue his dream, first imagined in the CO camp, of establishing an alternative media network that would promote “a pacific world in our time” and intervene against the threat at the door.[12] And the threat, for Hill, was war—imminent war with the Soviet Union and the perpetual war of an increasingly militaristic state supported by a mass-mediated consumer public.

Hill’s belief that radio contributed to a more general crisis in communication was a typical lament in the era where communication took on new connotations as a cultural buzzword and object of institutional study. Theodor W. Adorno, for example, who witnessed firsthand the institutionalization of communication during his exile in the U.S. from 1938 to 1953, argued that radio contributed to the “reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as an expression, the inability to communicate at all.”[13] In an unfinished manuscript based on his research for Paul Lazarsfeld’s Princeton Radio Research Project (PRRP), recently translated and published as “Radio Physiognomics,” Adorno argues that the true “voice” of radio is essentially authoritarian; far from enhancing the possibilities for communication in a capitalist society, radio advances the standardization of culture and eradication of individuality.[14] And like Hill, Adorno associates radio with the “private room” of the atomized subject: “When a private person in a private room is subjected to a public utility mediated by a loudspeaker, his response takes on aspects of a response to an authoritarian voice even if the content of that voice or the speaker to whom the individual is listening has no authoritarian features whatsoever” (“Radio Physiognomics,” 70). Indeed, this “illusion of privacy” is what makes radio such an ideal vehicle for authoritarianism in Adorno’s view:

the deeper this voice is involved within his own privacy, the more it appears to pour out of the cells of his most intimate life; the more he gets the impression that his own cupboard, his own phonograph, his own bedroom speaks to him in a personal way, devoid of the intermediary stages of the printed word; the more perfectly he is ready to accept wholesale whatever he hears. (70)

Adorno’s critique of radio here goes beyond common anxieties about the way that radio’s public voice penetrates the private, domestic home. Instead, he emphasizes its acousmatic sound, which hides its source from the listener while otherwise giving the impression of immediate presence, producing a powerful ventriloquizing effect whereby the apparatus appears to speak for itself. For Adorno, then, the fundamental deception of radio is its ability to hide its authoritarian structure under the guise of a privacy and individual choice, as if its voice originated in the listener’s own mind or, since it amounts to the same thing, her property.

But while Adorno believed that the ontological authoritarianism of radio could not be overcome, Hill and the Bay Area pacifists and poets who founded Pacifica Radio in 1946 believed that it could—and precisely because of what Hill described as radio’s “peculiar intimacy.”[15] Early Pacifica documents frequently refer to the intimate, “constant voice” of radio as a key part of its value for the peace movement. An early fundraising document, for example, states, “Only by entering [the individual’s] environment as a constant voice can any concept enter his consciousness. Only by answering to the mounting urgency for new educational weapons can men and women dedicated to peace seize the initiative or intervene in the struggle for social progress.”[16] While ironically adopting a militaristic rhetoric in the promotion of the pacifist cause, Hill and the early Pacificans located radio’s power in its ability to disseminate a voice that would penetrate not only the individual’s “private room” but the depths of the mind.

To intervene in the communication crisis, though, Pacifica’s first station would have to re-imagine the sound and content of that “constant voice” as well as its listening public. In its early years, KPFA promotional materials repeatedly described the station’s approach to broadcasting as akin to “ordinary conversation,” in which “the individual before a microphone . . . communicate[s] to a single person.”[17] Conversation is a bizarre (though not uncommon) analogy for radio, given that the medium depends on the remote dissemination of a single broadcast to an undetermined number of listeners who cannot respond directly.[18] Nevertheless, KPFA strove for reciprocity with listeners through its unique programming, broadcasting aesthetics, and economic model of listener-sponsorship.

The broadcasting of poetry—alongside roundtable discussions, commentaries, classical and folk music, and drama—was part of how KPFA conceived of its intervention in the communication crisis. Early internal and promotional documents frequently mention the importance of bringing poetry on the air and cultivating a local literary community. For example, in a 1952 program guide, a cover essay titled “Briefly, on the Spoken Word. . .” turns a critique of the stylized, standardized voice of commercial radio announcers into a lament that “[o]ur heritage of spoken word, particularly in poetry, story telling [sic] and drama, is fast leaving us” (fig. 2):

We can say that the public does not have “an ear for verse,” but the fact is that one seldom hears verse spoken or read. And there is no reason to believe that the ear is no longer capable of receiving and distinguishing subtleties, shifts of tone and richnesses of sound in the spoken word or line. True, most of what we hear is “flat,” it has the monotony of a code, but the instrument for hearing is there and, given the experience, it will respond.[19]

The anonymous essay writer suggests that, in keeping poetry bound to the page or performed only in the “flat” voice of a codified reading style, poets share the blame for what Adorno would call a broader “regression of listening” (“On the Fetish-Character,” 286). Poets, then, like the radio announcer, must return to their work an authentic desire to communicate an individual truth to an individual listener through the spoken word.

Fig. 2. Cover page of KPFA Folio 2, no. 26 (March 23 – April 5, 1952), Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive,

San Francisco Renaissance poets would have agreed. Jack Spicer, for example, argued in a 1949 essay that the New Critics had “removed [poetry] from its main source of interest—the human voice.”[20] Instructing fellow poets to follow instead the example of “golden age” celebrity radio entertainers, Spicer asserted that poets “must become singers, become entertainers”: “Poetry demands a human voice to sing it and demands an audience to hear it” (“The Poet and Poetry,” 230).[21] In the 1950s, San Francisco would become the center for an oral impulse in American poetry, supported by a network of presses and performance venues like City Lights Books, the San Francisco Poetry Center, and the coffee shops and jazz clubs that would become synonymous with Beat counterculture. Interestingly, Hill’s preference for dense, formal modernist verse meant that station management was somewhat slow to catch on to the revolution in verse happening around them and even in their own studios. Local poets did appear on KPFA its early years—including Spicer, who hosted a live folk music program in the station’s inaugural year—but they did so at first in the context of a literary schedule that centered on drama, readings from modernist poetry, lectures on literary criticism by university professors, and discussions of canonical “great books.” Nevertheless, San Francisco poets saw KPFA as an intrinsic part of their literary scene, in part because of the “constant voice” of Kenneth Rexroth as the station’s weekly book reviewer, literary gossip, and resident gadfly, and in part because they recognized the station’s potential as an outlet for a self-mythologizing local literary scene.[22] By the mid-to-late 1950s, as Jeff Land notes, “broadcasts of the austere and formal experiments of . . . modernists much admired by Hill gave way to the polymorphous cultural eruption of the Beats, where jazz, poetry, and sound effects filled the airwaves, producing an unprecedented aural environment.”[23] In broadcasting “Howl,” however, KPFA would bring onto radio a poetic voice that would not only contribute significantly to this shift in the station’s approach to cultural programming but challenge the foundations of its idealistic mission.

