Thursday, July 16, 2009

Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFreeRadio in San Francisco

On Monday I had the opportunity to check out a brand new low power FM (LPFM) radio station in San Francisco called FCCFreeRadio.

Located in a secret South of Market (SOMA) location, FCCFreeRadio is a micropower community radio station (they shy away from the term "pirate radio") that is broadcasting both online and at 107.3 FM without a license from the FCC. According to their website they believe that the U.S. government has granted emergency authority for broadcasters to operate without a license during time of war, including the current "war against terrorism."

Board at FCCFreeRadio

The station has been on the air since January 24th, 2009, although the studios have only been recently built. The first live show from the current studio took place on May 30th.

It was exciting to visit such a new station and it's encouraging to me that there are people who believe in radio so strongly that they are willing to start up a new terrestrial station. Thanks so much to General Manager John Miller and Program Director John Hell for taking the time to show me around their new digs.

John Hell and John Miller

Both John Miller and John Hell are enthusiastic supporters of radio and have extensive broadcast experience. Between the two of them they have worked in college radio, community radio at LPFM stations (they were both at Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco), commercial radio, and in Internet broadcasting.

They both began DJing when they were teens. John Miller started at commercial station KWNE in Ukiah and had his trial by fire when he had to stand in for the regular DJ (who was stuck in jail). He said that from then on he "got hooked" on radio and eventually became inspired by comedy, then Internet broadcasting. He's been involved with many stations since then, including a gig at All Comedy Radio on KPHX 1250AM in Phoenix which aired on 271 stations globally (including South Africa). Additionally, he's been the technical brains being a variety of stations and helped to set up a new LPFM station in Arizona: KWSS. Along with John Hell he helped Pirate Cat Radio build their new studio as well.

John Hell's DJ career started with him spinning tunes at the Ice Capades ice skating rink in Foster City. He went on to DJ at weddings and events, worked at college stations KCSM and KFJC (where he DJ'd for nearly 10 years under the moniker The Reverend Dah Wave), and was part of the crew that started Radio Free Burning Man before he joined SF Liberation Radio and Pirate Cat Radio.

John Miller told me that he'd always dreamed of doing comedy radio in the San Francisco Bay Area and was inspired by the morning show hosted by Alex Bennett back in the 1980s and 1990s on a series of stations including KMEL, KQAK and Live 105. Bennett's show at the time (he's now on Sirius satellite radio) was characterized by a regular stable of comedian guests and a live audience. John's passion for comedy comes through in the current lineup of programming on FCCFreeRadio. He's hosting a morning show that's in the spirit of the old Alex Bennett show and has a programmer on staff who is dedicated to filling the comedy shifts.

Currently FCCFreeRadio is working to recruit DJs and fill up its 2-hour shifts. They have 17 hosts and 16 shows right now in addition to John Miller's weekday morning show (Monday to Friday from 6-10am) with comedian Susan Maletta. When there is no live DJ the station runs automated music programming culled from top hits of the past several decades. John Hell was quick to point out that the automated programming is a temporary solution and isn't necessarily reflective of the more adventurous airsound that they are going for with live DJs. They hope to eventually provide live programming 24 hours a day, but for now are focusing on filling up drive-time shifts. To get a sense of some of the music programming, take a look at John Hell's archived playlists on his website.

Most of the DJs at the station have extensive radio experience already, so on-air training is pretty limited. To get a show, people are required to submit a proposal and upon approval they are trained on the equipment and given a run-down on the short list of rules (don't swear, play station promos, say the station name, and give out the studio number).

DJs at FCCFreeRadio are expected to pay monthly dues and attend monthly staff meetings. Those with music shows must bring their own music since there is no music library. Currently the studio supports the playback of CDs, mp3s, and music from laptops. John Hell told me that any money left over from staff dues will get used for projects at the station, including studio improvements like new equipment and better soundproofing. Being a low budget operation, they are also soliciting help from listeners in the form of underwriting, equipment donations, and real estate (do you live atop a mountain? they need a better spot for their transmitter).

Even with their limited resources and space, FCCFreeRadio has already taken on some interesting projects, including a live remote from a nearby auditorium. DJs regularly have in-studio guests, ranging from musicians to comedians to artists.

In my interviews with John and John I learned more about the mission of FCCFreeRadio, where they fit in to the overall radio landscape in San Francisco, and why they chose a slot on the commercial side of the dial:

Spinning Indie: What's the overall mission of your station?

John Miller: I would say to your question to the over all mission of FCCFREERADIO is to provide a place for community radio. All the staff will be doing something each week that will link their show to the community. We are putting the local back into radio.

John Hell: This is something that is ever evolving, but I know it's safe to say that part of our mission is to serve the SF community that we broadcast out of. We want to pay attention to the concerns of the neighborhood, and we strive towards being a voice for those in the neighborhood that have no voice. With that being said, we also believe that music programming should be challenging as well. We don't believe that we should be playing the "hits," from any genre or era. There are plenty of other stations in the bay area that are doing this.

We've asked the staff to take the next few weeks to think about the mission. We plan on putting it in writing and on our website within a few months. Check back.

Spinning Indie: How do you differentiate yourselves from other low power, community, and college radio stations?

John Miller: Well this question is one that I have never thought about, at least to the point that should matter. I have built a LPFM because I was without a home for my program. That's where it started... after that I am just running a station like I would run any other LPFM station. I just want my hosts to be on the top of their game, with all hosts working each week to do better for themselves and their programs.

John Hell: There is plenty of room in this largely populated and diverse bay area for many non-commercial, LPFM's. Our station is personality driven. Most of our staffers have at least 10 years radio experience; many have over 20 years experience. John Miller and I have a passion for radio as done in the days of KMPX/KSAN's "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue, KYA's Emperor Gene Nelson and Bob Mitchell; and of course the King of Pirate Radio, Wolfman Jack.

FCCFreeRadio's show log

Spinning Indie: Were you influenced/inspired by any existing radio stations?

John Miller: Well, all but 2 morning hosts are gone from the airwaves in SF. I grew up to Alex Bennett for my morning show (My program The John Miller Program with Susan Maletta has the foundation of The Alex Bennett Program with Lisa Thompson.) From KOME.... Dennis Erectus, One of the kings of working the FCC.

From KSJO Lamont and Tonelli. They have somehow been on the air in the Bay Area for over 25 years. I am personal friends with both and back in the day helped with live remotes when I could.

Last, well maybe not the last, but the last for this list...Tom Leykis. He owned afternoon drive for years and before they put him on FM he owned AM. Shame to see the talent of yesteryear not on the air.

John Hell: I was influenced by the '80s morning show of Frazer Smith, of KLOS in LA, and M. Dung of KFOG. Dung also hosted the Sunday Night Idiot Show, which he would sometimes do live at Wolfgang's (owned by the late rock impresario Wolfgang Bill Graham). I would attend those live shows as often as I could.

View into a Phantom Studio

Spinning Indie: Can you explain a bit more about how you selected 107.3 FM?

John Miller: Well I did not want to be down in the basement so I have always been on the upper side of the dial doing my radio program. So with that I went looking and found 107.3 FM was open for San Francisco proper. With that I liked being between CBS's KCBS and Cumulus station The Bone. Both huge stations with a very broad group that tune in.

The Ubiquitous Radio Station Couch

Thanks again to John Miller and John Hell for showing me around FCCFreeRadio. And kudos to them for believing in the power of local radio!

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC

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