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San Francisco's Newest Radio Pirate: Radio Valencia

Radio Valencia

Of course I’m biased, but San Francisco seems to have always been ground zero for radio innovators, back from the early days of pioneering technologists, to the freeform FM era, to punk and new wave stalwarts in college and commercial radio in the 1980s, to pirate radio champions like Free Radio Berkeley in the 1990s, to the web radio entrepreneurs of the 2000s and beyond.

Although the lure of Internet-only radio is turning the focus away from terrestrial radio for many; there are compelling reasons why radio enthusiasts continue to launch licensed and unlicensed AM and FM stations in 2010.

In San Francisco, a brand new unlicensed community radio station, Radio Valencia, is about to get off the ground, with a hoped-for launch date of early July. Housed in artist/musician/activist/former San Francisco mayoral candidate Chicken John‘s warehouse “Chez Poulet” in the Mission District, it’s being envisioned as not only an underground radio station, but also as part of a larger non-profit community resource.

Named by Chicken John, Radio Valencia will probably evoke memories for many San Franciscans of the former restaurant of the same name (known for its well-crafted playlists of music) that met its unfortunate demise after several fire engines crashed into its corner storefront on Valencia and 23rd Streets. Although Chicken John says that the radio station is not meant to be an homage to the old Radio Valencia, it will no doubt appeal to some of the same folks who frequented the place back in the 1990s.

John Hell in the work-in-progress studio at Radio Valencia

When I visited the station last Thursday, I got to see the beginning stages of the studio that had been built by Chicken John in a week’s time. One of the founding members of the station, John Hell, talked to me about the collective vision for Radio Valencia and how it will be different from his numerous other radio endeavors.

Ironically, it was just about a year ago that John Hell chatted with me about his then-new radio project, FCCFree Radio. Although enthusiastic about the possibilities of that particular station at the time, John Hell recently parted ways with FCCFree Radio after having philosophical differences with the station owner.

Because of his strong passion for and commitment to radio, it was clear that it wouldn’t be long before he landed at another radio start-up. John Hell is no stranger to radio, having worked at college stations KCSM and KFJC, pirate stations San Francisco Liberation Radio, Pirate Cat Radio, and FCCFree Radio, as well as on the crew that founded the LPFM station Radio Free Burning Man that operated out in the Nevada desert during the annual arts festival from 1994 to 2008.

When John Hell was approached by his long-time friend Chicken John (they met at Burning Man and soon after began doing events like “The Church of the Burning Ulcer” together), the initial idea was to start up an Internet radio station. As they discussed things further, the concept for Radio Valencia developed even more and the hope is that eventually it will be a community center with an open-door policy and a full schedule of events. Chicken John, John Hell, and other early participants (including Evolution Control Committee’s Trademark Gunderson and PhotoBoof‘s Wrybread) presented the idea of this new station to other like-minded folks in their social networks and reached out to former college and pirate radio DJs and friends with deep connections in various arts and culture scenes in San Francisco.

Stage at Chez Poulet

John Hell said that he’s been amazed by the response and told me that he already has 30 DJs committed to hosting a total of 24 different shows at Radio Valencia.

When I asked him how this station will be different from others in the area, he said that it will be much more community-based, community-oriented, and community-run with “no central leadership.” He was reluctant to portray himself as any sort of leader at Radio Valencia and instead hoped to recruit others who will take a leadership role over various projects at the station, pointing out that “organically, some leadership may grow.”  He pointed out that they will not have mandatory meetings and will shy away from having too many rules at the station.

Although Radio Valencia will officially be Internet-only, they are “expecting” to also broadcast at 89.9FM in San Francisco, although they won’t be hosting that signal themselves. When I asked how they selected the frequency, John Hell said, it’s because it’s between KZSU and KFJC.  Radio Valencia’s DJ RICK! acknowledged that “90% of our listeners will [probably be] online,” so with that in mind, he’s working really hard to have a “modern website,” with opportunities for listeners to interact with DJs and the ability to view the site on mobile devices.