“Moloch the Radio”

Ginsberg first arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1954, and within a year had begun drafting the fragments of dreams, hallucinatory visions, and ideas on prosody that would become “Howl.” He also quickly identified KPFA as an important literary outlet, and could have heard poetry weekly on its airwaves, from appearances by local friends and acquaintances like Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, and Duncan, to recordings of visiting writers such as Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams. In mid-August 1955, Ginsberg sent the first draft of part 1 of “Howl” to Jack Kerouac in Mexico City, along with a letter inviting Kerouac to San Francisco. Noting that “[a]n art gallery here asked me to arrange [a] poetry reading program this fall,” Ginsberg added, enticingly, “also we can record and broadcast whatever we want on Berkeley radio station KPFA.”[24]

Kerouac made it to San Francisco in time to attend the legendary Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, when Ginsberg first performed part 1 of “Howl” in a program that included readings by Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure, with Rexroth as MC. Kerouac would enshrine the evening as “the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance” in The Dharma Bums (1958), and those in attendance, including much of the Bay Area poetry scene, were drawn, drunk on Kerouac’s wine, into the incantatory rhythms of Ginsberg’s performance.[25] The performance created a city-wide buzz among the poetry community for the as-yet-unpublished poem, heightened after Ginsberg’s subsequent performances of part 1 at the Poetry Center on November 20 and of parts 1 through 3 at a staged “re-creation” of the Six Gallery reading at the Berkeley Town Hall Theater on March 11, 1956. The underground circulation of tape-recorded and mimeograph versions of the poem also built up an anticipatory reception around the Bay Area for Ginsberg’s first book.[26]

KPFA, as Ginsberg had suggested in his letter to Kerouac, would appear to be another obvious alternative to mainstream publishing for disseminating the radical voice of “Howl.” Indeed, in the summer or early fall of 1955, Ginsberg had sent a tape recording of poetry to KPFA in hopes of getting on the air. But KPFA proved to be a bit more selective in its programming than Ginsberg had boasted to Kerouac. Eleanor McKinney—program director and part of the station’s original founding group—auditioned the tape, writing in her letter of reply that while she “found the imagery and rhythm very compelling,” she “wished the poem might have been condensed so that its power was not over-extended into a kind of tract, to which I felt the poet was not committed in sympathy or resolution.”[27] Dated October 17, 1955, McKinney’s letter was written ten days after the Six Gallery reading. The date also incidentally marked the one-year anniversary of Ginsberg’s peyote-induced vision of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel as an “[i]mpassive robot (antennalike structures)” and “an evil monster—A tower in Hell”—images that would inspire part 2 of “Howl” and its reigning figure of Moloch.[28] It is impossible to know (though tempting to imagine) whether Ginsberg sent KPFA a recording of the first part of “Howl” or another poem.[29] If the tape were of “Howl,” it would have been the earliest known recording of the poem, possibly even preceding its first live performance.

Speculation and missed opportunities aside, almost exactly a year later, the station reversed its opinion, and in the fall of 1956, coinciding with the first printing of Howl and Other Poems by City Lights Books, Ginsberg recorded in KPFA’s studios a reading of “A Supermarket in California,” “In Back of the Real,” and the three-part “Howl” (excluding “Footnote to Howl”). The recording—versions of which can be found in PennSound’s digital archive of poetry performance as well as the Pacifica Radio Archives—opens with the click of a recording device and the sound of the poet’s voice, close-miked, introducing the book:

OK, I’m going to read Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, I guess, published by, um, City Lights Pocket Bookshop in San Francisco in 1956. Library of Card Catalog [sic] Account Number et cetera 56-8587. The first poem I’ll read was one I did here in dear old Berkeley, called “A Supermarket in California”—it being the supermarket down on or by Grove and University, on a rainy lonely night. Of course, I wrote this after I had written a lot of great poetry, so this is sort of like coming down off of the post-coitus tryst, so to speak.[30]

With a light, winking, conversational tone, Ginsberg addresses an invisible and future listening audience as fellow Berkeley residents, setting the scene for the poem’s stroll through the local supermarket and back “home to our silent cottage.”[31] Although Ginsberg undercuts the poem’s importance in his introduction, while building the listener’s anticipation for the “great poetry” of “Howl,” “A Supermarket in California” boldly announces his poetic and erotic kinship with Walt Whitman, the muse of the poet’s “tryst.” In the poem, Ginsberg famously recasts the supermarket—an icon of Eisenhower America and the middle-class, nuclear family—as a site of gay flânerie, where men like the speaker cruise “[a]isles full of husbands” and sample and steal from the consumer excess (Howl and Other Poems, 29). Rendered “absurd” in this postwar landscape of “brilliant stacks of cans,” “blue automobiles,” and suburban houses, the speaker and his “graybeard” muse “stroll dreaming of the lost America of love”—a democratic America realized through homoerotic rather than consumer desire (29, 30). But if that America is “lost,” or never consummated, traces of its possibility live on in the lonely comradeship of gay life that takes place, Ginsberg implies to his KPFA listeners, right here in “dear old Berkeley.”[32] The familiar, intimate address of Ginsberg’s introduction and reading style thus imagines and invites the in-the-know listener who will apprehend not only the local particularity of the Berkeley supermarket but the poem as a gay text. In doing so, Ginsberg subverts the commercial purpose of American radio by broadcasting queer desire in the margins of the FM band.

After “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg reads the short poem “In Back of the Real” but soon expresses an impatient desire to “get rid of all these earlier poems and read ‘Howl’” (Ginsberg, “KPFA Pacifica Studio Recording”). While his comments at the beginning of the recording projected an intimate, local Berkeley audience, Ginsberg’s introduction to “Howl” draws attention to the limits of that reception, revealing his uncertainty about radio as a medium for the oral transmission of poetry and the eros of poetry community:

Actually, it should be read, the way it should be read, is, um, with people or in front of people, the way I have been reading it recently, this way, except I’ve read it too much and so the heart has gone out of me for reading it. However, the way it should be read is, um, kind of ecstatically if possible, but it would take ecstasy to read it. What I’m going to do is read it quietly and give it a silent chance, and if I can work up into any kind of real rhythm, I’ll try and deliver that—which I would like to do, but it’s very difficult to do because it requires a certain kind of openness on my part. And a sense of openness on the audience part, too, actually, for transmission, really. (“KPFA Pacifica Studio Recording”)

