The first time Lisa Ferguson broadcast live on Kill Radio, she froze.
”Are we on the air?“ she asked Greg Bishop, who had just wrapped his own show, Radio Mysterioso.
”Can I say anything I want?“ she pressed.
”Yes,“ he replied. ”You can say ’kill the president‘ if you want.“
Ferguson leaned forward, tentatively gripped the mike, then, shaking her black-and-cobalt hair, spat out, ”Killthepresident killthepresident killthepresident!“
”I dedicated my first show to what a punk-ass coward piece of shit Clinton was for not pardoning Native American activist Leonard Peltier,“ she says. ”All the songs had themes of ’what a loser you are.‘“
”HOT CHEAP SEXY TALK.“ Atop the Davidian Building, at the intersection of Sunset, Hollywood, Hillhurst and Virgil, looms an enormous hot-pink billboard advertising Star 98.7 FM. Danny Bonaduce smirks as Jamie White, lips curled around a cigar, dangles her cleavage before all of Los Angeles. Just below the billboard is a dusty little square window — in a row of identical dusty little square windows — behind which a collective of renegade DJs meet weekly to hammer out exactly the opposite of cheap talk: decidedly noncommercial, totally uncensored, live Internet radio. They call themselves Kill Radio.
Though the building is old (Ed Wood had a space here back in the ’50s), the radio room, a stuffy office directly above the Good Luck Bar, appears to have had a face-lift in the 1970s: prefab wood paneling, stained taupe carpet, two sagging plum-velvet armchairs. ”The boss needs us. We don‘t need the boss,“ declares a poster hanging by the door. A black-and-white sign from the North American Anarchist Convention is displayed prominently beside it. And up against the glass pane overlooking the knot of streets below are a makeshift computer console, mixing board and microphone. This setup, however crude, operates as a fully functioning radio station — but instead of a transmitter on the roof, a DSL line connects it to the World Wide Web, where it broadcasts through the night, seven nights a week.
”I’d like to dedicate this music to my family,“ Matt DeMello purrs in a late-night FM voice, the kind you‘d catch in the wee hours of the morning during a cross-country road trip. ”And Amy, listen in, this is for you.“ DeMello, a native of Hawaii who once attempted the pro-surfer circuit, is as laid-back as his name, and so is his show — a flow of John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, hip-hop, jazz and blues. Gil Scott-Heron is crooning the lyrics to ”Lady Day and John Coltrane“ when the signal spits, sputters and breaks up. Then the connection goes down . . .
When it comes back up, Chris Wicke is ranting. ”My car broke down, and so I’ve been taking the bus. Which is a good thing. But the public-transportation system in this city is pathetic. It sucks. I waited an hour, at 10:30 at night, for the bus, while the pigs in Beverly Hills were driving around in their SUVs. Fuckin‘ pigs, fuckin’ Beverly Hills, fuckin‘ SUVs . . . Here’s a little R.E.M., and My Bloody Valentine.“ This is d-Central Station, a show Wicke hosts with his fiancee, Ann Sorrells. ”Next week, we‘ll have the Bus Riders Union as guest DJs, and a contest: Who can remember the last time they saw an actual video on MTV?“
It is a nonmarketable chaos that orders Kill Radio. At www.killradio.org, you’re as likely to find Quinn Russell, a 25-year-old feminist-anarchist-activist-vegan, reading, monotonously, out of a book on evolutionary theory, as Kimo Arbas (who goes by ”Mr. K984“), a Lithuanian national who claims to have painted the first hip-hop graffiti mural in his country, playing hyped-up death metal by an underground local band, or Greg Bishop, editor of Wake Up Down There!: The Excluded Middle Collection (essays on UFOs, the paranormal, psychedelia and conspiracies), conducting an in-studio interview with a friend recounting his experiences with Tijuana hookers. And sometimes, due to technological difficulties, just dead air. The music is as often political or multicultural (blackScottishbagpipe blues: ”Amazing,“ says DJ and co-founder Chris Burnett) as it is refreshingly devoid of agenda, as on Hassan Jamal‘s straight-ahead jazz show. The DJs define themselves as a collective, but the only quality that unites them is the lack of a common mindset.
