Against the Grain Turns Twenty!
Against the Grain, a trailblazing program about radical ideas originating from Berkeley-based KPFA Radio, marks its twentieth anniversary on March 3, 2023. The program was launched less than three weeks before the United States invaded Iraq. Since then, Against the Grain has forged an unusual path: long-form discussions about the pressing questions of our times – What’s wrong with capitalism, and why is it so resilient? What are the impediments to collective action? How can elites be compelled to take action on the climate emergency? – made accessible for a broad audience. While most alternative media programs focus on the atrocities of the day, Against the Grain focuses on the big picture. At the heart of the program is the notion that ideas matter and a commitment to bringing radical ideas and understandings to a mass audience.
Against the Grain emerged out of a four-part series that Sasha Lilley and KPFA veteran C. S. Soong produced called “Free Radicals,” which aimed to challenge conventional wisdom on the left around topics such as globalization. Frustrated by a current of anti-intellectualism running through the U.S. left, Soong and Lilley felt the need to disseminate deeper, more nuanced analyses of political-economic trends and developments, and for greater debate around many key left assumptions. The series was so well received by listeners that KPFA’s managers at the time, Jim Bennett and Phil Osegueda, approached C.S. and Sasha about producing a regular, ongoing program on KPFA. Out of that, Against the Grain was born. It soon went into syndication, carried by radio stations across the U.S.
The many left luminaries interviewed on Against the Grain include Marxist geographer David Harvey, socialist feminist Sylvia Federici, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, urbanist Mike Davis, political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood, economist Thomas Piketty, historian Robin D. G. Kelley, sociologist Saskia Sassen, Noam Chomsky, political philosopher Michael Hardt, journalist Naomi Klein, ecosocialist Joel Kovel, historian and activist Staughton Lynd, movement scholar Frances Fox Piven, historian Vijay Prashad, political economist Leo Panitch, and geographer Neil Smith. Sasha and C. S. have taken equal pride in bringing to the air the voices of younger and less prominent scholars doing innovative and incisive work.
Over the last two decades, Against the Grain has done extensive programming on political economy and neoliberal capitalism; philosophy; political ecology, climate change, and the toxic legacy of capitalist production; the ideas of the right; the centrality of the U.S. as an imperial power; the self-activity of the working class; gender and social reproduction; race, ethnicity, and dispossession; policing and incarceration; and ideas and debates within the radical left. Against the Grain was the first radio program to interview Michelle Alexander about her book The New Jim Crow. It was one of the only programs to interview anarchist anthropologist David Graeber about his seminal work The Dawn of Everything before his untimely death, and Against the Grain conducted one of the last interviews granted by historian Howard Zinn, two months before his passing.`
The program has also interviewed fiction writers and playwrights of note, including Louise Erdrich, Tony Kushner, Paul Auster, Ha Jin, Anna Devere Smith, Francine Prose, Edwidge Danticat, and Russell Banks. And the program has featured talks recorded at a range of conferences, including the World Social Forum in Mumbai, the American Association of Geographers, Rethinking Marxism, the American Sociological Association, and the American Political Science Association.
Contributors to the program over the years include producers Eddie Yuen, Ramsey Kanaan, Joy Wheeler, Kimberly Schreiber, Esther Manilla, and the late Jen Angel.