Radio radio!

As the battle to save KUSF continues, why doesn't SF have an awesome radio station?


Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio, as the Ramones once quizzed us, ever so long ago? If not that "Video Killed the Radio Star"-era iteration, a leather-clad punky nostalgia for Murray the K and Alan Freed, then do you remember college rock when it became the name of a musical genre in the early 1990s?

I'm trying to make out its faint strains now: a sound nominally dubbed rock, but as wildly eclectic and widely roaming as the winds blowing me over the Bay Bridge on this blustery, rain-streaked afternoon. I'm not imagining it. New, shaken-and-stirred PJ Harvey nudging family-band throwback the Cowsills. Nawlins jazzbos Kid Ory and Jimmy Noone rubbing sonic elbows with winsome Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. Brit electropoppers Fenech-Soler bursting beside Chilean melody-makers Lhasa. The ancient Popul Vuh tangling with the bright-eyed art-rock I Was a King. It's an average playlist for KALX 90.7 FM, the last-standing free-form sound in San Francisco proper — though it hails from across the bay in Berkeley.

But what about SF's own, KUSF? A former college radio DJ and assistant music director at the University of Hawaii's KTUH and the University of Iowa's KRUI, I'm one of those souls who's searching for it far too late, even though I benefited from my time in college radio, garnering a major-league musical education simply flipping through the dog-eared LPs and listening to other jocks' shows. Like so many music fans, I got lost — searching for the signal and repelled by commercial radio's predictable computerized playlists, cheesy commercials, and blowhard DJs — and found NPR.

Today, I'm testing the signals within — the health of music on SF terra firma radio — by driving around the city, cruising City Hall, bumping through SoMa, and dodging bikes in the Mission. KALX's signal is strong on the noncommercial side of the dial, alongside the lover's rock streaming from long-standing KPOO 89.5 and the Strokes-y bounce bounding from San Jose modern rock upstart KSJO 92.3, whose tagline promises, "This is the alternative." But KSJO's distinct lack of a DJ voice and seamless emphasis on monochromatic Killers-and-Kings-of-Chemical-Romance tracks quickly bores, slotting it below its rival, Live 105.

Dang. I wind my way up Market to Twin Peaks. Waves of white noise begin to invade a Tim Hardin track. KALX's signal fades as the billowing, smoky-looking fog rolls majestically down upscale Forest Hill to the middle-class Sunset. But I can hear it -- with occasional static -- on 19th Avenue, and later, in the Presidio and Richmond.

Throughout, KUSF's old frequency, 90.3, comes through loud and clear — though now with the sound of KDFC's light-classical and its penchant for swelling, feel-good woodwinds. The music is so innocuous that to rag on it feels as petty and mean as kicking a docile pup. But I get my share of instrumental wallpaper while fuming on corporate phone trees. It's infuriating to realize that it supplanted KUSF, the last bastion of free-form radio in SF proper. Where is the free-form rock radio? This is the city that successfully birthed the format in the 1970s, with the freewheeling, bohemia-bred KSAN, and continued the upstart tradition with pirate stations such as SF Liberation Radio. Doesn't San Francisco deserve its own WFMU or KCRW?



Online radio — including forces like Emeryville's Pandora and San Diego's Slacker Radio — provides one alternative. This is true for listeners who use the TiVo-like Radio Shark tuner-recorder to rig their car (still the primo place to tune in) to listen to online stations all over the country. The just-launched cloud-based DVR also widens the online option.


And that would be KUSF. Thanks for the article.

Posted by TooManyHipsters on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 7:56 am


We've known each other for a long time and I want to thank you for the best article of all on what is happening to the radio landscape in San Francisco.

After 9 years at KUSF (and 30 in all in professional radio where I survived the Clear Channels, Infinity's and others) this is all really, really scary.

I have been searching for our Paul Allen for years and have found a couple who could, but won't because they know that they will lose money and remember Paul Allen made his investment in a very different economy - it was the boom and we'll not likely see that again in our lifetimes.

So, yes, many of us are on Radio Valencia, or stations in other cities like IndieSF where there is still great radio going on even if you have to work a lot harder to get it!


Dennis The Menace

Posted by Dennis The Menace on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

Great article, Kimberly Chun, thanks for covering this important story. KUSF was part of the cultural fabric of San Francisco, and there's a terrible hole where it once was. It was the last great thing on the FM dial in SF, and it is sorely missed.

I too have taken refuge online. Pandora is cool, but there's not a lot of new music discovery going on there - mostly catalog stuff from major artists. "Like this and you might like that" style. It has its place. For college radio / old school FM radio deejay style I like - a great little site with playlists curated by mp3 bloggers who basically function the same way that pre-corporate-suckballs FM deejays did. is also good - less curated, more chaos, but I've gotten lucky there too. Only thing missing from all of these is the human voice, back-announcing something you just heard for the first time and want to remember. I miss KUSF!

To get involved helping KUSF come back from the dead, check out:!/SaveKUSF

Long live KUSF! Long live Pirate Cat! Mearrrrrrr

Posted by Guest on Mar. 09, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

...about our free enterprise system and what is you love about Communism so much? Why do you want the gov't to give you everything instead of getting off your lazy butts and working for a living? And why do you hate oridinary people who work for a living and what the majority of the American public likes and why do you want to cram your weirdo Rotting Scabs, Festering Boils and DJ La-Z Bum down the throats of the majority? What part of "majority rule" don't you understand?

And i hope you Communist homsexuals stop infringing on my First Amendment rights and not only post this, but my previous post. What is your problem with free speech and why are you infringing on the rights of the WHITE MALE CHRISTIAN PATRIOT MAJORITY, WHO ARE YOUR SUPERIOR AUTHORITIES AND MUST BE OBEYED AT ALL TIMES?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 10, 2011 @ 8:54 am

I was sad and a little angry about the sub-title of your article: "...why doesn't SF have an awesome (and/or "great") radio station?"; what is not "great" or "awesome" about KPOO and KALW? No radio station is all things to all peeps but both of these deserve mention. KPOO, mentioned in passing, isn’t just "lover's rock", they play a wide range of R&B, soul, rap and jazz. Pretty awesome in my humble opinion, pretty great, too. KALW, which wasn't even mentioned, except as an "NPR station", has great and awesome music programming in addition to local news, intelligent call-in shows and public services, such as the Unified School District's school board meeting. Sure it lacks the hip music KCRW has and KUSF had, unless you count "Bluegrass Signal", "Folk Music and Beyond", "A Patchwork Quilt", "Then and Now", "Music from Other Minds", "Fog City Blues" and probably the best music show ever (again IMHO!), "Tangents"! Okay, maybe not all that hip ('cept for the bluegrass, of course!), but still really good programming! Keep in mind KUSF wasn't always "cutting edge" college music, either. They had all sorts of programs in other languages, orchestral music, review shows. It will surely be missed by a wide but probably not very deep slice of the listening populace. Part of the problem , I think, is few people listen to radio anymore. I very rarely run into someone who knows what KALW or KPOO is or where they could be found, and KALW's been around for 70 years now (longer than KQED!). But to return to my original complaint, I sure would love to see the Bay Guardian keep it’s or it’s reporter’s (what really should be humble) opinions off the front page, but then again I could be called one of them ol’ traditionalist cranks whose first job was delivering a newspaper and remembers “current events” classes, when we were required to cut out a news article and list the Who, What, Why, When and Where (do schools even try to do that anymore?). And who likes the Op/Ed page, and likes it on the last full page of the first section, where it belongs. Just a little humility, please?

Posted by Guest on May. 24, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

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