With so many people listening to radio online, I asked John Hell why it was important for Radio Valencia to be on FM as well. He said, “radio is only really radio when it’s terrestrial radio.” He pointed out that a lot of people can’t afford high speed Internet connections, so for them terrestrial radio is crucial, saying, “Radio is vital for a community.” RICK! added that he wants to hear amazing radio over the airwaves, saying, “Every time I rent a car…I want to cry [because of the radio choices]…I don’t want to give up on terrestrial radio.”

Vinyl Records on the Bathroom Wall at Radio Valencia

John Hell said that unfortunately the “LPFM Act made it very hard for urban locations to get a license,” adding that big broadcast groups have lobbied hard to “push out low power stations” in their areas. Although he’s not personally up for the paperwork, he said, “I would be fine if we filed for a LPFM.” He added that in the absence of that, “I believe that the air does belong to the people and the people who really deserve the opportunity to do radio” aren’t able to get access.

Both John Hell and RICK! reminisced a bit about growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, with John Hell arguing that, “20 years ago..radio was awesome [here].” RICK! said that he remembers the thrill he got when he sat in the audience for the Alex Bennett Show and said that it was amazing to have a morning radio show that was produced locally. He pointed out that “it was fun to have someone talk about the city” he lived in over the airwaves.

When I visited last week, the tiny studio contained a couple of turntables, a board, a rack, and insulation crafted from large burlap coffee bean bags. Since my visit, CD players, a cassette deck, and monitor speakers have been installed. The studio sits in a space just inside the entrance to the warehouse, nestled next to a washer & dryer, and a bathroom decorated with vinyl records. Beyond these entry-way amenities there’s a huge, 2-level, open warehouse space that is both a living space (bedrooms upstairs) and an event space for live music, radio shows (the Ask Dr. Hal Show was recorded there in front of a live audience), a weekly Dungeons and Dragons night, and underground dinners hosted by the chef behind ForageSF and the SF Underground Market.

John Hell told me that he was excited about the possibilities that will be afforded to the station because of the physical space and he hoped to be able to air live bands and host a variety of events there.

In terms of the DJ lineup, John Hell is hoping to having DJs on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in 2-hour shifts. All DJs will be expected to pay quarterly dues and there will be occasional meetings that DJs will be invited to attend. Radio shows in the works include a jazz/metal program, local music shows, new music shows, public affairs/interview-based programs, a sound collage program, and a revival of the Ask Dr. Hal show. Currently there’s no music library, but there’s hope for one in the future.

We concluded our visit with John Hell reminiscing about doing radio out in the Nevada desert during Burning Man. He told me that at that station the door was open all night and he said, “I really enjoyed the immediacy of that experience,” adding, “that is radio.” Although he wasn’t sure how many people might wander in off the street into Radio Valencia, John Hell was excited about the possibilities.



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12 Responses to San Francisco's Newest Radio Pirate: Radio Valencia

  1. Paul Riismandel June 16, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks for bringing us the inside scoop on this exciting new station. I’m glad to hear that they won’t be hosting a transmitter at their studio site. Having a remote transmitter, possibly hosted by somebody with no formal connections to the station, is a tactic not enough microbroadcasters have used.

  2. Tapeleg June 18, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Am I missing the point here? Announcing a pirate station? Isn’t publicity the death of pirate radio?

  3. Matthew Lasar June 19, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    Hey Tapeleg:

    Not sure it really matters. Would like to get Paul Rissmandel or John Anderson’s take on this, but my impression is that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau usually gets activated against a pirate station not because somebody read about the station in a blog post, but following the complaint of a licensed broadcaster who claims the new signal interferes with theirs.

    Then again, to the extent that the FCC acts on their own in these matters, you’re right: it is a dilemma. Radio stations depend upon word-of-mouth community support, and you get that through publicity. But of course that publicity eventually gets to the government.

    As Tony Soprano would say, waddayagonnado?

  4. Paul Riismandel June 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    There’s recently been evidence that the FCC will take a more active stance on pirates, not just wait around for a complaint. So, yes, publicizing a station raises the likelihood of FCC enforcement.