Speaking rapidly, Ginsberg indicates that the poem’s ideal communicative power is realized in and through oral, public performance, in which an “ecstatic,” erotic “openness” between poet and tribe facilitates the mystical, communal “transmission” of the poem. But this enactment of receptivity and participation by the audience—and simultaneous communion and separation from that audience by the visionary poet—could prove a difficult balance even in public readings. If, as Ginsberg lamented elsewhere, the motivating desire “to communicate a live poetry” in front of audiences could easily become “more a trap & duty than the spontaneous ball it was first,” what to do, then, with the conditions of this studio recording for radio, which separated breath from body, the poet from an unknown and invisible future audience, and even the time of utterance from the time of reception?[33] While the published, print text of the poem relies on similar conditions of distance and mediation, this only appears to reinforce Ginsberg’s oft-repeated claims that the auratic power of poetry can be only fully realized through present, embodied performance.[34]

Considering the extent to which postwar oral poetics in general, and Ginsberg’s poetry in particular, defined itself in opposition to a commodity-oriented, mass-mediated culture, it’s not surprising that Ginsberg expresses skepticism here about his ability to overcome the double mediation of studio recording and radio broadcasting (even if KPFA happened to be a noncommercial radio station). Such skepticism about radio would become common in Ginsberg’s 1960s poetry and especially in The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1972), which includes transcribed snippets of radio broadcasts recorded on the portable tape machine that accompanied Ginsberg’s cross-country trips. In “Bayonne Turnpike to Tuscarora,” the poet’s speech is characteristically pitched against the car radio, which spews sanitized, corporatized, inauthentic speech: “antennae’d car dashboard vibrating / False emotions broadcast thru the Land / Natural voices made synthetic, / pflegm obliterated.”[35] Insisting that the studio-engineered “Super-Hit sound of All American Radio” is as “False False False” as the lies it spins, Ginsberg accuses commercial radio of “[l]ull[ing] into War” a passive public (The Fall of America, 56). Drawing on these poems, scholars have often contrasted Ginsberg’s critical view of radio with his simultaneous use of the “low-tech” tape recorder as a compositional tool for an “auto poesy.”[36] In Michael Davidson’s view, for example, “the orality of the tapevoice stands in direct opposition to the heteroglossia of incorporated sound” in Ginsberg’s poetry (Ghostlier Demarcations, 206).

Yet, as we’ve already seen, Lewis Hill and the early founders of Pacifica Radio shared Ginsberg’s dismal view of commercial radio and his pacifist objection to war. And like Ginsberg with his tape recorder, the early Pacificans sought to intervene in a commercialized soundscape and militarized society by giving airtime to poets and their phlegmy voices, or in Davidson’s words, by “seiz[ing] the means of reproduction and adapt[ing] it to oppositional ends” (Ghostlier Demarcations, 206).[37] In my view, the close connection between Ginsberg and Pacifica Radio that began in 1956 and continued for the rest of Ginsberg’s life complicates any critical assertion that relies on an overly neat opposition between tape and radio in Ginsberg’s life or work, or in media history generally. Opposing these audio technologies often hinges on accepting an Adornian view of radio as necessarily autocratic and promoting tape recording as necessarily democratic—pitting radio’s asymmetry against tape’s interactivity. But I follow Jonathan Sterne and other media and sound studies scholars who insist that the meanings ascribed to technologies are not ahistorical essences but socially and culturally produced, historically contingent and deeply “connect[ed] with human practice, habitat, and habit.”[38] As the history of Pacifica Radio shows, the industrial system, technological assemblage, and cultural meanings of radio were unstable during the postwar years, when many stations, producers, and radio listeners experimented with strategies and new technologies (like tape) to make the medium more local and participatory.

What fascinates me about KPFA’s recording of “Howl,” though, is how it suggests both the participatory possibilities for radio in a new era and the ways such possibilities are co-opted into new forms of power. In other words, the recorded poem makes audible the poet’s inextricable entanglement in Moloch’s wires, and Ginsberg’s ambivalence about the technics and limits of poetic transmission and reception. Despite Ginsberg’s stated reservations about his ability to perform “Howl,” in my experience of listening to the recording, he is able to build from a relatively quiet, hesitant performance to a loud, incantatory performance by the end of parts 2 and 3. Gone is the conversational, intimate tone of “A Supermarket in California,” and in its place is the nonstop, repetitive, energy-sapping “howl” of the prophet, and without an auditor present to heed his warning. The poet’s isolation in the recording studio is especially striking to me; as Ginsberg’s voice rises in pitch and volume in parts 2 and 3, the microphone picks up the subtle reverberations of the voice, amplifying a sense of desperation and sonically conjuring the walls of an asylum. The echoes of Ginsberg’s “howl” from within the “private room” of KPFA’s studio thus disturbingly recall Hill’s analogy for the postwar communication crisis and the isolation of the commercial broadcaster—a crisis that Pacifica’s economic model and aesthetics of authenticity were supposed to circumvent.

Moreover, I find that listening to Ginsberg’s reverberating yet intimately close voice conjures not conversation—Pacifica’s idealized ambition for radio’s potential—but surveillance. Am I listening to the poem as its intended addressee, or am I eavesdropping, overhearing, “listening to the Terror through the wall” (Ginsberg, Howl, 10)? This anxiety and uncertainty of address is, of course, communicated in the poem itself, which registers a desire for the lyric’s intimate address to the beloved but complicates that desire in at least three ways: in the first instance, by proliferating the poem’s beloved addressees (Carl Solomon, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, Naomi Ginsberg); in the second instance, by aspiring to a broadly public address in a Whitmanic ecstatic dissemination, “scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may”; and, in the third instance, by evoking the specter of the unintended addressee who triangulates and co-opts the message for other, potentially nefarious ends (13). This last form of address is likewise part of a lyric tradition that, at least since John Stuart Mill, has understood poetry to be fundamentally language that is “overheard” rather than heard.[39] In Ginsberg’s poem, however, and within the context of a Cold War surveillance society, the reader’s sense of “overhearing” takes on more ominous connotations. Considering the midcentury sexual taboos traversed in the poem, which include references to homosexual and heterosexual promiscuity as well as Oedipal desire, the threat of the spying eye and ear is pervasively active in the text. While this ever-present “third” who listens in on the poet’s address carries the threat of censorship, it equally threatens to take up the address into its own machinery.

