As the battle to save KUSF continues, why doesn't SF have an awesome radio station?
THE FIGHT TO SAVE KUSF
The University of San Francisco has touted the sale of KUSF's frequency and the station's proposed shift to online radio as a teaching opportunity. But the real lesson may be a reminder of the value of the city's assets — and how easily they can be taken away. "We're learning how unbelievably sacred bandwidth is on the FM dial," says Irwin Swirnoff, who was a musical director at the station.
Swirnoff and the Save KUSF campaign hope USF will give the community an opportunity to buy the university's transmitter, much as Southern Vermont College's WBTN 1370 AM was purchased by a local nonprofit.
For Swirnoff and many others, listener-generated playlists can't substitute for the human touch. "DJs get to tell a story through music," he explains. "They're able to reach a range of emotions and [speak to] the factors that are in the city at that moment, its nature and politics. Through music, they can create a moving dialogue and story."
Swirnoff also points to the DJ's personally selective role during a time of corporate media saturation and tremendous musical production. "In the digital age, the amount of music out in the world can be totally overwhelming," he says. "A good station can take in all those releases and give you the best garage rock, the best Persian dance music, everything. One DJ can be a curator of 100 years of music and can find a way to bring the listener to a unique place."
Local music and voices aren't getting heard on computer-programmed, voice-tracked commercial stations despite inroads of satellite radio into local news. In a world where marketing seems to reign supreme, is there a stronger SF radio brand than the almost 50-year-old KUSF when it comes to sponsoring shows and breaking new bands for the discriminating SF music fan? "People in the San Francisco music community who are in bands and are club owners know college radio is still a vital piece in promoting bands and clubs," says Waits. "There are small shows that are only getting promotion over college radio."
"It was a great year for San Francisco music, and we [KUSF] got to blast it the most," Swirnoff continued. "It's really sad that right now you can't turn on terrestrial radio and hear Grass Widow, Sic Alps, or Thee Oh Sees, when it's some of the best music being made in the city right now."
PIRATE CAT-ASTROPHE — AND THE DRIVE TO KEEP RADIO ALIVE
Aside from KUSF, the only place where you could hear, for instance, minimal Scandinavian electronics and sweater funk regularly on the radio was Pirate Cat. The pirate station was the latest in a long, unruly queue, from Radio Libre to KPBJ, that — as rhapsodized about in Sue Carpenter's 2004 memoir, 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio — have taken to the air with low-power FM transmitters.
After being shut down by the FCC and fined $10,000 in 2009, Pirate Cat is in limbo, further adrift thanks to a dispute about who owns the station. Daniel "Monkey" Roberts' sale of Pirate Cat Café in the Mission left loyal volunteers wondering who should even receive their $30-a-month contributions. Roberts shut down the Pirate Cat site and stream on Feb. 20. Since then, some Pirate Cat volunteers have been attempting to launch their own online stream under the moniker PCR Collective Radio.
"We would definitely start our own station," says Aaron Lazenby, Pirate Cat's skweee DJ and a Radio Free Santa Cruz vet. "The question now is how to resolve the use of Pirate Cat so we don't lose momentum and lose our community. We all love it too much to let it fizzle out like that."