Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 55 - in San Francisco

Sign in studio. Photo: J. Waits
One year ago this week, I received a message on Twitter about the impending launch of a new community radio station in San Francisco called Best Frequencies Forever. Ever since that time, I'd been hoping to visit, but wasn't able to make it until this summer. So, after following the ins and outs of the beginnings of a new station over social media, I was super intrigued to finally see the space.

On a Wednesday afternoon (June 18, 2014), I headed over to the online-only station, known as Located in the Mission District on Capp Street, it's housed inside a workshop/artist collective space called the Secret Alley.

The Secret Alley. Hallway Leads to on the left. (Photo: J. Waits)
When I arrived, it took me awhile to figure out the concept behind the space, as there weren't very many people around. I was told by Director of the Secret Alley, Noel Von Joo, that it's a "permanent fictitious environment" that serves many purposes, including as workshop, a set, and a hangout.

Amanda and Noel in Secret Alley Across from Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Some small offices off the alley are used by various artists, mainly filmmakers, and the overall space has been used for film shoots and music videos. The idea behind the place was to create an alleyway hidden from the city. It has a whimsical feel to it and it's easy to imagine that's studio is inside the hull of a ship. I was told that the station's space was meant to resemble the belly of a submarine, with a nod to steam punk and Jules Verne.

Common Area in the Secret Alley. Photo: J. Waits
Past the alley of the building, there's a large common area that contains a kitchen/cafe and an open space with windows facing the well-traveled Mission Street. The Secret Alley seems infused with a creative spirit that I sadly don't run across as often as I used to. For that reason, it was incredibly inspiring and was a great reminder to me that there are lots of hidden artistic collectives all over the city.

Looking into Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Of all the stations that I've ever visited, probably wins the prize for the most aesthetically pleasing station. Although the studio occupies a very small nook, with a wooden louver-adorned window opening onto the Secret Alley, the space is beautifully appointed with vintage furniture (including some old wooden theater chairs for seating) and artifacts. Since the station is brand new, Guest even brought in some random trophies in lieu of actually radio awards. Designers often refer to spaces or stores being "well-curated," and that's the feeling I got when feasting my eyes upon

Amanda Guest looks into the Studio. Photo: J. Waits
I love the hodgepodge of pop culture items found at many stations (from skulls to care bears to strange lamps), but the look and feel at was different. Every object seemed to be there for a reason and the space felt cozy and organized.

Wall in Studio. Photo: J. Waits founder Amanda Guest told me that after seeing the Secret Alley, she approached one of the founders about  renting office space. After mentioning that she had always dreamed about having a radio station, she was granted the space. She moved in on July 4, 2013 and for the first few months aired automated music programming. By September, 2013, the station launched with around 5 shows. After 9 months, grew to a roster of 59 shows and now airs 114 hours of live programming every week from 8am to midnight. Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Guest agreed that the physical space has provided much inspiration for the station. She told me that it's "so magical and cool...people want to be a part of it." I told her that I was impressed by all of the nice vintage furniture and spiffy headphones and turntables, mentioning that some stations can't provide those things because of theft and sloppy DJs. She said that it hasn't been a problem there, telling me that the people have been "creative" and "respectful."

Board at Photo: J. Waits
She pointed out that she wanted to have a "professional environment," and believes that it helps to foster that feeling of respect at the station. Guest has a background in college radio (one of her plaques from WMWM in Salem, Massachusetts is perched on a shelf in the studio) and was station manager of her former college station. She's also worked at other community stations, including Mutiny Radio (Spinning Indie Field Trip #54) in San Francisco. Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Guest said that she started doing radio as a hobby and that she really enjoys the "freedom to create" and the "sense of community and teamwork." Today she runs while also holding down a full-time day job. She mentioned that she learned a lot while setting up the station and is happy to see how it has grown organically. Her husband is the engineer (she says, "by default") and other volunteers have stepped up to manage various aspects of the station. During the week that I visited, a Promotions Department had just formed. Since venues had been contacting about ticket giveaways, it became clear that someone needed to manage those relationships with clubs and promoters. She said that it's been nice that people will jump in to help and told me that "everyone wants the station to succeed."

Books in the Studio. Photo: J. Waits operates much like any other college or community radio station and now has a team of Music Directors who are just beginning to report the station's charts to CMJ. When I asked Guest about some CDs in the studio, she said that they are mostly for "sound dampening," as the station is largely digital. She also told me that she also opted to line the shelves with vintage books for similar reasons. Plus, it's more aesthetically pleasing than typical sound deadening materials. Despite that caveat, there are some CDs, LPs, and cassettes in the studio for DJs to play.

DJ Nick Carpenter during his show at Photo: J. Waits
In a wonderful coincidence, I happened to visit the station when one of my friends was doing his show. The DJ, Nick Carpenter, was at the San Francisco State University station KSFS back when he was in school there and I sat in with him on that show back in 2011 (see my pictures and a station tour here). At, Carpenter was playing mostly vinyl, mixing newer material with some music from the 1980s. As I write this post, Carpenter is on the air with his final show, as he's moving out of the area.

Records spinning at Photo: J. Waits
An interesting thing about the Secret Alley is that different activities happen there on a daily basis. isn't squirreled away in a soundproof booth, so there's often noise spilling over from the other parts of the building. I was told that some of the ambient building sounds have included screams (from a horror movie tryout), sawing, and music from bands practicing. Guest said, "it's an active environment" and "there's always something weird happening."

Note posted on wall about music added to Photo: J. Waits
That vibe gets reflected to a certain extant over the air. Guest said that the programming philosophy is "largely underground," but "not totally freeform, either." Some of the musical genres played on the station include metal, rock, emo, psych, and electronic. In explaining the sound, Guest said that they are "trying to appeal to...the person...that was really into their college station."

Portable Cassette Player in Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Understandably, some of the DJs at come from college radio backgrounds. There are also some who have commercial radio experience, as well as many with no radio training at all. Additionally, some of the DJs are music bloggers and others manage venues.

Cassette tape at Photo: J. Waits
Even though has had live DJs for less than a year, the station is already garnering local press and accolades. The Bold Italic did a front page story about the station and an hour after it was published, 20 people contacted with hopes of becoming DJs. In May, 2014 the station was named the "best new Internet radio station" by the SF Weekly.

Treehouse in the Secret Alley. Photo: J. Waits
Coincidentally, after being profiled by several local papers, was approached by a few of them with show proposals. Now, the SF Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Examiner all have programs at the station.

Dolls in Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Guest said that it's interesting to have people from competing publications all on the same station. She told me that there's a "sense of collaboration" in the San Francisco Bay Area in which "even your competitors are your friends." With that idea in mind, she said that will often promote other San Francisco radio stations. She said that they will "retweet stuff from Radio Valencia," for example. She said that by promoting other community radio stations, "we make the whole landscape better." Having moved out to San Francisco to pursue "creative" opportunities, I'd definitely say that Guest has found her niche.

Floor in the ground floor entrance to the Secret Alley building. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Amanda Guest for the great tour of Here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips. I hope to have more visits from stations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois posted soon.

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