Lisa Ferguson, a petite, ethereal-looking woman with luminous brown eyes and short, spiky hair, says it was Timothy Leary who inadvertently led her to Kill Radio. Leary was like a godfather to her while she was growing up on the LSD-research commune he founded with Richard Alpert in upstate New York. But in her 20s, she fled her hippie roots and bopped from one L.A. punk rock band to the next. She reunited with Leary after she heard he had cancer, and was among the friends and family at his Coldwater Canyon bedside as he died. As a last request, Leary told her to organize the children. ”He sent me on a mission to find the other children from our ’60s revolutionary heritage, whose parents were hippies, Black Panthers, etc., who were lost,“ she says. His last words to her: ”Tune back in.“
So she did. Ferguson spent four years on the road filming the documentary Children of the Revolution, and when she returned to Los Angeles last August, via anti-globalization protests in Washington, D.C., she helped organize the L.A. Independent Media Center to cover the Democratic Convention. Mainly, she worked with its radio group — which would later morph into Kill Radio. ”After the convention was over, we said, ‘We’re not going anywhere.‘ It was very immediate. I see Kill Radio as a symbol of the rebirth of idealism,“ she says, adding that if Leary were still alive, he might very well be a DJ too. ”It stands for everything he stood for: a person’s right to intellectual freedom and expression. He‘d join it, he’d have been interviewed on it, we‘d have given him a weekly show.“
Tonight, our intellectual freedom-fighters are a Beavis and Butt-head–like duo: white, suburban-looking, scraggly-haired kids in baggy pants and stretched-out T’s, currently debating the virtues of malt liquor over beer and making on-air prank phone calls. This is Buddyhead, the radio wing of an L.A. Webzine–record label devoted to indie rock, art, punk and skateboarding. The weekly Buddyhead show is a surreal, proudly juvenile, aimless three hours of fun during which every device in the room — CD player, telephone, computer, turntable, tape deck, cell phone, mixing board, e-mail, mike — all motor along at once.
Travis Keller and Aaron Farley, who are handsome in a post-pubescent, man-child way, are broadcasting in the dark tonight, ashtrays piled high with butts, open Colt 45s on the console, the only light streaming in from street lamps and a diffuse, greenish glow from the computer screens. Despite the fact that the Buddyhead zine gets 2-3 million hits per day and was just written up in Spin, these two clearly do the radio show to entertain themselves. And it‘s Kill Radio’s highest-rated show by far. Keller, whose official title is ”editorphotographerjerkface,“ says that though they believe in what the station stands for — ”It‘s cool“ — they don’t go to meetings. ”We‘re exempt. What are they gonna do, kick us out? We’re their biggest draw.“ Then he adds, ”We don‘t follow rules, anyway.“
I’m enjoying a strong secondhand smoke when Buddyhead regulars Jesse and Jeremy bust in as if this were their dorm room: ”I got firecrackers!“ Jeremy roars. Jesse marches in with a brown paper bag loaded with cold beers and a fat phone book under his arm. ”Prank phone calls!“ Keller, who has long, styled sideburns and wears a red-and-white Vegas cap backward, ignores the two, clicking back and forth between a list of MP3s and his e-mail. Farley takes them in with contemplative, squinty eyes, then continues telling about his day job. He drives gay porn around, he says. A beat of silence. ”No, I don‘t drive around a bunch of naked dudes in the back of a truck,“ he laughs. He’s a part-time runner for a printing company.
Pissing off their audience, apparently, is the ultimate high. ”This is a brand-new classic rock song,“ Farley says. ”Blink 182 . . .“ The tune blasts from the speakers, sounding something like: ”cocksucker, motherfucker . . . ho‘s, take off your clothes, get naked.“ This repeats painfully. ”We got drunk one night and played this song, like, 30 times,“ Farley boasts. Then he and Keller crawl underneath the desk to hook up the telephone line. Jesse’s face lights up. ”Prank phone calls!“
That the Buddyhead phenomenon would surface on a radical left-wing media outlet somehow makes sense. In this age of commodification, Kill Radio refuses to package itself neatly, and its programming is purposefully random. At its most focused, the content is fiercely political (if at times oppressively correct), but at heart it‘s deeply personal, what Chris Wicke describes as harking back to a sweet and central aspect of adolescence. ”It’s like making mixed tapes when you‘re a kid,“ he says. ”One of the most fun parts about growing up and getting into music is not only discovering the music you love, but sharing it with other people. Late nights with friends, just drinking some beer. My show is kind of a celebration of that. We just do it live.“
Kill Radio, short for Kill Corporate Radio (motto: ”L.A.’s most unruly radio station“), launched in October with the mission not only of broadcasting a mishmash of punk, indie rock and Noam Chomsky, but of using the station ”as a tool for promoting social and economic justice.“ So much for starting small. While many of the 35 DJs came from the Independent Media Center and related activist backgrounds, a handful of others resurfaced from the defunct punk rock pirate station KBLT. They range in age from 18 to 50, are more male than female, and are not, perhaps, as diverse as the collective would like, though they are trying to shake up the ethnic mix (they‘d like the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to host a time slot).
