When Carhartt WIP Radio launched 10 years ago, few would have predicted the look and sound of digital broadcasting. It has since been reconfigured and reinvented by independent innovators. Online-niches have been carved out, to showcase a diverse range of sounds. Against a backdrop of retro-futurist illustrations of Radio City, the now-defunct hub of pirate radio in the 1960s, we speak to Susan Carpenter, an O.G. of LA’s pirate radio scene, and ask our collaborators and contemporaries: What is the future of radio?
Fatigued by the banality of mainstream radio in San Francisco in the mid-nineties, then-freelance journalist, Susan Carpenter, decided to take matters into her own hands. Armed with a radio transmitter and driven by a love of music, Carpenter entered the fray on her own terms in 1995, embarking on a journey into pirate-radio with the launch of LA-based station, KBLT.
What started as a two-hour show each night, hosted out of Carpenter’s bedroom, became a 24-hour network boasting over a hundred contributors, playing everything from rock and jazz to hip-hop and electronica. By 1998, KBLT was hosting live performances by bands including Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Mazzy Star and Jane’s Addiction. Carpenter had taken the station from her closet to Rolling Stone magazine and CBS News.
‘Passionate. If we don’t feel it, we don’t stream it.'
Nicholas Lewis – Editorial director at The Word Radio, Brussels
Today, Carpenter is a writer and (legal) broadcaster for Southern California station, KPCC-FM, and her work in pirate radio paved the way. We meet to discuss about her role in the pirate radio scene of the 1990s, where she details her humble beginnings with KBLT and the community of independent musicians and label-owners in Los Angeles. From competing for the airwaves with other pirates to dodging the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.), Carpenter talks us through starting her own station through to the moment she closed the closet doors and ceased transmission for good.
Sean McAuliffe – Managing Director at NTS Radio, London
Morna: In 1995 you moved to San Francisco and launched the station KPBJ. Did you feel connected with the other pirate stations operating out of California? Did you ever interact with each other?
Sue: It’s weird how, when you start doing it, other pirates begin noticing you’re there. So, you do make contact with people. Up in San Francisco, the first engineer for my station had his own pirate station. He came to me. When I came to LA, even though it’s super spread out here, there were so few spots to squeeze in on the dial, so all of us were pretty much just using 104.7, and so we just sort of found each other because we were bleeding into each other’s stations, occasionally.
I feel like I knew everybody else who was operating on 104.7. I wouldn’t say that it was really friendly because there was a little bit of an unspoken turf war; we were all battling for the same thing, our right to be on the air. But when I had a scare with the F.C.C, when they were looking for me in 1998, it was another station on the same frequency that called one of my DJs to say, “Hey they’re after you.” They could’ve let me go down, but they didn’t. So, I would say it was co-opetition.
Morna: Were there any obstacles you faced when setting up your LA station, KBLT? Aside from the F.C.C hunt…
Sue: I didn’t know anybody. That was the first hurdle. But then it just spread like fucking wildfire. Like everybody knew about it, everybody wanted in on it. It was crazy, what happened. I would never in a million years have predicted it because I was just sitting alone, basically in a closet for a month, DJing for two hours by myself each night [laughs], just hoping that somebody out there was going to listen and be interested. But it really takes people – it takes other people! I would never have been successful if it hadn’t been for a very small group of people in the music community in LA… If you want it to be anything, it really is about community and the community just grew around this thing.
Morna: Was there a turning point where you thought, “woah, this is huge, what is happening?”
Sue: I think it was when I started hearing from so many people. The station started as just two hours a night, then I had enough people that it was just me for one of those shifts and then... I can’t even remember exactly how quickly that even happened, but it seems like I just kept adding to the schedule because more and more people were wanting to get in on it. I can’t remember the specifics of when it turned into a 24-hour station, but it wasn’t slow.
Morna: Were there any points prior to when you got busted in 1998 that the F.C.C were trying to get you?
Sue: I always felt that they were, but I think that a lot of it was probably imagined. I don’t think that they knew about me. You know it’s actually weird that I got away with it for as long as I did, because I didn’t have any incidents up in San Francisco in 1995. I didn’t have any for the first two years I was in LA either. So, I got away with it for three good years, up until that summer of ‘98.
