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Beyond the Dial: Pirate Radio Packs Up and Moves to the Unregulated Wilderness of the Internet 

Wednesday, Dec 4 2013
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The oldest and most storied station of them all, San Francisco Liberation Radio at liberationradio.net, was very much on the FM band, at 93.7, once upon a time. The station was famously raided in 2003, and while most of the staff dispersed after that — including Radio Valencia's Rosenberg, who was also variously on Pirate Cat and FCC Free Radio — the station continues online, seemingly a one-man show run by Tony Thomas. According to the gloriously outdated yet still functioning website, the station features five shows, four of which feature talk, jazz, soul, and blues; the fifth is called This Is Something (genre: "Enhance Your Knowledge"). From a certain perspective, this current incarnation of the local stalwart is the most pirate-y of them all, one man putting out the stuff that he loves, not attempting to emulate the structure of a "legitimate" radio station the way the others do.


There's something odd about walking into a store, restaurant, or other public place in late 2013 and hearing a radio commercial. It means that the proprietors have decided to go just about as old-fashioned as it is possible to go, treating their customers to the whims of mainstream radio, even though the technology that allows someone to choose what music gets played is abundant and affordable.

Sometimes, that commercial might be on Pandora or Spotify, but it's still a testament to how powerful the lure (or habit) of radio can be; if you're tech-savvy enough to use a streaming service, odds are you also know how to just hit "shuffle." But what you lose in control, you make up for in the romance of not knowing what comes next. The same holds true for satellite radio, but it's on a different playing field entirely, being subscription-based and thus commercial-free, and found mostly in cars. And satellite radio has DJs, which commercial radio may or may not — but even when they do, the commercial radio DJs often have little input into what gets played.

Community radio, by contrast, seems to be more of a personal experience for the listener, listened to through headphones rather than used as a turn-it-on-and-ignore-it ambience for a business. "During the day we see most of our listeners coming from our website," says BFF.fm's Guest, "when I suspect most people are in their cubes toiling away." During the night, however, her station is finding niches to fill, some of them very niche indeed — such as providing a soundtrack for the San Francisco Berlin-Style Ping-Pong League at its Monday night parties, a boozy mix of table tennis and musical chairs which has bounced around the city over the past year and is currently at the Secret Alley on Capp (which also houses BFF.fm's studio). "We've worked with them to put DJs in the time slots during their weekly games that play tunes that cater to the crowd — more danceable ambient music." (Including, but not limited to, witch house.)

In addition to being online-only, another shift in community radio stations is that the majority of them offer downloadable archives of their shows. It's the kind of time-shifting that the public has come to expect from TV thanks to TiVo and Video-On-Demand (the ability to record programs dates back to the VCRs of the late 1970s, but recording in earnest really took off with the DVR era), and which is still problematic to the major streaming services, which have to deal with legal issues regarding what songs get played when, and how the artists get paid.

Community stations are also embracing the new mobile world. SomaFM.com, an Internet-only service which began streaming drone and other niche musical styles in 2000, introduced an iPhone-friendly streaming site in June 2008, and had a proper iOS app by 2009. Of the more traditionally formatted community Internet radio stations in San Francisco, Radio Valencia is the only one to have its own smartphone apps thus far, though it seems unlikely to be the last.

Rather than a dedicated app, Mutiny Radio encourages listeners to use an app called Soundtap, which gathers the streams of more than 500 college, community, and other similarly independent-minded radio stations. The developer of the Radio Valencia app has also created the iPad-only Good Radio Tuner, which focuses on noncommercial stations as well as more esoteric streams, like the San Francisco police scanner, Birdsong.fm (which is exactly what you think), and David Byrne's Internet radio station, which plays a different genre of music every month.

One of the iTunes reviews of Good Radio Tuner praised it for what it does, but gave it a one-star review due to a lack of parental controls. In other words, it's a Danger to the Children. Like the word "fuck" or Janet Jackson's nipple, that's the kind of moral panic that often caused the FCC to swoop in on old media, and sent Howard Stern packing for satellite radio in 2005.

For now, Internet radio is beyond the FCC's reach, and in fact, the FCC claims that one of the points of its recent "Open Internet" initiative is to make sure that neither the government nor broadband providers can regulate content or "restrict innovation." (Net neutrality is a can of worms which is thankfully beyond the scope of this article.) But the FCC is a slippery bunch, and the former pirates in particular have good reasons to want the commission to stay off the 'tubes.


Officially, the FM broadcast band stretches between 88 MHZ to 108 MHZ, divided into 100 individual frequencies between 88.1 and 107.9. (Of course, 87.9 not officially being on the FM band hasn't kept pirates from using it over the years.) To legally broadcast on any of those channels, a license must be obtained from the FCC, a process which requires jumping through many hoops and forking over many dollars. Transmitting equipment is not particularly expensive, however, and many have broadcast without a license over the years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

About The Author

Sherilyn Connelly

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