In “Howl,” radio figures as one mechanism through which a bureaucratic authority devours any effort at authentic human connection and speech. In an early draft of the poem, “moloch the radio” is part of a long catalog of such authorities that includes “moloch the soldier moloch the teacher moloch the congress,” and so on.[40] In the final version, the radio curiously issues news updates on those minds driven to madness and ecstasy by the incessant noise of modernity: “I’m with you in Rockland / where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio” (Ginsberg, Howl, 24). Reversing the trope of the paranoid schizophrenic who thinks the radio is sending secret messages meant only for them, Ginsberg describes a world where our most intimate experiences are made perversely public, broadcast for all to hear, and where the inhuman systems of power produce deep concern about the specifics of our bodily and mental health under their biopolitical management.[41] Like Adorno, then, Ginsberg characterizes radio as a vehicle for authoritarianism, but the means of its power is interestingly reversed; rather than producing an invisible voice that appears to “pour out of the cells of [the listener’s] most intimate life,” this radio is first and foremost an invisible listener, a spy whose mere possibility of presence transforms the whole private room into a recording device that might transmit and broadcast our most intimate secrets (Adorno, “Radio Physiognomics,” 70). As Ginsberg wrote in a 1959 letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, “[mass communication] media are exactly the place where the deepest and most personal sensitivities and confessions of reality are most prohibited, mocked, and suppressed.”[42] There is a Foucauldian logic at work here, in which power is seen to operate not primarily through repression but through the production of an excess of discourse, an “institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more,” and in which even silence and censorship become forms of broadcasting.[43] By sending his “Howl” into the highly regulated commons of the airwaves, Ginsberg invites both the prohibitive “policing of statements” through the mechanism of censorship and “a veritable discursive explosion” about sex that, in the actual case of the publication and attempted censorship of the book Howl and Other Poems, is initiated by the state justice system (Foucault, History of Sexuality, 18, 17).

Ginsberg’s reservations about reading “Howl” over the radio thus echo the broader concerns raised within the poem about the ability to communicate authentically in any form, including through poetry, in a mass-mediated, authoritative, institutionalized society. But I’d like to suggest another way that we might approach “Howl” as a radio text, at the level of its formal experiment in a poetics of presence. The industrial architecture of radio and television broadcasting is also part of the hellish urban landscape of “Howl,” which transforms Ginsberg’s vision of the Drake Hotel to “Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!” (21). Moloch’s monstrous antennae conjure industrialized means of control (robots) and naturally occurring antennae (insects), giving Moloch the disturbing hybridity and uncanny sentience of a human-made monster. But in their association with broadcasting, antennae also become the visible signs of an invisible, wireless, electromagnetic atmosphere through which mute signals pass in the ethereal “machinery of night” (9), transmitting messages seemingly instantaneously across “gaps in Time & Space” (20).

In citing these phrases from the poem, I’m deliberately connecting radio to the series of figures that Ginsberg famously uses to explain the formal and transcendental project of “Howl”: to “[make] incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed” (20). Like the cinematic jump-cut, the syncopated jazz beat, and “the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,” the structure of broadcasting reveals and relies on a gap between transmitter and receiver through which transmission occurs and on which its instantaneous communication depends (19). For Ginsberg, materializing the gaps prompts the listener-reader’s mind to create the missing connection, and thereby to alchemically reconstitute loss into presence. In doing so, the poem becomes the medium for the transcendent enactment within time of the beyond-time, figured at the end of part 1 as the incarnation of Logos in the body of Christ, who “rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” (20). In the blasts of jazz music transmitting over the radio, the poet hears the intimate publicity of Christ’s cry, broadcast from the Cross to that invisible, absent ear of God.

Sounding Censorship

In a sense, the “gaps” in the 1956 recording of “Howl” become most audible in the ellipses created by censorship. Listeners who tuned in on that late December night may have noted a few moments of self-censorship by the poet, where he substitutes a “blank” or “asterisk” for a word, but they would more likely have been astounded by the language that they did hear than by what they did not. Six months later, though, when KPFA rebroadcast the recording of “Howl” at the beginning of a live discussion on “The ‘Howl’ Controversy,” the issue of the poem’s censorship in both its printed and broadcast versions was very much at the forefront for the program’s panelists and the station’s listeners.

Lewis Hill produced and moderated the panel discussion, and while he would not live to see the trial’s conclusion, he used his position at KPFA to publicly defend the book’s right to circulate. The panel featured five guests, each of whom was either directly involved in the trial or a free speech advocate: Ferlinghetti, the defendant in the case and the book’s publisher; English professor Mark Schorer, witness for the defense; book critic William Hogan, who argued against the censorship of Howl in the San Francisco Chronicle; attorney George Brunn, who had conducted a legal study of post office censorship; and librarian LeRoy Merritt, co-chair of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Given the perspectives of the panelists, and Pacifica Radio’s own mission to promote free expression and the public’s right to hear, it’s unsurprising that the program amounted to a full-throated defense of Ginsberg’s book against the charge of obscenity (even if the panelists differed on the question of its literary merit as a “responsible” work of art).

Listeners who phoned into the station during the program, however, repeatedly challenged KPFA on its own censorship of the poem, which went further than Ginsberg’s moments of self-censorship in the original studio recording. Given the subject of the discussion, Hill’s introduction to the recording of “Howl” had earlier sought to acknowledge and explain the reasons for these additional edits. The tape, he explains, “was made at KPFA several months ago” and “broadcast by KPFA . . . very late one evening,” “before the censorship controversy about the poem had arisen” (“Panel on ‘Howl’”). Hill continues,

it should be mentioned that Mr. Ginsberg’s reading, if compared with the printed text of the poem . . . reveals that the poet himself deleted for radio broadcasting one or two passages. . . . Moreover, for this particular broadcast, and specifically in consideration of the hour at which this broadcast occurs, KPFA has edited out two or three words or brief passages in the poem, simply as a matter of taste. I think you may feel assured, however, in what you are going to hear that the full essence of what has provoked the San Francisco Police Department into the arrest of Mr. Ferlinghetti is still present.


Excerpt from Lewis Hill’s introduction to the rebroadcast of “Howl” from the program on “The ‘Howl’ Controversy,” radio broadcast on 94.1 KPFA FM, June 12, 1957 (“Panel on ‘Howl’”). Audio courtesy of the Pacifica Radio Archives, North Hollywood, California.

In defending the station’s decision to edit the recording as “simply a matter of taste” given the earlier broadcasting hour, Hill implicitly invites the audience to listen for and question these moments of institutional silencing. Indeed, the first listener question that Hill paraphrases for the panel asks whether “the words and phrases that were deleted” in the recording contained “the essence of obscenity, which we might assume caused Mr. Ferlinghetti’s arrest.” The panelists respond by echoing Hill’s initial appeal to “taste,” but listeners remained skeptical. Near the end of the program, Hill reports that they “have been showered by questions from listeners” who seem “as much concerned with the censorship they’ve heard this evening and indeed see in the book . . . as about the anxiety of the San Francisco Police Department or [Ferlinghetti’s] plight.” The panel’s inability to adequately address the censorship of the recorded poem—or to make any substantive distinction between broadcast and print media in the eyes of either their own station management or the law—undermined their larger argument.

