I woke up Saturday morning to bits of news about the devastating fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland late Friday night. Friends posted messages on social media, expressing concern for loved ones who were at the music event and who hadn’t been heard from. I clicked on the party invitation for the show that had taken place there and noticed that a friend of mine had marked “interested” on the invitation and suddenly I was worried for him too. I couldn’t tear myself away from local news coverage of the fire and got sadder and sadder as I learned more about the lost and the dead (36 people died, making it the deadliest fire in the U.S. in 13 years). As days went by and names were announced, I found out that those who had perished were friends of friends. It was an underground music event that drew independently-minded artists to the space in Oakland. It could have easily been me or my friends.
Many people have been expressing that sentiment and those of us who are involved with college radio are very likely to have been to music shows in similarly funky venues. When I first saw photos of the Ghost Ship, it had the familiar look of offbeat places that I’ve been to. On that initial glance at mood-lit pictures of the instrument and antique-filled space, I was intrigued. Having grown up going to thrift stores and antique shows with my family, I’m drawn to out-of-the-ordinary decor; which is probably why I enjoy artist spaces and college radio stations that are full of personality.
I realize also that many of us have admittedly taken risks by going to see music in dangerous settings, whether in a jam-packed club, in someone’s dark basement or in a warehouse. A friend of mine told me that she’s been thinking about all of the clubs and venues where she’s seen bands play, many of which have limited exits. Even though she knows she’s taken risks, she said she’d do it again. We take our chances and set aside fears to do what we love.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m angry that the Ghost Ship was particularly unsafe. After seeing the less glamorous images of wonky plumbing, makeshift heating and piles of trash, I have big concerns. For the moment, though, I’m not going to rant or place blame; I just want to mourn for the creative individuals who have sadly passed on.
As the names of those lost in the fire have been confirmed, I’m saddened to hear about all of these amazing lives cut short, including students, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, sound artists, singers, writers, ‘zine enthusiasts and college radio DJs. Unsurprisingly, there are many people with radio connections. University of California, Berkeley’s college radio station KALX wrote that four of its volunteers died in the fire: Chelsea Faith Dolan (DJ Cherushii), Griffin Madden (DJ Laura), Vanessa Plotkin and Jennifer Morris.
Additional victims include photographer Amanda Allen Kershaw, who had a college radio past when she was a student at Bridgewater State University. According to the Boston Globe, she hosted an ’80s music show. Another former radio DJ, Ben Runnels (aka Charlie Prowler of the band Introflirt), died in the fire. He’d been on the air in Massachusetts at WQRC, at WBTN (as Program Manager and Station Engineer) and at alternative station WEQX, also in Vermont. Most recently he was doing the show The Croon Wave for Bombshells Radio. Strawberry Tongue’s Dawn Marie writes, “Ben’s show, The Croon Wave, debuted on Bombshells Radio on March 3, 2016. His style was pure perfection and class. He made my somewhat kitschy station remarkably sexy and professional. Again, I was blown away, not only by his passion for music, his recording production, his detail for perfection, but, also by his genuineness. He inspired me to work even harder, and to strive for more.”
The San Francisco Chronicle writes about musician Feral Pines’ high school radio past at WWPT in Westport, Connecticut, saying, “at Staples High School, she hosted a radio show on the campus station, introducing Ska to student listeners.”
Many of the folks lost in the fire had intersected with San Francisco Bay Area college radio, even if they weren’t radio hosts themselves. Sound engineer and musician Barrett Clark (Katabatik and the Press Democrat have nice tributes) was friends with many KFJC volunteers and had also performed live on KFJC DJ Belladonna’s radio show. As was the case with many of the other underground musicians who perished or are missing following the fire (including Cash Askew of the band Them are Us Too, Johnny Igaz of Nackt, Chelsea Faith Dolan of Cherushii, Ben Runnels and Denalda Nicole Renae of Introflirt, Travis Hough of Ghost of Lightning, Joseph Matlock who performed as Obsidian Blade and Joey Casio, and Jason McCarty of Dilatedears, Alienslang, Sabreteeth, Nerfbau and many other projects), Clark’s music, under various monikers, including POLAR and R.M.S., could be heard on various college radio stations.
I’m imaging that in the weeks to come, we’ll learn of more radio folks and I would love to hear their stories. My heart aches for the friends and families of everyone lost in the fire. If you’d like to lend support to those affected by the fire, some options are listed here. Numerous vigils and benefits have been taking place since the fire, including some upcoming events in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Update: I just learned that musician and visual artist Jason McCarty (also known as Jsun McCarty) worked on an interesting radio project while a student in the new genres class “Hidden Noise: Record Label Project” at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) with instructor Julio Cesar Morales (who also started a pirate radio station at SFAI!). According to the Southern Exposure website, his work was part of the Neighborhood Radio Project that included, “DeyCast, an experimental radio program. Sound installations by Mike Daddona and Jsun McCarty.”