There is an unspoken split, it seems, between ”the kids,“ as Hassan Jamal refers to the more political faction, and the older KBLT DJs, who have been kicking around L.A. longer and who, while politically liberal, want not much more from the station than a place to continue their shows. ”The kids . . . are taking this P.C. thing too far,“ says Jamal. ”They don’t want any white men over 40 to be DJs. It‘s almost like right-wing Republicans.“ Jamal, also a playwright, adds, ”I mean, I’m glad there are kids who think like that — there isn‘t any hatred at the station. But I was selling Black Panther papers on the corner when I was, like, 15. My politics come out in my art now.“
”Kill Radio needs to remember its roots, the IMC,“ counters Lisa Ferguson. ”That’s our legacy. We have to make a concerted effort — it could easily slip into a cool, fun thing to do, and the entire political agenda could get lost.“
In an effort to keep the power balance uber-equal, and to create an open, anti-corporate atmosphere, Kill Radio uses the supposedly more democratic and often laborious process of consensus to make decisions. ”If you‘re trying to do a political project in the spirit of cooperation, you don’t want to introduce a voting system that‘s going to divide you,“ says Chris Burnett, the non-hierarchical collective’s de facto leader — simply because he knows so damn much. Whenever (regularly) there are technical difficulties, Burnett is called in, and the late nights wear on his face. ”Well, I can build a computer, I can set up a server, I can plug things in and make them work,“ he apologizes. ”That makes a big difference when you‘re trying to get a radio station started.“
An ex–computer field engineer who ”grew up on English punk,“ Burnett is a proud anarchist who jokes about robbing banks to pay the collective’s bills and buying arms for the cause. After becoming a bargaining representative for the University Professional and Technical Employees Union while at UC San Diego, he spent nearly 13 years crisscrossing the state as an activistorganizer before heading to Seattle, where he worked with the first Independent a Media Center, launched for the World Trade Organization protests.
Last summer, Burnett fused his expertise in political organizing, radio production and computer technology at the L.A. IMC. After the Democrats left town, he, Ferguson and several others took over the IMC‘s dormant audio stream, and set out to create a radio station in the same community-based free spirit. The IMC donated much of Kill Radio’s secondhand equipment, plus $500 to help the station get started, and RegenerationTV, a worker-owned multimedia online production house (”boss-free since 1999“) — where Burnett, Wicke and two other DJs work — offered its DSL line on evenings and weekends. ”We met for two months before we went on the air. We worked on a mission statement, guidelines for how to get involved,“ says Burnett. About 15 people were at that first meeting. ”It was really exciting. It was like, ‘We can do this. We have the technology.’“
By piggybacking on RegenerationTV‘s server and using its DSL line (Regen is located just across the hall in more spacious, high-tech digs), Kill Radio circumvents serverbroadband costs, and its Net access is basically free. DJs kick in $10 each to cover the $300 rent, and a hat is sometimes passed at meetings to pay the local phone bill. The entire operating budget, then, of this ragtag collective hell-bent on bringing down the mainstream media establishment, is a whopping $330 per month. Plus, of course, money for beer.