Excerpt from the program on “The ‘Howl’ Controversy,” radio broadcast on 94.1 KPFA FM, June 12, 1957, with the voices of Lewis Hill, Mark Schorer, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Panel on ‘Howl’”). Audio courtesy of the Pacifica Radio Archives, North Hollywood, California.

Certainly, listeners did not hear “the full essence” of “Howl,” particularly because those additional words and passages edited out by the station were predominantly descriptions of sex, and thus central to Ginsberg’s depiction of liberated sexuality. For example, whereas Ginsberg had vocalized his own censorship of “fucked” by substituting “blanked” in his otherwise faithful reading of “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy,” KPFA staff excised the entire line, thereby removing the poem’s most explicit and celebratory description of gay sex (Howl, 13).[44] Moreover, several of the lines that KPFA cut from the recorded poem were read aloud at Ferlinghetti’s trial by the prosecution—including the line just quoted—affirming listeners’ suspicions that the missing passages were those that had motivated the obscenity charge.[45] The aim here is not to deny KPFA the groundbreaking significance of its willingness to broadcast “Howl,” even in an edited version, on the radio in the mid-1950s. But in censoring some of the sexual content of “Howl,” KPFA exposed itself to criticism over its betrayal of its mission. As one could imagine Hill himself asking, how could open dialogue about this particular case—how could communication in general—occur in the context of censorship?

While KPFA’s 1956 and 1957 broadcasts of an edited version of “Howl” did not initially attract the attention of the FCC, the agency’s investigations into allegations of obscenity on Pacifica in subsequent years most frequently concerned the broadcasting of literary works—from a tape of Ferlinghetti reading at a 1959 benefit for the little magazine Big Table (undergoing its own censorship controversy), which was the subject of KPFA’s first official FCC inquiry, to broadcasts of literary works by Robert Creeley and Edward Albee that in 1963 led the FCC to temporarily block Pacifica station license renewals until all obscenity charges had been cleared. The 1963 FCC investigation dovetailed with a Senate Internal Security Subcommittee hearing on alleged communist infiltration of Pacifica Radio, which together constituted a major external threat to the network’s survival. Both investigations exonerated the network in 1964, and cemented its influential status among independent, community, and alternative broadcasters. For Berkeley station KPFA in particular, the events established the station as a staunch defender of the First Amendment just in time for the eruption of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley.

Pacifica’s transformation into a “constant voice” for the counterculture and free speech radio in the sixties was further reflected in the reverence it attached to Ginsberg, and to the myths, stories, and central figures of the Beats and San Francisco Renaissance more generally. Pacifica stations would rebroadcast KPFA’s recording of “Howl” throughout the 1960s and 1970s, at times alongside documentary programs on the Howl censorship trial and the San Francisco Renaissance, and Ginsberg appeared frequently on air to read poems, chant mantras, or talk politics, drugs, sex, war, and conspiracy—defining, for many listeners, the voice of 1960s liberation. In 1971, KPFA declared October 30 to be “Allen Ginsberg Day” and gave over a fifteen-hour day of programming to recordings from a (never released) sixteen-volume set of Ginsberg’s complete works read by the author (fig. 3).[46] But the times were changing. By the late 1970s, when format radio and media conglomeration had devoured much of the FM band, Pacifica found itself embroiled again in obscenity investigations, which culminated in the landmark Supreme Court case, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978). The Supreme Court’s decision upheld the FCC’s censure of Pacifica Radio for broadcasting George Carlin’s “Dirty Words” comedy routine, thereby affirming the FCC’s broad regulatory powers over speech in broadcasting. These powers would expand again in 1987, when, under pressure from a major lobbying effort by the religious right, the FCC revised its standards for determining and penalizing “indecency” in broadcasting. Discussions and expressions of homosexuality were especially targeted; as justification for the new guidelines, the FCC cited their case against Pacifica station KPFK for broadcasting Robert Chesley’s one-act play about AIDS, Jerker, or the Helping Hand (1986). The result was a significant chilling effect in radio and television, as stations voluntarily self-censored any material that could be judged indecent.

Fig. 3. Facing pages from KPFA Folio (October 1971), Pacifica Radio Archives Digitized Folio Collection,

For Pacifica Radio stations, the new indecency standards meant the end of broadcasting “Howl,” even in the edited versions that had first aired in the mid-1950s, in part because Ginsberg protested the FCC’s standards by refusing to allow his poem to be broadcast with any language edits. After the standards were adopted, each of Pacifica’s five stations broadcast an interview with Ginsberg entitled “Why We Can’t Air ‘Howl.’” In 2007, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Howl censorship trial, Pacifica’s New York station WBAI planned to rebroadcast the edited KPFA recording, but backed away from the risk, choosing instead to release it online as part of a webcast titled “Howl Against Censorship.”[47] As recently as 2014, a program about Ginsberg on From the Vault, a series produced for podcast and radio by the Pacifica Radio Archives, played only an excerpt from the 1956 recording of “Howl,” prefacing it with the statement that “it is still illegal to air ‘Howl’ on American airwaves without language edits.”[48]

The turn toward web streaming and podcasting reflects the reconfiguration of the radio industry and of free speech debates and regulation in the digital age, suggesting historical parallels with the possibilities and instabilities that characterized the early decades of FM. There’s a temptation, then, to end this story on a bittersweet note that would gesture to another generational and technological transition—from the homogenized and regulated airwaves to the relatively (though perhaps only seemingly or superficially) “free” network of the internet, where, for example, PennSound can post numerous digital recordings of “Howl” without provoking government censors. But, by way of a conclusion, I want to turn away from the question of where “Howl” sounds today and back toward its poetic inscription of silence—back to the 1956 recording and the poem itself—to consider how it might reconfigure notions of obscenity, censorship, and absence that seem to me increasingly relevant to our contemporary moment.

Let us return, then, to the “private room” of KPFA’s recording studio in the fall of 1956, where Ginsberg reads from his copy of Howl and Other Poems, and where he begins, if you recall, by citing those distancing mechanisms of print: the materiality of the published book (written by one “Allen Ginsberg”) and its paratexts that signify authorship, copyright, and the transformation of language into commodity. Let us now imagine that in his copy of the book, there are annotations that indicate which passages to read with emphasis and which to omit, which words to change and which to leave out. One is already printed in the book: “with mother finally ******” (Ginsberg, Howl, 19). When he gets to this line he vocalizes the omission, despite the disruption it produces in the sound of the line: “with mother finally asterisk.” Elsewhere, as we’ve seen, he admits the awkward substitution of a “blank”: “who let themselves be blanked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists” (Ginsberg, “KPFA Pacifica Studio Recording”). Other “dirty words” censored in the first printing of the book he chooses to restore and read aloud for the radio audience.[49] And still elsewhere he silently passes over whole lines of text, at times without apparent reason, as when he omits the line, “who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall” (Ginsberg, Howl, 10).

