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.)

The oldest and most storied station of them all, San Francisco Liberation Radio at liberationradio.net, was very much on the FM band, at 93.7, once upon a time. The station was famously raided in 2003, and while most of the staff dispersed after that — including Radio Valencia's Rosenberg, who was also variously on Pirate Cat and FCC Free Radio — the station continues online, seemingly a one-man show run by Tony Thomas. According to the gloriously outdated yet still functioning website, the station features five shows, four of which feature talk, jazz, soul, and blues; the fifth is called This Is Something (genre: "Enhance Your Knowledge"). From a certain perspective, this current incarnation of the local stalwart is the most pirate-y of them all, one man putting out the stuff that he loves, not attempting to emulate the structure of a "legitimate" radio station the way the others do.


There's something odd about walking into a store, restaurant, or other public place in late 2013 and hearing a radio commercial. It means that the proprietors have decided to go just about as old-fashioned as it is possible to go, treating their customers to the whims of mainstream radio, even though the technology that allows someone to choose what music gets played is abundant and affordable.

Sometimes, that commercial might be on Pandora or Spotify, but it's still a testament to how powerful the lure (or habit) of radio can be; if you're tech-savvy enough to use a streaming service, odds are you also know how to just hit "shuffle." But what you lose in control, you make up for in the romance of not knowing what comes next. The same holds true for satellite radio, but it's on a different playing field entirely, being subscription-based and thus commercial-free, and found mostly in cars. And satellite radio has DJs, which commercial radio may or may not — but even when they do, the commercial radio DJs often have little input into what gets played.

Michael Rosenberg and friend in the tastefully green Pirate Cat Radio studio, 2007.
Scott Beale / LaughingSquid.com
Michael Rosenberg and friend in the tastefully green Pirate Cat Radio studio, 2007.
Michael Rosenberg at the current Radio Valencia, surrounded by knobs, sliders, and baby-doll heads.
Evan DuCharme
Michael Rosenberg at the current Radio Valencia, surrounded by knobs, sliders, and baby-doll heads.

Community radio, by contrast, seems to be more of a personal experience for the listener, listened to through headphones rather than used as a turn-it-on-and-ignore-it ambience for a business. "During the day we see most of our listeners coming from our website," says BFF.fm's Guest, "when I suspect most people are in their cubes toiling away." During the night, however, her station is finding niches to fill, some of them very niche indeed — such as providing a soundtrack for the San Francisco Berlin-Style Ping-Pong League at its Monday night parties, a boozy mix of table tennis and musical chairs which has bounced around the city over the past year and is currently at the Secret Alley on Capp (which also houses BFF.fm's studio). "We've worked with them to put DJs in the time slots during their weekly games that play tunes that cater to the crowd — more danceable ambient music." (Including, but not limited to, witch house.)

In addition to being online-only, another shift in community radio stations is that the majority of them offer downloadable archives of their shows. It's the kind of time-shifting that the public has come to expect from TV thanks to TiVo and Video-On-Demand (the ability to record programs dates back to the VCRs of the late 1970s, but recording in earnest really took off with the DVR era), and which is still problematic to the major streaming services, which have to deal with legal issues regarding what songs get played when, and how the artists get paid.

Community stations are also embracing the new mobile world. SomaFM.com, an Internet-only service which began streaming drone and other niche musical styles in 2000, introduced an iPhone-friendly streaming site in June 2008, and had a proper iOS app by 2009. Of the more traditionally formatted community Internet radio stations in San Francisco, Radio Valencia is the only one to have its own smartphone apps thus far, though it seems unlikely to be the last.

Rather than a dedicated app, Mutiny Radio encourages listeners to use an app called Soundtap, which gathers the streams of more than 500 college, community, and other similarly independent-minded radio stations. The developer of the Radio Valencia app has also created the iPad-only Good Radio Tuner, which focuses on noncommercial stations as well as more esoteric streams, like the San Francisco police scanner, Birdsong.fm (which is exactly what you think), and David Byrne's Internet radio station, which plays a different genre of music every month.

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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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