I remember the first time New America Media (NAM)—or rather its precursor the Pacific News Service (PNS)—dawned on my consciousness. It was in the early ‘90s, when one morning, out of the blue, I decided to become an op-ed commentator. When you consider that I had no journalistic education whatsoever, except for one class I had taken in the early ‘80s on a whim at the Auckland University Extension, this was quite gutsy. The class was titled “Non-Fiction,” not journalism, and was taught by Michael King, a well-known historian of New Zealand’s Maoris. I did publish a couple of essays in major magazines in New Zealand after that remarkable class but then life took over.
So when I sent an article over the transom to the Oakland Tribune and they published it, I started to look around. A news item in the San Francisco Chronicle caught my attention, about Sandy Close, head of PNS, who had won a MacArthur genius award. “That’s the outfit I should write for,” I thought. So I wrote to them and received a note saying that if I had an interesting topic I wanted to cover, I should send them the piece. I considered it a rejection—I was naïve enough to think that they would lay out a red carpet for me.
I kept writing for the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News, as a free-lance opinion page writer. Then Arvind Kumar of India Currents tapped me for “the Last Word” column. I took the assignment casually at first. So I was stunned when I got news that I had won an award, from the Pacific News Service. I did not even know that India Currents had nominated one of my columns. At the ceremony, I met Close in person, and began to write for PNS.
PNS then had an affiliated group called the “Eccentrics,” consisting mostly of professors from U.C. Berkeley, who regularly gathered at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Berkeley to brainstorm the affairs of the day. Sandy invited me there and I met Franz Schurmann, Sandy’s partner, who, along with the renowned China scholar Orville Schell, had created PNS in the late ‘60s. The objective then was to provide alternative perspectives and reports on the Vietnam war to the mainstream media.
At the restaurant I met Cobie Kwasi Harris, an African American professor who taught Political Science at San Jose State University. Over the din of dishes and tea cups, I listened to stalwarts like Peter Dale Scott wondering if I would ever be able to utter an intelligent word. I was shocked when they listened intently to an occasional remark I made.
Microphones would be carried into the restaurant sometimes, to record our conversations, which would then be aired as a show titled “The Eccentrics,” on Pacifica Radio. Cobie, who was the host, once, asked me to guest-host a show about the status of untouchables in India.
PNS was still a cozy group of intellectuals then. At one of these meetings, I met Andrew Lam, a regular commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” who made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of being on NPR. Those were heady days indeed.
The unique thing about PNS was that it made room for academics as well as the common people. Its objective was to give “voice to the voiceless,” as Close put it. Not only did it give a platform to those on the margins, it provided a home too. I recall Close coming to my house in the early 2000s and after realizing how isolated I was, inviting me and my children to Christmas Eve dinner at her house. That first Christmas, I arrived with much trepidation, and was delighted to discover that individual presents had been wrapped for each one of us with much forethought.
The original goal of PNS had shifted after the end of the Vietnam war, but the news syndicate was growing. My early articles would be sent “over the wire”—I never quite saw what the wire exactly was and now alas it is extinct like the dinosaurs—to news outlets across the country and a week or two later, I would receive clippings in the mail, from far flung sources like the Baltimore Sun, the Arizona Sun Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury News, and even La Prensa, in Spanish translation.
But the world was changing. The original PNS model required newspapers across the country to subscribe to PNS, pay a fee, and receive stories. But the Internet was changing the shape of the media. Most outfits were simply lifting the stories without paying any compensation.
It is one thing to notice the change, it is another to respond to it with a vision. Close, who had long been the Executive Director of PNS, possessed such a vision. She saw the future and formed a coalition called the New California Media (NCM).
It was an idea well ahead of its time. Within a decade, news and opinion outlets would become niche markets in America. But NCM was the first to acknowledge this reality, and recognize the power of ethnic media. Of course I missed the Eccentrics and our elite group, but it was time to be a grown up.
NAM was a natural evolution to NCM. Today, NAM is an international coalition, comprising of media from Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, among others.
In 2010, when Franz Schurmann passed away, I attended the memorial at the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Club. It seemed to me to be a passing of an era. I mused then about the role this unique organization had played in my life, the gifts it had given me, the platform it had provided for me and so many others. It had allowed America to see me, to hear me. It had made the impossible plausible.
So, when I won an award from NAM this year for a Last Word column titled “I am Gulliver, I am Sindbad,” I decided to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles. It was a journey down memory lane for me. As I listened to writers from Asia Journal, Korea Daily, La Opinion, I tried to imagine what my life would have been without NAM. But I could not remember a time when I was not a part of NAM.
None of this would have been possible without being anchored to my Last Word column in India Currents, of course, which has given me, a person without any birth relatives in this country, my only Indian family in America.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com