Beyond the Dial: Pirate Radio Packs Up and Moves to the Unregulated Wilderness of the Internet

Beyond the Dial: Pirate Radio Packs Up and Moves to the Unregulated Wilderness of the Internet

The first rule of discussing pirate radio in San Francisco: Don't call it "pirate" radio.

That word was in vogue once, most recently­­ in the mid- to late-aughts when the stations were making headlines. A lot has changed since then: San Francisco and the world at large has gone deeper into the tech bubble that was just beginning to form aaround then, and the unlicensed radio stations that used to be called "pirate" now prefer the term "community," if you please.

Those stations aren't really on the radio anymore, either, all instead living on the Federal Communications Commission-less Internet. But the R-word persists online, even at the most commercial levels. Apple's recently launched (and deeply redundant) streaming service is called iTunes Radio; the Oakland-based Pandora refers to its own service as radio, and whoever came up with the name for the subscription-based Rdio was lazy at best and cynical at worst. All of these services are, at least for now, beyond the reach and regulation of the FCC.

Those radio-in-name-only services also lack what's always made radio-for-real so romantic: the knowledge that there's a human on the other side of the signal, a real person spinning platters that matter, whether it's within the format of the station or whatever strikes their fancy at the moment. The listener may not be especially fond of any given song, but it still produces a feeling of adventure and connection that community radio stations are trying to keep alive, even now as they exist only online, providing a homegrown alternative to Spotify and the other vanguards of the Internet Musical Robot Apocalypse.

Which is not to say the operators of community stations can't also welcome our new robot overlords; BFF.fm founder Amanda Guest says she uses Pandora and Spotify, the difference between them being that "Pandora is a more passive experience, and on Spotify you usually log in knowing what you want to listen to." But, she says, "community radio hits that sweet spot between familiarity and exploration."

Community radio is also following a pattern that's becoming familiar in the increasingly tech-based media world: Needing to escape from overbearing regulation, the providers go off the grid (or find another grid entirely), where they find new audiences, and where strange and wonderful things can happen. Sometimes it even involves ping-pong.


Among the major players in San Francisco's post-pirate, Internet-only community radio scene is Mutiny Radio, the phoenix that arose from the ashes of Pirate Cat Radio after that station exploded in a fiery ball of drama. Operating out of a storefront and (non-operational) café at 21st and Florida, and broadcasting online at mutinyradio.org, Mutiny Radio has the strong "power to the people" vibe common to community stations.

Station Director Pam Benjamin describes Mutiny as "a collective of radio artists that want to make an entertaining and diverse listening experience, through promotion of free speech from passionate personal expression." Along with the usual rock and "little bit of everything" shows, there's hip-hop, a show done entirely in Greek, one for stoners, and another for kids. For a year, there was even a show for people who still buy physical media: Mutiny installed a request box at Amoeba Records on Haight, and played those requests on Friday afternoon.

Benjamin herself does a live-comedy open mic from the Mutiny Radio studio on Friday nights — except for the first Friday of the month, which features a lineup of more seasoned comics, who then perform the following night across town at the Purple Onion at Kells in North Beach. Mutiny has even gone where most San Franciscans fear to tread: across a bridge, to do a comedy show at the Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma.

There's also plenty of comedy on FCC Free Radio, once found at 107.3 FM but now only at fccfreeradio.com. Comedy is a point of pride for founder John Miller, who claims that his long-running comedy talk show The John Miller Program has been talked about no fewer than four times on The Howard Stern Show. FCC Free Radio's website purports to have the best comics as both hosts and guests, as well as the best of any kind of music and talk shows you care to name, and all of it presented by the best talent creating the best radio. FCC Free Radio's slogan is the classically populist "Radio for the people... by the people," but they want you know that it's by the best people.

Not quite as concerned with bragging rights is KUSF, the former University of San Francisco station which got bumped off 90.3 FM in 2011 when its license was unexpectedly sold by USF's president. KUSF continues online now at savekusf.org, playing its usual freeform format — including three classical music programs, which is three more than all the other stations combined — while working to return to its rightful place on the airwaves.

