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.
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.
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.”
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.