She had pop stars and punks broadcasting from her bedroom, but then the FCC shut Sue Carpenter down. It was good while it lasted.
In early 1995 Carpenter, like many a twentysomething who'd moved to San Francisco from the Midwest, had by her own admission "gotten to a point in my life where I wasn't doing anything." She had an English degree, a heroin-addicted boyfriend, and a day job as an administrative assistant in a Ghirardelli Square law office. Working a side gig as head of women's programming at UC Berkeley's KALX-FM, she was unhappy with the state of Bay Area radio, even the alternative kind.
She knew nothing about pirate radio except what she'd seen in Pump Up the Volume. But she found its wildly eclectic, clandestine, underground ethos irresistibly attractive, even though she hadn't a clue about the mechanics of setting up an unlicensed station of her own -- a "low-power micro-radio station," if you want to avoid the criminal taint of the P-word.
Her first step was a rendezvous with Stephen Dunifer, the Bay Area's most notorious radio buccaneer, who founded 25-watt Free Radio Berkeley eleven years ago and whose subsequent pursuit by the FCC made headlines nationwide.
After a few false starts, KPBJ was operating out of Carpenter's small apartment. Friends and friends' friends were the DJs, changing shifts at all hours and playing whatever they liked as a low-wattage antenna broadcast on the neighborhood's best available open frequency. By 1998, Carpenter was living in Los Angeles. Working for a magazine under her real name, she operated KBLT under a pseudonym. She'd broken up with her boyfriend and hardly knew a soul in town. That wasn't true for long.
As Carpenter recounts in her new memoir 40 Watts from Nowhere, KBLT was broadcasting around the clock from the Silver Lake area and attracting an ever-increasing following of devoted Los Angeles listeners, as well as celebrity program hosts such as Mike Watt; guest DJs such as the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Flaming Lips, and Glenn Danzig; and even a live set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Mazzy Star was among the bands that eagerly agreed to play a benefit to help the station meet expenses. Late that year, the antenna was clandestinely installed atop a Hollywood high-rise, drastically boosting its signal range.
As Carpenter says today, "I actually lived a fantasy for a lot of music lovers." And not just her own fantasy, though it started out with a playlist resembling those at most alternative-rock-dominated college radio stations, and with most or all of the programming done by Carpenter herself. However, KBLT evolved into a free-form-for-all with dozens of DJs playing their personal favorites -- everything from '60s French pop (Carpenter's own enthusiasm) to a "Morning Mind Melt" described in the book as "Krautrock meets dub meets the avant-garde."
"I couldn't have programmed the station better if I tried," she says happily now.
The dream came crashing down on the day before Halloween, 1998, when the FCC took KBLT's equipment off the tower. For as much of a gap as it might fill in the lives of the music fanatics able to tune them in, such unlicensed stations are illegal. Offered a choice between signing over the gear to the feds or paying a $10,000 fine, Carpenter opted for the former. And though she did risk a separate $10,000 fine for going back on the air for a few days a month later, otherwise she hasn't taken to the airwaves again.
In the five years since the station shut down, it hasn't been all bad news for Carpenter. The very day the FCC gave her the ultimatum, she was offered an editorial position at the Los Angeles Times, where she remains a staff writer today, specializing in entertainment and culture. And she doesn't miss having her privacy invaded on an almost 24/7 basis, with DJs tromping through her bedroom in the wee hours to maintain the transmitter, and one programmer drinking himself senseless during one shift, the signal reduced to a turntable needle scraping into the label after he passed out on the air.
"It's a great thing to not have to live with a radio station in my house anymore," she laughs. "Somebody asked, would I ever do it again? And my gut reaction was 'Definitely not.' It was very, very stressful to live that way."
But as stressful as it was, a sense of community grew around KBLT. Despite its tiny wattage, the station had legions of fans.
"I really think people appreciated having that thing they could kind of rally around," Carpenter observes, "but I also think that it wouldn't have had the same sense of community had it been legal. Because it's like everybody's bonded over having to protect this special thing. It wasn't just because everybody had a love of music, and they had that in common. It was something else. It was like this special thing that needed to be saved and preserved at all costs."
As for carrying on the larger battle of continuing to pry open the airwaves to more adventurous music programming, "the only way I see myself getting involved in radio again is [as] more of a traditional activist: maybe getting involved with a nonprofit that helps legitimate, low-power FM stations get on air." But she can see how her years as a pirate, besides supplying a rich fountain of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes for a book, have helped galvanize her own creative energies: "Once you have success in one area, it kind of emboldens you in other areas."
And she hopes KBLT's success emboldens others in the troubled music world. "There are so few people taking risks anymore. When it's just a known fact that it's always the stuff that's coming from way left of center, or that's operating outside the box, that wows people and has an impact, why are people always so inclined to stick with the formula and what's been proven?"
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