HIDE THE BEER
Some advice from SUE CARPENTER about running a pirate radio station out of your own apartment.
Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)
It terrified my parents, amused my friends and inspired the DJs who got involved, but for me, squatting on a piece of prime FM real estate was simply a challenge—to change a system I did not like and break the mold of my overly ordinary, and earnest, existence. Here’s what I learned in the three years I was on air in Los Angeles:
1. Don’t let a puny record collection and a laughable knowledge of music think you can’t program a radio station better than the guys who are paid to do it.
I only owned a couple dozen records when I built a radio station from scratch and began broadcasting from my bedroom. I didn’t know much about music. I just knew what I liked—and that was exactly the problem. The only music I knew was what I heard on the radio, and most of that was over-produced shlock that was over hyped and then over played. In the ‘60s, commercial FM DJs relied on their own ears to pick music. Now it’s one-size-fits-all formats programmed by suits and spun by monkeys. There’s a lot of great music out there. If you don’t know what it is, there are plenty of people who do who’d be more than happy to clue you in.
2. Just because you’re serious about what you’re doing doesn’t mean you should lose your sense of humor.
When I went on the air in 1995, all of the other micro radio operators in the Bay Area were broadcasting politics, not music. As a lefty liberal, I was sympathetic to their causes. Pro-environment, anti-establishment and generally angry around the edges, I’m sure I would have learned a lot had I listened to their programs. But I didn’t. After tuning in once, I tuned back out, turned off by their overly earnest discussions. Heavy subjects don’t need a heavy hand. Lightening up with humor doesn’t mean taking the subject lightly.
3. Don’t marry your own plans.
I had a very specific idea of how I wanted the station to sound when I started it. I wanted it to sound like college radio only better. My station wouldn’t just play indie rock—it would play only the indie rock I liked. Of course that plan was contingent on getting a bunch of DJs who shared my musical taste, which was possible. I just had to decide if that was the real purpose of unlicensed radio: to impose my musical preferences or to allow the DJs to make those decisions themselves. I decided on the latter and, in the end, wound up with programming that was far more interesting and enlightening than anything I could have dreamed up on my own.
4. If you open your private home to a public activity, prepare to be unwelcome in your own living room.
Volunteering at a pirate radio station, DJs are prepared to encounter certain things: shoddy equipment, a limited music library, unwelcome visits by the police or FCC. But no one was ready to see the station manager wandering the premises in a baby blue bathrobe and filthy pink slippers. The sight of a freshly showered woman combing out her hair and doling out advice was a little much for some people.
5. If you’re a woman, most people will have a hard time believing you run the show, especially when mechanics are involved.
Whether they work as managers, programmers or DJs, lots of women hold powerful positions in radio. It’s easy to understand what they do because the stations that employ them most likely existed before they got there. But when I tell people that my radio station started with me, a motherboard and a soldering iron and grew into a round-the-clock operation staffed with more than a hundred DJs, it’s hard for them to believe. Radio stations aren’t inherently masculine, but starting one apparently is.
6. Never keep your refrigerator stocked, especially with beer.
DJs get thirsty.
Sue Carpenter’s 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey Into Pirate Radio is published this month by Scribner’s. It is her first book.