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.

Pam Benjamin, the proud program director of Mutiny Radio.
Evan DuCharme
Pam Benjamin, the proud program director of Mutiny Radio.
FCC-licensed or not, it takes many knobs and sliders to make good radio.
Scott Beale / LaughingSquid.com
FCC-licensed or not, it takes many knobs and sliders to make good radio.
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.
Rosenberg debates whether to answer the studio phone at FCC Free Radio, 2009.
Courtesy of Michael Rosenberg
Rosenberg debates whether to answer the studio phone at FCC Free Radio, 2009.

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.

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.

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.

One of the iTunes reviews of Good Radio Tuner praised it for what it does, but gave it a one-star review due to a lack of parental controls. In other words, it's a Danger to the Children. Like the word "fuck" or Janet Jackson's nipple, that's the kind of moral panic that often caused the FCC to swoop in on old media, and sent Howard Stern packing for satellite radio in 2005.

For now, Internet radio is beyond the FCC's reach, and in fact, the FCC claims that one of the points of its recent "Open Internet" initiative is to make sure that neither the government nor broadband providers can regulate content or "restrict innovation." (Net neutrality is a can of worms which is thankfully beyond the scope of this article.) But the FCC is a slippery bunch, and the former pirates in particular have good reasons to want the commission to stay off the 'tubes.


Officially, the FM broadcast band stretches between 88 MHZ to 108 MHZ, divided into 100 individual frequencies between 88.1 and 107.9. (Of course, 87.9 not officially being on the FM band hasn't kept pirates from using it over the years.) To legally broadcast on any of those channels, a license must be obtained from the FCC, a process which requires jumping through many hoops and forking over many dollars. Transmitting equipment is not particularly expensive, however, and many have broadcast without a license over the years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The FCC has never been a fan of this.

On Oct. 15, 2003, the FCC raided the studios of San Francisco Liberation Radio. The feds seized the station's transmitter and its more mundane equipment (computers, CD players), gear that the FCC reported at $5,602 in value. It was not their first tangle; the FCC had issued multiple Notices of Unlicensed Radio Operation to Liberation Radio over the previous few years. The FCC also denied Liberation Radio's application for permission to construct a legitimate, Low Power FM broadcast station, citing an amendment that bars anyone known to have broadcast an unlicensed radio station from being granted a license. One strike, and that's that.

On Sept. 8, 2009, after Pirate Cat Radio had been Internet-only for a few months in response to receiving multiple notices of its own, the inevitable occurred: The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against Pirate Cat's owner, Daniel Roberts, for $10,000, having "apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934" — for operating a radio station without a license. The NAL also rebuked Roberts' long-held assertion that the FCC's "Application for Emergency Authorization" document allowed for unlicensed radio stations to operate as a public service in times of war. America was in a well-publicized "War on Terror," he reasoned, so, case closed, right? The FCC disagreed.

Several months later, on the same day in May 2010 that SF Weekly ran a cover story about radio pirates going legit, the Bay Guardian printed an ad placed by FCC Free Radio, announcing that the station — which had begun broadcasting illegally on 107.9 FM in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2009 — was now only available online. Indeed, on May 7, 2010, FCC Free had turned off its transmitter.

In an interview with Jennifer Waits of the Radio Survivor blog on July 6, 2010, FCC Free founder John Miller explained that after the FCC visited the transmitter site and sent them a few letters, it made sense to just shut the transmitter down and go Internet-only. "Unfortunately," Miller said, "people go to jail now."

On Oct. 29, 2011, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order against Pirate Cat's owner Daniel Roberts for that $10,000, and the tentative language of the 2009 order was replaced with far more direct words: Roberts owed the FCC, and the feds intended to collect. In the two years since the order had been issued, Pirate Cat Radio had been replaced by the online-only and fully legal Mutiny Radio, the staff of which was not liable for the fine. Roberts himself had long since left the country by then, after making a mess of Pirate Cat as well as of the non-pirate, fully licensed KPDO 89.3 FM in Pescadero, having served briefly as its station manager. He might have left because he knew that the $10,000 order was coming down the pike, and that the end was near — at least until the statute of limitations expires.


Even without the instructive example of that $10,000 FCC smackdown, the former pirate stations likely would have relocated onto the Internet anyway. Mutiny Radio's Benjamin acknowledges that they're online "to avoid illegalities regarding the FCC and transmission airwaves," and that they'd love to be legally on the air, "but not until we can say and play whatever the fuck we want." Besides, she points out, "The Internet is a big place. We like worldwide outreach."

It's the local outreach that may ensure community radio's longevity, however. "We want our voices and expression transmitted to a worldwide stage while maintaining a positive physical presence in the Mission District," says Benjamin. Even back in the unlicensed-airwaves days, these stations were a regular stop for local and touring indie acts, as well as anyone who had a show or other creative product to promote — and, most importantly, who are unlikely to even be acknowledged by stations owned by media monoliths such as Cumulus or Clear Channel.

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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