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The education of a radio pirate

I am belatedly reading Sue Carpenter’s wonderful memoir 40 Watts From Nowhere and chuckling at her evolution from a disgruntled DJ wannabe to a radio station manager. The book is sine qua non for anyone who aspires to run any kind of community-style radio station, as far as I’m concerned, because it shows how different said signal looks from the bottom up (a volunteer) and the top down (a manager).

40 Watts chronicles Carpenter’s experiences founding and running two pirates: KPBJ in San Francisco and the far more successful KBLT in Los Angeles through the 1990s. But it’s also about the college/community/pirate scene in both those cities, including her experiences at Bay Area college station KUSF as a volunteer.

From the get go, I was doomed. First, there weren’t that many DJ slots available. Second, the people who had them had been on the air for years and weren’t about to give them up. And third, wannabe DJs outnumbered them twenty to one. With such dismal odds, I should’ve split after the first meeting, but I didn’t. I signed up with the publicity department, thinking I could win them over through hard work. No such luck. In six months, I saw the inside of the studio only once, so I quit. I had no idea ‘community’ radio would be so uncommunitylike.

At least she quit. I’ve known people who’ve stuck around community stations for years, making careers out of bitterly complaining about the supposed lack of access (translation: they don’t have air time).

In any event, the innovative Carpenter starts setting up her first station, and pretty soon she discovers what it’s like looking out from the inside. She makes station t-shirts for the DJs and they don’t wear them. CDs start disappearing from her San Francisco apartment (that’s where she’s broadcasting from).

But the story gets even more interesting when she moves to LA. There her pirate station (now KBLT) really takes off. “We’ve been on the air eight months,” she notes. “In that time we’ve lost only a few DJs. . . . Their spaces aren’t hard to fill. Already, there’s a waiting list of people wanting to get their own shows.” And folks are already squabbling over the station’s mission. Is it an indie station or an experiment in free choice? One staffer posts a note asking other DJs to stop playing the Beastie Boys, etc.

“His note lasts precisely one week—long enough for the DJs to lob accusations of ‘dick-tator’ and scribble all over it with various expletives. By the time Jay returns for his show the following week, the note has been crumpled into a ball and pinned to the wall.”

And as the station becomes more popular, Carpenter’s life becomes more difficult. “I’ve tried to run the station with a light touch to allow the DJs as much creative freedom as possible. While that strategy has made the time they spend at the station great, it’s made mine horrible,” she confides. “Whenever I attempt to impose rules, I am shat upon. Even simple rules—common courtesies like cleaning up after themselves—go unheeded.”

Finally, as the FCC begins hovering over the illegal signal, waiting to strike, our protagonist starts making rules. “The DJs are no longer allowed to swear, to say the word pirate, or to mention anything that might give away our location. As much as I’d like to maintain a free-speech ethos, there’s too much at stake. I don’t want anyone saying something that could (1) piss someone off and prompt them to turn us in or (2) give the FCC any clues about what and where we are.”

Ya gotta have rules, it turns out, even if you’re a rebel. Attention all media anarchists: Read 40 Watts so you’ll know what you’re getting into.

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