To cover unforeseen expenses, Kill Radio scrapes by with money it brings in from fund-raisers. Last December, Ozomatli played in a word-of-mouth-only benefit at Mr. T’s Bowl under the pseudonym ”Chanclas del Diablo“ (”Sandals of the Devil“) and raised $1,000. ”People always ask, ‘How do you make your money?’ Well, we don‘t,“ says Burnett. ”As soon as profit enters into the equation, everything changes. I actually think that the minute money got involved, it would destroy the integrity of the station.“
”Perhaps we’re at the dawn of a whole new medium,“ says Peter Hart, media analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (also co-host of the syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin), ”and if that‘s the case, then the independents and people who are challenging the establishment might be pioneers in this new medium.“ Then: ”But if the history of radio is any grounds, they’ll be drowned out by commercial interests — like what happened in the 1930s once the broadcast industry realized what was possible and what was at stake.“
Much is at stake. Until recently, the Internet has been a sort of last refuge for truly free, uncensored expression, but that vast unruly space is finally being mined by the broadcast establishment. There‘s a tangle of current copyright disputes involving nearly all the acronyms in this story (NAB, RIAA, DiMA, SAG, AFTRA, etc.). According to the 1998 Digital Millennial Copyright Act, Internet broadcasters must pay royalty fees, as terrestrial stations do, to the recording industry — though it doesn’t specify how much. The Digital Media Association and the Recording Industry Association of America recently submitted proposed rates to the government, but the RIAA‘s were, predictably, more than 30 times higher. That these fees may be retroactive to 1998, coupled with a dispute led by AFTRA over actors’ fees for Internet radio ads, has instilled such fear in broadcasters that many are going offline altogether until the issues are resolved. Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,180 of the 10,000 commercial radio stations in the United States, and 60 percent of the rock market, has pulled all of its Web radio operations — 318 stations.
Congressional hearings are scheduled for July, but ”It‘s not gonna be in favor of Kill Radio, and it’s not gonna be in favor of the artists, and it‘s not gonna be in favor of music fans,“ says Steve Jones, co-founder of the Association of Internet Researchers, an international think tank. ”I’m not terribly hopeful for anything but a commercial-broadcast model of Internet radio.“
In the meantime, Burnett says, Kill Radio has begun setting aside money for emergencies such as retroactive fines. ”They‘re going after anyone with an independent voice,“ he says. ”They’re scared to death of the Internet because they don‘t understand it.“
”Yo, yo, this is Underground Frequencies here . . .“ Eminem blasts from the speakers. In its strange mix of anger and sincerity, wherein one moment the DJs are banging their heads to Charles Manson’s Lie and the next fretting over community outreach, the collective sets aside Saturday afternoons for Youth Organizing Communities, a statewide group dedicated to educating and empowering young people (motto: ”Schools not jails“). Kill Radio offers free DJ training, plus a three-hour weekly time slot. The result is a mess of rap, rock, punk, hip-hop, techno and rave, depending on who‘s in the hot seat, and the YOC kids make a point of playing CDs by ”backyard bands“ that can’t get commercial airplay.
This afternoon Tafarai Bayne, 19, and Adrian Gonzalez, 21, are up. Bayne‘s face is all angles, and he describes his ’fro as ”wild-ass hair.“ Gonzalez is softer-looking, with a trace of baby fat padding his cheeks, and wears wire-rim glasses. They are at once confident and amateurish, riffing off each other with ease and delight, as if ”playing DJ“ in the basement of their parents‘ house.
B: ”I’m gonna put on some Bob Dylan.“
G: [wincing] ”No worries . . .“
B: ”You don‘t like Dylan, man?“
G: ”Did I say that?“
B: ”Get out, you’re fired.“
B: ”I promised you folks some Dylan, so, okay, this is Bob Dylan‘s ’Hurricane,‘ my favorite song ever.“
Bayne falls back into his seat with a satiated sigh. In just one hour they’ll sprint, intelligently, among the topics of L.A. Unified, standardized testing, a George W. Bush, taxes and the future of democracy. In short: They do not shut up.
”One thing I‘ve learned by being more informed,“ Bayne says, ”is that the more you know, the more depressed you get. ’Cause the state of the world is pretty depressing.“
”Well then, on the other side of that token,“ Gonzalez counters, ”I‘m not gonna be a victim, you know? This — Kill Radio — it helps me get my own thoughts organized a little bit better, like what I say. And kind of getting that feedback. And having the confidence to not just say it to [friends], but to more people.“
Dylan is winding along in the background, and these two hardly let a breath go by before picking up on each other’s riffs.
G: ”We‘re not given the opportunity to be equal, we’re not.“
B: ”Equal opportunity bullshit.“
G: ”Democracy my ass.“
B: ”This is not a real democracy.“
G: ”Every couple of years, to shut us up, we‘re given one day to vote for who’s the next person to oppress us.“
When their friend Sherry Chovan arrives, skateboard in tow, Bayne, previously a self-possessed, politically precocious teen, backslides into Silly Putty, with amorous glances and talk of where they should go boarding or which party to hit later that night. Chovan slips into a seat at the console and pastes herself into the conversation, voicing off about the religious right and oppression of women, Pocahontas and whitewashed history books.
