Thursday, January 27, 2011


Shut down community radio.

2011 is off to a bumpy start with the Arizona shootings, the attempt of House Republicans to repeal health care reform, and now the elimination of KUSF FM by USF university officials, who, in a secret move obviously meant to forestall any public discussion, sold off the station’s license to KDFC on January 20th.

I won’t take time to deliver an elegy for KUSF—either you loved it as I did, or else ignored it, and that was pretty much it. And I won’t bother to heap abuse upon the bastards who simply shut down the station without a word of warning—a volunteer broadcaster was simply told to get up and leave in the middle of his broadcast—or upon the current president of USF, who in his public statement cynically suggested that he looked forward to KUSF’s glorious future as an online broadcasting station—as if an ipod could replace listening to FM radio in your car or home or workplace.

What concerns me is the effect this has on the production of culture in San Francisco. It may help to view the matter historically. When I got here in mid-sixties, KPFA was the only station that devoted several hours each week to recordings, interviews, discussions of local modern composers and musicians living and working in the Bay Area. Thanks to the efforts of Carl Stone and Charles Amirkhanian and a number of volunteers, KPFA helped establish the careers of musicians, some of whom soon enjoyed nationwide reputations —Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, the Kronos Quartet, to mention just a couple—and also brought news and periodic updates from the Mills College composing program, Stanford computer-music lab, and other local institutions that sponsored modern music performance and composition.

The KPFA Music Department—which I co-directed for a year—also pioneered brand-new musical genres not heard anywhere else in the Bay Area: early music, world music, space music, and punk. As at KUSF, most of the KPFA broadcasters were volunteers—real enthusiasts and often very knowledgeable about the material they programmed.

Unfortunately somewhere towards the end of Reagan One, all this got chucked out when it was decided to double the amount of political programming at KPFA. The traditional Morning Concert from 9-11am was scrapped. World music was now taken to mean salsa; culture gave way to politics and current affairs, interspersed with pop music from Mexican radio.

But also in the 1980’s something marvelous happened: there was a huge eruption of musical productivity in the San Francisco pop music scene, with an amazing variety of new bands and music clubs to accommodate them. They were largely punk-derived garage bands, but there were many blues bands early on, with electronic and synth bands developing in the 90’s. It was a bee-hive of experimentation and, remarkably, it was even financially self-sustaining to an extent thanks to the clubs around town.

At the top of all this chaos sat KUSF, on the air with volunteer broadcasters from midnight to 6pm Mo-Fri, covering the whole scene in exactly the way that community radio excels: savvy people sorting out and broadcasting the best of it, interviewing the musicians, sampling the product, promoting local concerts and new recordings.

Contrast this with what happened at KDFC, the local commercial classical music station. Following a horrible trend that started in the 70’s, it chose to broadcast classical music as a species of “elevator music” or Muzak, as one called it. The station became computer-automated, meaning that hundreds of hours of pre-recorded material were sorted and broadcast by computer. You really didn’t need to have a human being present at the station at all, except an engineer to fix a machine that broke down. Certainly you didn’t want anyone around who actually gave a shit about classical music, understood the difference between a good performance or a mediocre one, or who programmed modern composition that was the slightest bit dissonant.

My point here is that there are different ways that one can handle and manipulate “culture.” You can take the SF Hotel and Restaurant Tax revenues and hand them over to the “Big Seven,” the leading cultural institutions in the city, beginning with the symphony and opera, that require monster infusions of money to operate. But that’s not creating culture—it’s reproducing culture, at best spending mega-sums of resources on some highly-nuanced interpretation of cultural artifacts that arose long before any of us were even born. As marvelous as our orchestra or opera may be, the big bucks are going mainly to maintain a sort of acoustic museum, an arena where little will happen to disturb the comfort zone of the audience, (explaining incidentally the current institutional obsession with John Adams’ work).

So now KUSF FM, which has done so very much to generate and create culture in San Francisco for thirty-four years, has disappeared forever, unless the FCC unexpectedly proves responsive to community protests. Good-bye Deejay Schmeejay, Stereo Steve, Irwin Swirinoff, Terrible Ted, Natalie and Jet and all the rest of you—you were completely awesome, and long may you wave—hopefully somewhere else within earshot, if the stereo gods are favorable.