San Francisco's community stations sponsor music and comedy concerts throughout the Bay Area, do interviews with artists whom the general public has actually heard of (George Clinton, Bill Ward from Black Sabbath), and even the occasional local politician. The community stations can also be found participating in Sunday Streets, broadcasting from respectable events such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' triennial Bay Area Now exhibition, and are generally above-ground and active in the mainstream world in a way that was far riskier when they were having to keep an eye out for the FCC.

Some may argue that this newfound openness results in stations that are not as edgy or dangerous as they once were, but that's why they're calling themselves "community" rather than "pirate," and not just because there's nothing illegal about being online. Being shadowy or attempting to live by some arbitrary notion of what it means to be rebellious or "punk" by broadcasting without a license doesn't seem to have as much of an appeal anymore.

For now, it seems like the best of both worlds that the stations are able to interact with the community — being there for comedy or ping-pong — and also be able to play a seven-minute compilation of all the swearing from a given episode of Deadwood, if they're so inclined. And anyone who wants to set up a transmitter and broadcast without a license can still do so, if they really want to take their chances with the FCC, but it hardly seems worth it in the post-Pirate Cat era.

In the long run, community radio is all about the DJs and their content, and according to BFF.fm's Guest, this personal element is why the stations thrive, and why services like Pandora or Spotify will never replace personality-driven radio — itself a vanishing commodity on the air. "A good DJ feels like your best friend and trusted advisor," she says. "And because of that, online radio, just like its terrestrial counterpart, will have a power to make you connect with it in ways streaming services won't ever match."

This is a sentiment that Mutiny Radio's Benjamin agrees with. "Humans want human interaction," she says. "Recorded music is a replaying of what touches the soul and makes us feel. Feeling is humanity. Can a computer know that I like Bonnie Raitt and play her next to Bon Iver in a playlist? Sure, but I prefer a voice that tells me why melodic piano blues riffs with pangs-for-unrequited-love lyrics make me feel helplessly lovesick. DJs enhance the listening experience by carefully crafting a show for the radio listener."

And there are listeners, too, if not always live; Benjamin confirms that Mutiny gets far more downloads than it does streaming listeners. It's a sign of the times, and community radio is finding the way to move with those times while maintaining the essential spirit that's always made it such a danger to those who would homogenize the media. As Benjamin says, "I like human curation of all my art."

Disclosure: The writer had a show on Pirate Cat Radio from October 2004 to January 2006, and has been on Radio Valencia since May 2013.


DISCLOSURE: The writer had a show on Pirate Cat Radio October 2004-January 2006, and has been on Radio Valencia since May 2013.

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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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