Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about the comings and goings of pirate radio stations, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.
New station Radio Valencia is about to begin broadcasting any day now in San Francisco and pirate radio stalwart Freak Radio Santa Cruz is continuing in its mission, while looking for a new transmitter site.
On the flip side, San Francisco’s Pirate Cat Radio is sticking to the Internet, after getting fined by the FCC in 2009, while its owner is overseeing the day-to-day operations of a licensed FM community radio station an hour away from the city in rural Pescadero.
Like their rebel radio compadres in the Bay Area, FCCFREE RADIO is also in a state of transition, as they make the switch from being an unlicensed FM station to operating as an Internet broadcasting company. Things have changed a lot since I visited FCCFREE RADIO a year ago. At the time, owner John Miller and Program Director John Hell talked about their plans for the unlicensed LPFM community station in San Francisco, citing their desire to “put the local back into radio.” Since my last visit, they’ve built up their schedule and have attracted a following of listeners both online and over the terrestrial airwaves.
However, something very significant happened on May 7, 2010. They turned off the station’s transmitter.
I was eager to visit FCCFREE RADIO again to learn more about why they decided to remove the station from the FM airwaves, so on June 25th, I stopped by to revisit the station and learn more about what owner John Miller has in store.
John told me that the staff of FCCFREE RADIO voted in favor of turning off the transmitter after a recent visit by the FCC to the transmitter site. Although John exudes the confidence and bravado of a long-time underground radio broadcaster, he was clearly spooked by the latest letter from the FCC. He said, “I had the FCC at my door in record time,” adding, “They must be angry.” After a couple of notices from the FCC, they decided to change the station’s course. He told me that times really have changed for pirate radio, saying, “Unfortunately people go to jail now.” While reminiscing about stations like Boulder Free Radio, John talked about how “they were heroes” and “did it on a grand scale,” but that they were hit extremely hard by the FCC.
The decision to take FCCFREE RADIO off of the FM airwaves has turned out to be a “blessing” according to John, who argued that ultimately “the transmitter was a hindrance” and that since they’ve abandoned the terrestrial broadcast, “doors have opened” for the station. He acknowledged, “I love the power of radio,” but pointed out that, “the world is going a different way.”
In terms of the future of FCCFREE RADIO, John has big plans, including expanding the studios into space that has recently opened up in the station’s South of Market building in San Francisco. Soon there will be a second studio and an office for John. The main studio is now outfitted with a turntable, CD players, computer, and monitors. Although there’s no library of physical music, they do have a digital library containing 6,000 pieces of music. Currently there are 31 shows on the air, with around 24 of those programs airing live from FCCFREE RADIO’s studio, making for over 70 hours of live programming a week. A handful of DJs produce their shows remotely, from locations as far flung as Tokyo and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
He told me that a number of opportunities have come their way, saying, “There’s a lot of things we can do with content” that is already produced by the station’s DJs.
As we’d discussed when I visited the station last year, John has a strong affinity for comedy and has been helping to find a sonic home for some of his favorite DJs and comedians. He told me that long-time San Francisco DJ M. Dung will be joining the station this summer.
John said that it was exciting to “have good talent” and that it’s a thrill for him to be “working with folks that I grew up with.” He added that even though the heyday of commercial radio is gone, talented radio personalities from the past “can live here.” In addition to ex-commercial radio DJs, FCCFREE RADIO is still full of former college and pirate radio DJs from stations like KFJC, KUSF, and Pirate Cat Radio.
Programming at FCCFREE RADIO includes music and talk, with DJs having full control over their programs. John said, “I don’t tell them what to play.” DJs are simply asked to employ common sense, pay their dues, and attend monthly meetings. Some of the current shows include the blues-oriented Bottleneck Cafe, rockabilly-focused Big Guitar Show (formerly on KFJC), the sex-positive program Sexploration with Monika, and Lost in America (music and talk). When there isn’t a live show airing, there’s either a rebroadcast of a previously-run program or automated music kicks in.
John said that the schedule is pretty full right now, with room for only about 10 more programs. But, there are dreams of expansion for the station with plans to offer up two different Internet streams and syndicate their content even more broadly. John seems pleased that his underground station is gaining both listeners and the attention of potential suitors, saying, “It has become a business for me.” Although mum on specifics, it’s clear that dodging the FCC is no longer part of his daily ritual and that he couldn’t be happier.
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