HIDE THE BEER: Some advice from Sue Carpenter on running a pirate radio station out of your own apartment (Arthur, 2004)


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.

THE NEW CLOWN ON THE BLOCK: Susan Carpenter joins the circus (Arthur, 2002)


Self-described “desk-bound journalist” Susan Carpenter decided to find out firsthand and feet-first how the females of the species are transforming the 21st-century circus. Now her back hurts. Photography by Lauren Klain.

Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (January 2003). Layout by W.T. Nelson.

Xia Kemin has Ember pinned. He’s got her left leg lodged under a foot-thick gym mat while he presses her right ankle up behind her ear. Ember is crying. Kemin, the former Chinese acrobat who is her teacher, just laughs. He knows that pain is the only way Ember, a 20-year-old daycare worker and wannabe contortionist, will ever become the human pretzel she’s dreamed of.

Ember is a beginning student at San Francisco’s Circus Center, a school that teaches “anything in the air, upside down, backwards and humanly impossible” to aspiring circus performers. The Center is also my first stop before joining Ringling Brothers for a couple days as I attempt to figure out why women are still running away to join the circus–and whether they do anything more these days than sit pretty on a trapeze.

I’ve never been to the circus, not even as a child, but it’s getting harder to avoid it. Circus is everywhere, nudging itself into the public consciousness through books like Katherine Dunn’s carnivalesque Geek Love, movies such as Freaks and the neo-pagan art ritual known as Burning Man. I knew it had reached critical mass last summer when a friend from San Francisco asked if 20 of her friends could stay at my house while their gypsy caravan whirled through L.A. in a flourish of fire wands, wigs and stilts.

Circus used to mean men wrestling snakes while women in glittery unitards flew through the air in front of sticky-fingered children. That all changed when the flashy French Cirque du Soleil came to town in 1987, throwing mimes, bungee jumpers and Chinese pole dancers into the mix and attracting a more adult crowd. Circus hasn’t been the same since. Today, there are not only more circuses–and schools to train for them–but there’s also more women joining the circus, fusing their own sense of style with traditional techniques. The centuries-old art form, it seems, is finally getting a much-needed kick in the pants.

Continue reading


Ten years ago — 2002 — right about now: 70,000 free copies of the 56-page Arthur Magazine No. 1 somehow hit the streets across North America.

Thank you to everyone who helped get this train rolling.

Thank you, publisher Laris Kreslins and art director W.T. Nelson. Thank you, adfellow Jamie Fraser.

Thank you, senior advisors Mark Lewman, Paul Cullum and Shawn Mortensen (RIP).

Thank you, contributors Paul Moody, Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, Geoff Mcfetridge, Spike Jonze, Neil Hamburger, David Berman, Ian Svenonius, Dame Darcy, Eddie Dean, Joe Carducci, Camille Rose Garcia, Jason Amos, Joseph Durwin, Daniel Pinchbeck, Alan Moore, Pat Graham, Dave Brooks, Steve Giberson, Mike Castillo and John Henry Childs.

Thank you, all the agents in our improvised guerrilla distribution network across the continent.

Thank you, all the entities that spent money to advertise in our untested pages.

Thank you to everyone thanked on Page 3 of the mag: Brendan Newman, Kreslins Family, Oma, Kristaps, Gary Hustwit, Chris Ronis, Kate Sawai, Janis Sils, Bernadette Napoleon, Vineta Plume, Fred Cisterna, Richard Grijalva, Ned Milligan, Lizzy Klein, Robin Adams, Jack Mendelsohn, John Shimkonis, Prolific, Chris Young, Ed Halter, Mike Galinsky, Jim Higgins, Plexifilm Family, Alie Robotos, Domainistudios, Fistfulayen, Natalie and Zach, Janitor Sunny Side Up, Yasmin Khan, Rachel Stratton, Lady Montford, John Coulthart, Henry Childs and Joshua Sindell.

Thank you, Sue Carpenter.

Thank you, Darcey Leonard.

Thank you, John Payne and Andrew Male.

Thank you, Robin Turner.

Thank you to the bands that played Arthur’s launch party at Spaceland in Silver Lake (thank you, Jennifer Tefft): Fatso Jetson, Chuck Dukowski Sextet… I’m not sure who else.

Thank you, Matt Luem.

Thank you, Steve Appleford, for being a real journalist.

Thank you to everyone who played a role who I’ve forgotten or neglected to post here. (Please be in touch!)

And thank you to everyone who found the magazine, picked it and read it.

We’re coming back.