Morna: What happened?
Sue: We went up there, set up our equipment, plugged in and left. We turned it on and we had a couple glorious weeks of broadcasting to all of LA, hearing from people we had never heard from before because the higher you go with a signal like that, the more reach you’ve got.
‘Offerings that honor human curiosity. A multiplicity of micro-broadcasters in every sonic niche, untethered to time and space.’
Mark "Frosty" McNeill – Co-founder and Creative Director of Dublab, Los Angeles.
A lot of people called in and were really ecstatic about what we were doing. And that was what gave us the high profile. So, the F.C.C was definitely on to us from then… One day they just flipped off the transmitter. I went back, crawling up to the top of the stairs in the building, and flipped it back on. We were trying to figure out who turned it off because they didn’t clip any cables, they just turned off the power. Then, the same thing happened the next day and I was just like a rat drawn to the cheese in a trap. I went back again and that’s when the F.C.C was actually there. I met them in the stairwell and I think they were surprised to see me. Like, what is this person doing in the stairwell, on the 22nd floor? And you know, they gave me the thumb and said, “Is that yours?”, and I’m the worst liar! So, I was like… “Yeah!” [laughs] So anyways, it was a very low-key ending. We didn’t have a live phone line into the studio, because I thought that would’ve been a tip-off to the F.C.C. So, what we had was a voicemail number. The station that was operating on the same frequency as me was operating out of the University of Southern California, which is about 10 miles from where I was, in Silver Lake. Someone from USC called one of our DJs because he was a friend, and he called me and said “the F.C.C has just been here – they thought that your station was us. You should go dark.” So, I turned off the transmitter and we went dark for a couple of months.
This was a pre-9/11 world. We thought it was no longer safe to be broadcasting live from my apartment, so we figured we’d send a very low signal from my apartment to a rig on top of a high-rise in Hollywood. It took us a couple of months to get that whole thing built. I don’t know if you know LA at all, but it was at the corner of Sunset and Pine, really the belly of the beast of Hollywood. It was on top of a 22-storey high-rise that already had a ton of antennas up there. We showed up with antenna masts and all this electronic equipment, and the guard didn’t ask any questions. It was just three of us, and the guard just held the elevator door open for us. No questions asked.
‘The future of radio is hopefully one that is led by marginalized voices.’
Sarra Wild –– Founder of OH141
Morna: Were they brutal in any respect? I kind of imagine the F.C.C as these guys in suits with sunglasses and tasers!
Sue: Oh, the whole thing is so not Hollywood [laughs]! Despite being in Hollywood, the whole thing was completely not Hollywood. It was just a pair of guys that were just field agents for the F.C.C in khaki cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts. That look. Just like, the total ‘enginerd.’ I was just as surprised to see them as they were to see me, with my jean shorts and go-go boots, you know? They said, “Well, you can either give us the equipment or we can fine you.” I was a freelance writer scraping by at that point, so it wasn’t like I had or wanted to spend money on a fine. So, I was like, “take it.” It was a very humble end to what had been a very exciting few years.
Morna: Given the rise of streaming services and the way we currently consume music and media, how do you see the future of radio? What do you think it will look like in five or ten years time?
Sue: I mean, I’m working for a place that’s wrestling with that question on a daily basis. I think that the big threat within five, seven, or possibly twelve years from now, is that autonomous cars are going to change how we listen to radio. You no longer have a captive audience, people can be in a car but they don’t have to have their eyes on the road. They can be watching television (iPhones and iPads, etc.). I think that’s going to be what happens. But that’s what happens with every new media. It just reduces what has already existed; it doesn’t mean it puts it out of business. It’s just smaller.
Having worked for newspapers, as well as traditional radio, I feel that there could be a time when young people are interested in being hands-on – sort of like what’s happening with food. But where they’re making their own newspapers again, and they’re making their own radio where people are coming in to meet face-to-face. I think [the future] is going to be smaller groups of people – people who are really passionate, just deciding to adopt something that a lot of people thought was on life support. I can see there always being an appetite for that.