In these moments, Ginsberg again makes audible the presence of the unintended addressee—the invisible, surveilling ear that overhears; the Moloch in the self and in the ether that consumes authentic speech, incorporating it into its own monstrous body. But I’m interested in the way that the vocalization of censorship also disrupts the listener’s auditory experience of the poem, jars the listener out of absorption into its incantatory rhythms. Later, upon the publication of the facsimile version of the “Howl” drafts and manuscripts, Ginsberg would reflect that in writing “Howl” he had “thought to disseminate a poem so strong that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently and deflate tendencies toward authoritarian strong-arming.”[50] His decision to substitute asterisks for the four-letter word “fuck” in both printed and performed versions of the poem may appear to contradict such claims, but it’s my contention here that in inscribing and vocalizing censorship in “Howl”—in this case, by putting into speech the unspeakable taboo of incest—Ginsberg strives to materialize at once both the omnipresence of authoritarianism and the gaps or omissions that constitute its limit. As he writes in the notes to the facsimile edition, he “replaced letters with asterisks in final draft of poem to introduce appropriate element of uncertainty” (Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, 131n48). Like the juxtaposition of two contradictory images, this “uncertainty” produces a gap in sound and meaning that the reader must reconstitute. The “obscene ode” is written, finally, not in the book, the recording, or the radio signal, but telepathically, “on the windows of the skull” (Ginsberg, Howl, 9).

It’s important to emphasize, though, that for an openly gay man writing and publishing in the repressive 1950s, obscenity would have meant something more than a few “clean Saxon four-letter word[s].” In a society that defines homosexuality itself as a form of obscenity, any expression by the queer writer is necessarily exposed to censorship and silencing, just as the queer body is exposed to violent attempts at erasure or expulsion by the wider social body. Yet it is ironically the awareness of this exposure that created for Ginsberg the condition of possibility for writing “Howl.” As he later explained, it was only after writing the line, “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy,” that the “author was left free to write thenceforth what he actually thought, from his own experience,” precisely because it “militated against author’s thinking of the writing draft as ‘poetry’ or ‘publishable’” (Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, 126n20). By vocally putting back into speech this impossibility of poetry in his performance for radio, Ginsberg transforms the silencing mechanism of censorship into a technology for the expression of queer desire through telepathic connection.

Earlier, I cited Adorno’s critique of radio’s “illusion of closeness” that in his view “dispense[s] with the intermediary, objectivating stage of printing which helps to clarify the difference between fiction and reality” (“Radio Physiognomics,” 47). Many postwar American poets argued for a poetry that would do just the opposite—that would bypass the intermediary stages of print to communicate instantaneously, one-to-one, with the individual reader. The typewriter, the telephone, the tape machine, the radio: these technologies often appear as figures for this new poetics of presence. The efforts by Pacifica Radio’s founders to seize the corrupted mass medium of radio for the cause of peace, and thereby to transform the unidirectional asymmetry of its transmission into a form of direct communication between individuals, thus corresponded to a parallel dream in American poetry, in which, as Rexroth put it in a 1958 essay, the poem would “presume to speak directly from person to person, each polarity, the person at each end of the communication fully realized.”[51] But if my reading of “Howl” exposes, in Adornian fashion, the extent to which this poetic fascination with modern technologies had less to do with the immediacy of these technologies than with their illusion of immediacy, it also points to the inadequacy of both Adorno’s critique of radio as inherently authoritarian and Hill’s vision for a new, noncommercial form of radio that would break down the walls of our private rooms. Where Adorno and Hill hear a “constant voice,” Ginsberg inscribes a “speechless” howl as it materializes out of the gap between transmission and reception, poet and beloved, surveillant and surveilled (Ginsberg, Howl, 20).

Ginsberg’s public performances of “Howl” put on display the body of the poet, drawing out the poem’s claims to liberated, embodied, communal presence. In contrast, I’ve argued that its broadcast over radio exemplarily deconstructs those claims, pointing to the structuring principles of absence, silence, and even censorship on which the poem’s alchemy depends. What makes “Howl” a radio text, then, is not only the fact that Ginsberg recorded an edited version of the poem in 1956 for broadcast on a station that served as an appropriately audio outlet for the oral poetics of the San Francisco Renaissance; or that KPFA’s airing of that poem and others would participate in the “FM revolution” of the sixties; or even that the recording would play a role in the long, ongoing struggle for free expression in broadcasting. I think of “Howl” as a radio text because the poem, in all its multimedia instantiations, reproduces a radiophonic logic and sensibility at the level of its address, themes and figures, and formal experiment. That this radiophonic logic is aimed at creating the conditions of possibility for a certain kind of intimate audience, one capable of listening out for a silenced wor(l)d echoing the ether of the mind, makes Ginsberg’s vision a romantic one, to be sure. But it’s a vision that emerges, I argue, in the context of American poetry’s ongoing reckoning with modernism’s radio imaginary, even, or perhaps especially, at the dawn of the television age.


I am grateful to the staff of the University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and, especially, the Pacifica Radio Archives for their expert guidance in helping me to access archival materials related to this project, and to the Council on Library and Information Resources for supporting my research with a 2013–2014 Mellon Fellowship. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2014 Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College and the 2017 Louisville Conference on Literature and Language since 1900; I am grateful for the feedback I received on these occasions, as well as from the following individuals who generously commented on earlier drafts of the manuscript: Lewis Freedman, Katherine Hallemeier, Lynn Keller, Jeff Menne, and Graig Uhlin.

[1] The original recording and broadcast dates of Ginsberg’s KPFA recording cannot be verified with absolute certainty, but it appears probable that the performance was taped in KPFA’s studios on October 25, 1956, and first broadcast on December 8, 1956. The recording date of October 25, 1956 is given on the copy held by the Pacifica Radio Archives, and on the near-identical digital copy available on PennSound (“Allen Ginsberg Reads His Poetry,” copy of a tape recording dated October 25, 1956, on Archive #BB1893, Los Angeles: Pacifica Radio Archives,; “KPFA Pacifica Studio Recording,” copy of a tape recording dated October 25, 1956, PennSound, MP3, Ginsberg first appears by name in the KPFA program guide on the schedule for December 8, 1956 (when he would not have been in the Bay Area), which lists a program of Ginsberg reading from Howl and Other Poems at 10:30pm (KPFA Folio 7, no. 18 [November 25–December 8, 1956], Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive, While it is possible that KPFA broadcast the reading live or aired it soon after its recording, I think the later date of December 8, 1956, is the likely original broadcast, in part because of comments that Lewis Hill made before an edited rebroadcast of the recording in June of 1957, which I discuss in the final section of this essay.

