Monthly Archives: February 2011

KUSF: Radio Whose Door You Could Knock On

“No family or family traditions, no religion, no community, no vocational calling, no passions, and no ‘being comfortable in your own skin’ or ‘knowing who you are.’ They lack the nourishment they need to gain existential weight. How can people like this view the external world as anything but inhospitable, not worthy of trust, and phony? There is no way they can’t hate it much of the time.”
–Dick Meyer, “Why We Hate Us” (Three Rivers Press, 2008)

This quote is from a book I started reading a year ago, and which I’ve been alternatively enlightened by, pissed off by, and obsessed by ever since. Meyer, an old-school journalist who advanced through the ranks of CBS and NPR in Washington, is talking about unhappy Americans. Though we have numerous reasons to be happy – affluence, mobility, political freedom – we’re existentially exhausted, says Meyer, by too many choices and a general culture of phoniness we just can’t trust.

By now, all of my friends in San Francisco are fighting the hostile takeover and castration of KUSF 90.3fm, once the independent college radio bedrock of our town. My friend Jennifer Waits of KFJC 89.7fm has been doing some excellent reporting on the story. The terrestrial signal has been taken over by Classical Public Radio Network, 90% of which is owned by the University of Southern California. KUSF as we knew and loved it literally had its plug pulled mid-song on the morning of January 18. Some DJs tried to get answers, to no avail.

Yet the “student radio” format, we’re told, will continue broadcasting in an online-only format with the call letters KUSF.

So the question becomes: what’s the big deal then? If everything’s online nowadays anyway, can’t we just be happy with the same content delivered via a different and perhaps more current medium?

Myer’s “Why We Hate Us,” with its emphasis on commitment to one’s community, keeps coming to mind. I cannot, and will not, have the same emotional and cultural relationship to a digital stream that I have to a broadcast signal licensed and by definition rooted in an educational institution founded in 1855 and located 20 blocks up the road from me.

And I enjoy Internet-only radio. I ransack every iTunes radio folder like a tourist. Yet there’s only so much it can really do for me.


About a month ago I was listening to some silly music stream from Italy, just to check it out. Most of it was crap, then suddenly there’s this incredible song I need to know the name of.

Good luck, sister. The stream was “powered” by some faceless entity whose website told you nothing. Googling the stream name just gave you an Italian supermarket chain that uses the stream for their happy shopper music.

In my experience this is fairly typical of net “radio.” We chose to take the human connection out of presenting music a long time ago. Nobody back-announces, if you get the song’s metadata it’s often inaccurate, and anyway who the hell ARE you playing me this? Sure, you may be just an algorithm but did someone set you in motion? Where are you geographically located? Do you have a heartbeat or a name? If you don’t care that much about me, don’t expect me to care that much about you.

And that, says Meyer, is so much of Why We Hate Us. The Internet makes many things possible, but more often than not it enables a sort of “screw you, find it yourself” attitude on the part of culture-makers, like music programmers, who assume you’ve got the time, inclination, and technology to go poking around for something. What if I’m too poor to have a computer, and I’m hearing this song in a cafe? What if looking it up for myself feels lonely, boring, and alienating? Having that information provided to me, even electronically, feels as though someone somewhere has been polite.

And an actual back-announce – even an annoying one? Too much to ask for. The next generation will not know how to process that degree of human intimacy.

The technology itself may be morally neutral. But combine it with the malaise of rootlessness that defines our culture, and it’s like pouring gasoline on fire.

I don’t want an Internet-only KUSF. I don’t need one more meaningless piece of culture that could come from anywhere, be created by anyone, whose door I cannot knock on and whose eyes I cannot look into. I, and my community members and fellow music freaks, are after connection that’s accountable, human, and real.

Another friend, Irwin Swirnoff, known and loved as KUSF’s DJ Irwin, has been a key figure in protesting the station’s sale. Swirnoff’s Sleeves on Hearts show was a jewel in San Francisco’s broadcast crown, an edgily romantic tsunami wave of singer-songwriters, melodic pop, and local sounds, all presented with a uniquely sweet, made-for-radio enthusiasm that fairly hugged you through the microphone.

Swirnoff has his own beef with Internet-only broadcasting: “The internet is NOT free. Not everyone has access to it. We are mindful of the wide range of the community we were serving.”

Jennifer Waits also cites free access as a chief gift of real radio: “…it’s much more democratic than online. It’s magical and it’s FREE. When the power goes out and the earthquakes, riots and hurricanes come, we’ll still be able to tune in to terrestrial radio (take a look at Haiti – radio was a savior after their devastating earthquake) on our hand-crank radios.”

Then there’s the wee matter of broadening your musical horizons: “I think the difference between [terrestrial radio] and algorithms/search engines/iPods/etc. is that when exploring music online most people are looking for something in particular….By narrowing the search, they are missing out on difficult to categorize, unexpected gems that might not even exist in digital form. These are the types of sounds that a live DJ might offer up on a college or community radio show featuring hand-picked music. Think: vinyl thrift store finds, hand-made cassettes, and obscure international sounds.”

When I named this blog Civilization Party, I was serious. I’m for civilization. I’m for people committing to one other and creating good, enjoyable things that make us better people. I’m not an arms-folded hipster. I believe in strong public institutions and I’ll gladly shout “Rah! Rah!” with the crowd if there is something genuinely worth cheering. The old KUSF, though it was not perfect and like everyone else I aired my grievances among friends the way I would about a cranky but beloved relative, was something genuinely worth cheering.

Visit Read up, join them on Facebook, make a donation. WFMU’s “KUSF in Exile” simulcast, live from Amoeba Records on Haight Street, was shared by college radio stations all over this country in solidarity. It’s starting to feel like a revolution out there.

Who knows? If we get our station back we may even stop hating us.