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.
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.
To date, there doesn't seem to be a country show on the newest station in town, BFF.fm. Describing itself as "your go-to source for cool new music" — and the only station which openly lists the spooky electronic-goth offshoot known as "witch house" among its genres — this born-digital station went live on Aug. 2. "BFF," of course, stands for "best frequencies forever" — both a riff on "best friends forever" and evidence of the lasting influence of analog broadcasting idioms, since "frequencies" aren't even a thing online. Further evidence is the fact that ".fm" is the domain name of choice for online stations and other music providers that have not been, nor ever will be, on the FM band. (Though BFF.fm does not actually fall into the latter category; founder Guest says that they are "taking steps to build a strong case" for getting a Low Power FM license in the future.)