[2] Recordings were made of Ginsberg reading “Howl” prior to his appearance on KPFA, but none of these were published or broadcast until later. Ruth Witt-Diamant, the founder of the San Francisco Poetry Center, recalled in a 1969 radio interview listening to a “mad, wonderfully mad” tape of Ginsberg reading “Howl” that circulated in the Bay Area poetry community prior to the print publication of the poem (“Exploring the Arts in the Bay: Poetry,” recording of a radio broadcast from June 19, 1969 on 94.1 KPFA FM, Los Angeles: Pacifica Radio Archives, streaming audio, Reed College claims to own the earliest extant recording of “Howl,” a tape of Ginsberg reading part 1 and the beginning of part 2 at the college in February 1956, rediscovered and digitized in 2008 (Allen Ginsberg, “Howl [unedited],” copy of a recording from February 1956, Reed College News Center, MP3, The San Francisco Poetry Center holds the tape of Ginsberg’s first public performance of the complete, three-part poem on March 11, 1956 (Allen Ginsberg, “Reading at Six Gallery Re-Creation: March 11, 1956,” copy of a tape recorded at the Berkeley Town Hall Theater, Poetry Center Digital Archive, MP3, Commercial albums of Ginsberg reading his poetry did not appear until the late 1950s, after the KPFA broadcast, when San Francisco Poets (Evergreen Records, 1958, LP) and Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl and Other Poems (Fantasy Records, 1959, LP) were released.

[3] David Lamble, quoted in Phylis Johnson and Michael C. Keith, Queer Airwaves: The Story of Gay and Lesbian Broadcasting (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 28. Ginsberg’s 1956 reading of “Howl” on KPFA is also cited as a landmark event in LGBTQ radio history by Phylis Johnson in “Radio,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America, ed. Marc Stein (New York: Scribner’s, 2004), 3:13. KPFA and Pacifica Radio stations were among the first in radio or television to broadcast gay perspectives, issues, and, beginning in the 1970s, regular programming.

[4] “Panel on ‘Howl,’” produced by Lewis Hill, copy of a recording of a radio broadcast on 94.1 KPFA FM, June 12, 1957, on Archive #BB1894, Los Angeles: Pacifica Radio Archives, CD. The program first appears in the program guide scheduled for June 27, 1957 (possibly a rebroadcast) under the title “The ‘Howl’ Controversy” (KPFA Folio 8, no. 7 [June 23–July 6, 1957], Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive, The San Francisco Police Department arrested Murao (whose charges would later be dismissed) and issued an arrest warrant for Ferlinghetti on June 3, 1957; Ferlinghetti turned himself in on June 6 and was released on bail (Bill Morgan, “Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: A Chronology,” in Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, ed. Morgan and Nancy J. Peters [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006], 2–3).

[5] “Excerpts from the Trial Transcript,” in Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, ed. Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2006), 193.

[6] Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters, Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from Its Beginnings to the Present Day (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1980), 159.

[7] The KPFA recording of “Howl” has been known about for some time but only recently became widely accessible. In 2009, PRA included their recordings of “Howl” and the 1957 panel discussion in a CD box set, Pacifica Radio: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices. PennSound’s digital copy was made publicly available a few years earlier, but was originally misidentified on the website as a recording of a reading at the San Francisco Poetry Center. The KPFA “Howl” recording has received very little critical attention to date; exceptions include Raphael Allison, who briefly discusses it but follows PennSound’s earlier misattribution of its provenance, and Matthew Lasar, who discusses the recording of “Howl” in the context of KPFA’s coverage of the censorship controversy. See Raphael Allison, Bodies on the Line: Performance and the Sixties Poetry Reading (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 2–3, and Matthew Lasar, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), 140–41.

[8] See, for example, Todd Avery, Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922–1938 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006); Timothy C. Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); Broadcasting Modernism, ed. Debra Rae Cohen, Michael Coyle, and Jane Lewty (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009); Broadcasting in the Modernist Era, ed. Matthew Feldman, Henry Mead, and Erik Tonning (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); and Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).

[9] For the limited scholarship that does address American radio and poetry since 1945, see Derek Furr, Recorded Poetry and Poetic Reception from Edna Millay to the Circle of Robert Lowell (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Brook Houglum, “Kenneth Rexroth and Radio Reading,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 33, no. 4 (2007): 55–66; Martin Spinelli, “Not Hearing Poetry on Public Radio,” in Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture, ed. Susan Merrill Squier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 195–214; and Ann Vickery, “Making Waves: Radio and Susan Howe’s Poetry Program,” in Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 77–87.

[10] Lewis Hill, “The Private Room,” Beacon: The Bulletin of the Mental Health Society of Northern California (Fall 1952): 2, NPBA 91-915, Box 8, folder 25, Pacifica Foundation Records, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

[11] The commercial radio industry successfully and powerfully helped to build a national consensus on military conscription and intervention before the US entry into the war, and during the war brought the dramatic sounds of rallies, political speeches, and, for the first time, battlefields into Americans’ homes. The threat of antitrust regulation and complete government takeover (as had happened during WWI) contributed to the major networks’ willingness to comply. See Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (New York: Times Books, 1999), 161–98; and Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 230–44.

[12] Pacifica Foundation, The Promise of Radio (San Francisco, CA: Pacifica Foundation, 1947), 2, quoted in Lasar, Pacifica Radio, 49.

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Urizen, 1978), 271. On Adorno’s exile in the U.S. and his work for the PRRP, see David Jenemann, Adorno in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[14] Theodor W. Adorno, “Radio Physiognomics,” in Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009), 41–132.

[15] Lewis Hill, “The Theory of Listener-Sponsored Radio,” in The Exacting Ear: The Story of Listener-Sponsored Radio, and an Anthology of Programs from KPFA, KPFK, and WBAI, ed. Eleanor McKinney (New York: Pantheon, 1966), 19.

[16] Pacifica Foundation, K-P-F-A: A Prospectus of the Pacifica Station, (Pacifica Foundation, 1948), NPBA 91-915, Box 8, folder 6, iv, Pacifica Foundation Records, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

[17] “Ideas and Intentions,” KPFA Folio 2, no. 25 (March 9–22, 1952), Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive,

[18] Kate Lacey critically analyzes the persistence of “idealized notions of the face-to-face dialogic encounter” in political and media discourse, while calling for a new conceptualization of mediated listening as characterized by intersubjectivity, plurality, and latent political action that she terms “listening out” (Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age [Cambridge: Polity, 2013], 9).

[19] “Briefly, on the Spoken Word . . .,” KPFA Folio 2, no. 26 (March 23 – April 5, 1952), Pacifica Radio Digitized Folio Collection, Internet Archive,

[20] Jack Spicer, “The Poet and Poetry—A Symposium,” 1949, in The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 230.