    However, Radio Valencia say they won’t actually have a transmitter in their space — just a webcast. So having someone else run the transmitter off the web stream definitely makes enforcement more difficult, though not impossible. This is the strategy employed by London pirates. It was also used by Boulder Free Radio which played cat and mouse with a very tenacious field agent in the Denver FCC office before finally calling it a day.

    The dense urban and hilly environs of SF may work in Valencia’s favor if they follow through with a remote transmitter, especially if they keep in on the move.

    But, as Matthew notes, it’s a tough call. Without publicity it’s hard to develop a listenership and become a true community station. With publicity you risk getting busted. At least the FCC isn’t the DEA.

  5. Jennifer Waits June 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    I realize that publicity for a pirate station may seem counter-intuitive, but in the past few years the pirate stations in San Francisco have not shied away from the spotlight in the least. You might remember that last year I profiled the new unlicensed station FCCFree Radio and Pirate Cat Radio has been the subject of numerous stories in the mainstream press. Pirate Cat Radio operates out of a cafe and was even featured on the TV show “No Reservations.” (Granted the FCC did come knocking and they are now Internet-only…but other opportunities arose for the station owner no doubt in part due to the press)

    It seems that the new strategy here is for these pirates to run Internet-only stations. But, if fans happen to set up FM transmitters then it’s an added bonus. And, in case this isn’t totally obvious, I wouldn’t be writing about this if Radio Valencia wasn’t interested in being publicized.

  6. Paul McSween June 22, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    As for pirate radio… well as for all radio you need to tell the people some how you have bulit this. Using standard media like Newsprint and TV was what was done in years past. Now we have the internet and thats the way of the world now. So you add TV and Newsprint to the internet for your way to get the word out. As for the FCC. I know that last year they closed the loop hole that PCR and FFR were using. I also know that most pirate stations got on the air for about 15 months before the FCC would come to the door. With the loop hole closed they are taking down pirate stations at a rate of at least one a month for the last year. They are also tracking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, Yahoo and Google once a pirate station pops up. They take that info and use it! So with that stops you from hiding behind a webcast to the transmitter. I also know the owner of FCCFREE RADIO and the last time they were on the air for under 30 days…..This makes you think… is it worth 10000.00+ to run and keep running the transmitter? Or do you just do internet radio and spend the 10000.00 on that?

    PMS

  7. Paul Riismandel June 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Paul: Where are you getting your info and data from?

    Was FCC Free keeping their xmitter in the same place as their studio?

    The FCC sends a lot of letters, but collects a much smaller percentage of fines.

  8. David Kaye June 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    I caution against the use of any frequency adjacent to KFJC. I was instrumental in getting interviews for Chicken John on Energy 92.7 KNGY and on Alice KLLC 97.3 because of a contact I have at KFJC who knows people who know people. If Chicken interferes with KFJC he’s biting the hand that helped him.

    I also caution against using any frequency adjacent to KALW 91.7 because KALW is the last truly community-oriented station in SF where people can put on shows. I will defend to the death KALW’s right to exist interference-free.

    If people insist on doing pirate radio, I suggest 87.9 (FM channel 200), the former frequency of Pirate Cat. If the transmitter’s antenna system has proper spur filtering (and no overmodulation) 87.9 should be no problem.

  9. Holden Caulfield December 16, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    soooo…can I listen online? (Dumb question, but danged if I can figure it out…)

  10. Jennifer Waits December 17, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Holden, you can listen to Radio Valencia online. Here are some instructions from their website: http://radiovalencia.fm/listen/

  11. Jennifer Waits December 17, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Holden, yes you can listen to Radio Valencia online. Here are some instructions from their website: http://radiovalencia.fm/listen/

