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?
FEWER INDEPENDENTS, MORE CONSOLIDATION
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 Dar.fm also widens the online option.