Staying off the airwaves is Radio Valencia at radiovalencia.fm, which calls itself a "non-commercial, volunteer-run, community-focused station." A veteran of San Francisco pirate/community radio, Program Director Michael Rosenberg says Radio Valencia has "a huge responsibility now that KUSF is gone" — give or take KUSF's online incarnation — and that Radio Valencia is the door on which "bands, writers, performers, local politicians, and activists" are all knocking: "We're the bullhorn for the Mission." In addition to the standard "whatever the DJ feels like playing" format typical to these stations, this bullhorn puts out three different heavy metal shows, two hip-hop programs, and what may well be the only dedicated country show out of all the community stations.

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4 comments
Junglebook
Junglebook

Thinking of Big-Time TV on Max Headroom reminds me of one more thing to mention  here - the first pirate TV station West of the Mississippi, Pirate Cat TV.  PCTV broadcast live, through the airwaves, in a half-mile-square area in the Mission on broadcast channel 13, for almost a year in 2005. Founded by Monkey, me, and DJ Jess B., and pumping out Dr. Who, underground videos, anarchist documentaries, first-run movies that were in theaters at the time, and the first season of "Twin Peaks", PCTV never really got a chance ro fulfill its potential, as the PCR empire began to hit some turbulence. But it was a noble effort and a technical achievement at the time, and we even got Mayor Gavin Newsom to give us an on-camera thumbs-up and a station ID that we ran all the time.  YouTube pretty much wiped out the idea of Pirate TV, but some of that piratical energy lives on in my current online "TV" station, www.HalfBeat.com  Those were pretty exciting times.  

Junglebook
Junglebook

Someone else I forgot to mention, somebody who was really a pioneer in the switch to online, was an internet radio outfit run by some rebels from PCR led by Mungo called www.Awesomeville.us

It was always planned as an online presence, and its server still spins on, with an occasional live show on Monday nights. At one point, we seriously kicked around the idea of putting a broadcast set-up in the back of a delivery van and prowling the SF streets, broadcasting mobile, like Big-Time TV on "The Adventures of Max Headroom", but we never got that together. For a few years, there were half a dozen weekly live shows streaming at the site (mine included), and Mungo dreamed up a "block" software that allowed different DJs to assemble 20-minute chunks, which would be archived and randomly served up when a live show wasn't on. 

For now, you can still check out the various blocks built by the Awesomeville DJs at the site.  As the original staff was all people who had walked out on PCR after one of the various outrages, and they created an early, efficient, long-running "radio" site online, I thought they deserved a mention in this thread, too.    


aaaradio
aaaradio

KUSF.org also exists.. 


Junglebook
Junglebook

Hey, Sherilyn!  Great article.  You only missed a couple small ones - Free Radio SF and Radio X, two stations run briefly by our ol' cohort Tee-Why. Pirate Radio (mostly at PCR) has been the most exciting thing I've been involved with in SF (besides actually gigging) since I got my overpriced radio degree back in the 80s.  And since they moved online, I've stayed involved, first at PCR, then at FCCfreeRadio, and now I've got a weekly "exercise" show on SFCR, KUSF-In-Exile.  But those heady days of PCR and Free Radio SF, actually going out into the damp airwaves of San Francisco, were really special.  There is a magical element to spinning out that music that is your true heart's desire, with the possibility that out there somewhere there was a kid tuning in for the first time, perhaps hearing songs and ideas that had never ocurred to them. There's a big difference between internet radio and broadcast, and that's the possibility that you can be found by accident.  All internet radio "suffers" from the element that the listeners have to come to you, you're not reaching out into the waves to be found by accident, by someone tuning along the actual band with an actual dial and an antenna.  But those days are probably gone for good.  Though I tried recently, unsuccessfully, to recruit the Pomo Indian Tribe up here to go in with me on a new LPFM application at the FCC, my pirate background would have probably blocked me anyway.  It was great to read your report, and fill in some of the details I'd missed in the ongoing dramas of the ol' familiar names.  One of us has got to write a movie about those days before it's all forgotten! 


 

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