  12. Seth Leonard May 31, 2013 at 1:44 am #

    The Republicans, and honestly many Democrats as well, are positioned for the terrorist battlefield to be anywhere on Earth in perpetuity. They are thus in a very dangerous circular game right now, what I call the terrorism loop. Let me recap. First, they go to war under an assumed cause: a) whatever 9/11 really was, with CEOs and upper staff of the Twin Towers called out to vacation that day, b) and whatever the cause for Iraq was, as there were no WMD’s, c) and whatever Afghanistan was, as it took the greatest military in the world a decade to follow through to take out one man on a dialysis machine; all ostensibly to kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, when we are attacked, they call it terrorism. Then, the US has further justification to go to war to attack Muslims. This is an endless circle of violence, what I am calling the terrorism loop, a cover for pillaging for the military-industrial complex. All the while they are at war to create military bases in strategic locations, such as Iraq, now the biggest military unit gas station in the world, coincidentally in the center of the world. It was also handy that Iraq had all that oil for obvious economic reasons. As Killing Hope by Blum outlines, we have been at war since WWII, largely for similar military and financial interests. This terrorism loop, now a war all over the world, is so circular it almost makes sense… except hundreds of thousands of people are dead in the Muslim world, many of our soldiers are dead and wounded, and now civilians are being attacked here in America along with those killed on 9/11. This Republican shell game is plain to see and must be outlined in detail to stop it. Imagine if the game gets worse, not better; imagine if a Republican becomes President in 2016 and Congress leans Right.

    The emperor wears no clothes. Who among the press and the House/Senate is willing to take off the gloves and begin to outline the perpetrators of this conspiracy? The terrorism loop is a conspiracy, and it is broad. It involves the military, the Republican Party, and the business leadership of the country. It is as ingrained in America’s way of thinking as Manifest Destiny. Talk to a Native American about that one. Lots of money and power is involved. And the roots of this behavior go back to the roots of our American foundation, through slavery and genocide. We all simply accept it, and hope we won’t get blown up. It is called ‘terrorism’. We all flinch at the word, and we want to react. Terrorism is something we don’t want to think about, something we give carte blanche license to but, like sausage or law, we shield our eyes from the process. It’s in the shielding that all the backroom deals get done, such as military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. And its those military bases that infuriates the ‘terrorists’. It is possibly bringing us into global conflict… if the Hopi are correct, conflict with China and Russia is in the offing, the ‘red army’ of purification day (see Hotevilla, see ‘purification day’). China is already spoiling for a global war with sleeper cells here in the US and stealing military, engineering and medical secrets from us. All we need is a territorial dispute with China in east Asia and its curtains.

    It is interesting, and timely, to note that the traditional Hopi, our nation’s most holy people, have prophesied WWIII for this time period (Hotevilla by Mails/Evehema page 35; Google Hopi prophesy rock). As a nation, we simply need to know what the affected Muslim world wants in order to stop terrorism, and mend fences as we are able. We should not be sending in more military to fight ‘terrorism’, when what ‘terrorists’ are trying to do is defend their own land. Furthering the terrorism loop brings us closer to uncontrollable war. We are the aggressor, we must be checked, and so far the media and even much of liberal government hasn’t challenged that stance. The role of America as World Dictator needs to come to the press room, and Congressional, floor. It isn’t about what terrorist to kill and how, it is about how to go about making peace, reasonably. How do you challenge this bizarre behavior of the military-industrial complex? Illustrate what is going on, and why.

    “The principal stated aims of al-Qaeda are to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia; destroy Israel; and topple pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East. Bin Laden also said that he wishes to unite all Muslims and establish, by force if necessary, an Islamic nation adhering to the rule of the first Caliphs.”

    Read more: Al-Qaeda | Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/spot/al-qaeda-terrorism.html#ixzz2UeJh8ojv

    To me, that seems like a reasonable goal (aside from destroying Israel) if it is wanted by the host population. It is extreme, but it can be considered one opinion among many in a democracy. In any event, it was no reason for a brutal war in Iraq and Afghanistan. A rule of law and democracy enforced by the UN would have been a wiser course in both cases.

    We need to partner with the populations of the developing world, now. We are responsible for our part in global climate change, wage slavery, war, relocation of native people, support of dictators, environmental racism, haphazard control of AIDS, debt to China… and so much oppression and atrocities toward the people of the developing world it is appalling, and would make the American population scream if they knew what was done in the name of the American flag. The question for today is not how do we fight terrorism, but rather how do we reasonably help the population the terrorist is bravely willing to die for. It is time for the olive branch. We find that we have met the enemy, and he is us to quote Walt Kelly of Pogo.

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