[21] If Spicer dreamed of cultivating large audiences for poetry like “golden age” radio performers, his actual experience as a folk music program producer for KPFA from 1949 to 1950 tapped into a vastly different model for radio. In his work and life, Spicer moved between similarly polarized notions of publicity and reception, eventually refusing to let the majority of his work circulate beyond a select coterie of poets in the Bay Area.

[22] As Michael Davidson discusses in his landmark study The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century, the “mythic forms” and “enabling fictions of origins” for the Renaissance emerged within the so-called movement itself, giving rise to competing origin stories, public adherents as well as detractors (such as Rexroth, who was both), glossy magazine copy, and the flourishing of aesthetic and social experiments (Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 1). That KPFA became an important outlet for the myths and poetry of the Renaissance, particularly after the national spotlight cast by the Howl trial, is evident in a question Lasar poses in his study of Pacifica Radio, which asks whether KPFA in the 1950s had merely become a narrow “avenue of internal communication, a voice for the San Francisco Renaissance” (Pacifica Radio, 73).

[23] Jeff Land, Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 99. Other scholars of radio history that mention KPFA’s association with the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance include Lasar; James Ledbetter, Made Possible By. . .: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States (London: Verso, 1997), 126; and Jesse Walker, Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 48.

[24] Allen Ginsberg, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. Bill Morgan (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2008), 118.

[25] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Penguin, 1986), 13.

[26] See note 2 on the early audio recordings of “Howl.” The mimeograph edition of “Howl” was printed by Robert Creeley and Marthe Rexroth in an edition of twenty-five copies in May of 1956.

[27] Moore to Ginsburg [sic], October 17, 1955, M87-309, shelf location MAD 1N/ 9/B2, C1-3, D1-3, Box 1, Pacifica Foundation Records, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[28] Allen Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties, 1954–1958, ed. Gordon Ball (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 61.

[29] It is possible that Ginsberg sent KPFA one of the tapes he had recorded the previous summer of 1954 at Neal Cassady’s home. Ginsberg writes, “[Cassady] had an old tape machine Kerouac had used earlier. I recorded a few poems in his wooden living room, an old frame house in San Jose” (Allen Ginsberg, liner notes for Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems & Songs, 1949–1993, Rhino, 1994). Recordings of Ginsberg reading and singing “Walking at Night in Key West,” “The Green Automobile,” and “Green Valentine Blues” attributed to this recording session appear on the first CD of Holy Soul Jelly Roll, but none of these correspond with McKinney’s description.

[30] Allen Ginsberg, “KPFA Pacifica Studio Recording,” 1956. All transcriptions of audio recordings are my own. The copies held by PennSound and PRA of this recording are slightly different, as I discuss below, but the reader may assume that transcriptions and descriptions of the recording apply to both versions unless otherwise stated.

[31] Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1959), 30.

[32] As Davidson argues, Ginsberg’s early work frequently links homosexuality with loneliness and isolation (San Francisco Renaissance, 81–82).

[33] Allen Ginsberg, “Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,’ [liner notes]” reprinted in A Casebook on the Beat, ed. Thomas Parkinson (New York: Crowell, 1961), 30.

[34] Despite his extensive discography, Ginsberg, at least early on in his career, was especially doubtful about the value of recording “Howl” in studio conditions. For both the Evergreen record San Francisco Poets and the Fantasy album of Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg elected to use recordings of the three-part “Howl” taped at public readings rather than in the studio. For a discussion of Ginsberg’s recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, see Tyler Hoffman, American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 124–45.

[35] Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1972), 56.

[36] For analysis of the opposition between tape recorder and radio in Ginsberg’s work, especially in reference to “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” see Hoffman, American Poetry in Performance, 139–42; Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 203–06; and Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 31–36.

[37] Rexroth’s largely unedited and phlegmy vocal delivery on his weekly book review program, which he recorded at his home on a portable tape recorder, was frequently remarked upon by listeners, other poets, and station staff.

[38] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 8.

[39] John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties” (1833), in Autobiography and Literary Essays, Vol. 1, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1981), 349, 350.

[40] Allen Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography, ed. Barry Miles (New York: HarperPerennial, 2006), 63.

[41] Naomi Ginsberg believed that doctors had implanted antennae into her spine during insulin and electric shock therapy, through which she could receive special broadcasts from President Roosevelt (Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, 130n43).

[42] Allen Ginsberg, letter to the editor, San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 1959, reprinted as “Ginsberg ‘Howls’ Again—On the S.F. Poetry Controversy: Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle,” in Howl on Trial, 209.

[43] Michel Foucault, “An Introduction,” in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, (New York: Vintage, 1990), 18.

[44] My comparison of Ginsberg’s edits to the poem in his studio recording to the station’s further alterations is based on subtle differences between PennSound’s and PRA’s copies of the recording. On PennSound’s copy, which appears to be from an earlier version, you can hear Ginsberg’s substitution of “blanked” and the exclusion of certain words and lines from his reading. PRA’s copy appears to be the later version edited by the station, with additional lines and words missing, often with audible tape splices.

[45] See “Excerpts from the Trial Transcript,” 139. During the trial, the prosecution’s quotation of specific lines from the poem repeatedly defied the legal precedent recently set in Roth v. United States (1957) that defined obscenity in the context of the total work and not by way of individual words, lines, or passages.

[46] Marathon literary programs were not uncommon on Pacifica stations, though the back-to-back marathons of Ginsberg’s poetry and Gertrude Stein’s works on October 30–31, 1971, is somewhat unusual (KPFA Folio October 1971 [Berkley, CA: KPFA FM, 1971], Pacifica Radio Archives Digitized Folio Collection,

[47] Patricia Cohen, “‘Howl’ in an Era that Fears Indecency,” New York Times, October 4, 2007, In 2008, radio station WFNX-FM in Boston claimed to be the only commercial station willing to air “Howl” during primetime hours without content edits or censorship, and did so by broadcasting a recording of a group of poets performing the poem at a staged reading (“Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL: A Reading,” WFNX, Boston, October 19, 2008, Northeastern University Libraries’ Digital Repository Service,

[48] “FTV 443 Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’” From the Vault: A Weekly Radio Program from the Pacifica Radio Archives, November 7, 2014, MP3,

[49] Anticipating that “Howl” would face censorship issues, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg agreed to replace some of the “dirty words” with dashes in the first printing of the book; after the trial, these words were restored with the exception of the line “with mother finally ******” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Introduction: ‘Howl’ at the Frontiers,” in Howl on Trial, xiii).

[50] Allen Ginsberg, “Author’s Preface: Reader’s Guide,” in Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, xii.

[51] Kenneth Rexroth, “Unacknowledged Legislators and Art Pour Art” (1958), in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New York: New Directions, 1959), 12.