C: ”We didn‘t know Helen Keller was a radical feminist communist.“
B: ”Yeah, they tell you about how she overcame her blindness, but they didn’t tell you that after she started learning about this world, she said ‘fuck y’all‘ and started doing her own thing, and making change as a communist. I’m not saying I‘m a communist, but any change is better than what we’ve got. Try to make change.“
And they go on like this, huddled around the mike, three silhouettes against the window, a flood of hot sunlight delineating Chovan‘s dreads, Bayne’s ‘fro and Gonzalez’s snug baseball cap. As Angelenos buzz through the intersection below on their way to the nearest Trader Joe‘s, yoga class or movie theater, these three remain holed up inside, rapping earnestly about racial injustice, capitalism and Proposition 21. Because, on this Saturday afternoon, the mike is open.
Though it calls itself a collective, there appears to be no sense of community at Kill Radio, apart from a core group of DJs who attend every meeting. Many slip in late at night, staying just long enough to do their hourlong shows. Some don’t listen to the station at all, or even know their comrades‘ names. The radio room functions as a sort of revolving door for personal, creative agendas, with one or two DJs present at any time. But once you get on the mailing list, everything changes. This is where the community is — it is a virtual community.
All day long, e-mails trickle in: ”I had a fantabulous show last night“; ”Pay yo rent or I go high-heeled boots on yer ass“; ”The theme for this week’s show is rock en español“; ”All right you pinko, no-boss-having misfits . . .“; ”Can someone cover my show tonight?“ Occasionally, it‘s a rant or weekend highlight that just had to be shared; often, it’s a political petition. And there is much correspondence from bands nationwide, sending in MP3s and asking for airplay, or local bands with enthusiastic words: ”We support any organization that is working to change the monotonous boredom that is mainstream radio,“ writes Super Human Strength. ”We‘d love to do any future benefit shows to help your cause.“
Then, late at night on March 21, there is a devastating posting. Bruce Elliott, co-host with Michael Perrick of the political-satire show Thursdays at Nine and a DJ with Kill Radio from the very beginning, has killed himself.
Matt DeMello’s show followed theirs each week. ”I‘d go in there with a six-pack of beer, and they’d usually stick around. We shared a lot of conversation about Hawaiian music.“ Though DeMello found out about the death earlier in the evening, he says it didn‘t fully hit him until he entered the radio room. ”I’m used to walking in and there‘s loud comedy going crazy. When I walked in that night, it was empty and dark, and there were plants and flowers everywhere. It was silent, except for Willie Nelson playing quietly on the radio. It was the saddest Willie Nelson record you could possibly put on. To this day I still don’t know who did that.“
It is Friday night, and Mauricio Figuls (a.k.a. Rev. Mo) has dedicated his show, Rumble City Inspector, to Bruce Elliott, hosting a sort of on-air memorial to which all the Kill Radio DJs are invited. Figuls has tousled jet-black hair and a mushy, open face with dark, tender eyes. ”Tonight we‘re playing the music Bruce liked, the music he put up with, the music he drove us to,“ he says, his speech somewhat garbled. Then he throws on an LP of classic Indian film soundtracks. ”Bruce had a large collection of trucker music, and he was an obsessive Beatles fanatic.“ Figuls estimates that, at most, 20 people are currently listening. But he leans in and cradles his mike with both hands as if it were drive time.
In two weeks there will be a ”proper“ memorial service for Elliott at a ”gay- and leather-friendly church,“ as one invite puts it, in West Hollywood — to which more than 200 people will show. But at the moment, few are here: just Figuls’ wife, Martha, sunken into the couch with their 4-year-old daughter, Mavis, and Michael Perrick. A part-time actor who played the ”alternative-looking guy“ in a national Mattel commercial, Perrick is slumped in an office chair with wheels, rolling himself back and forth in the center of the room. Over and over again. His head is shaved but for a narrow 5-foot-long ponytail wrapped tightly in colored twine that loops twice around his neck. A trio of small silver a hoops hang from his nose, and an additional 23 piercings run along the edges of his ears. A close friend of Elliott‘s for 11 years, he’s the one who found the body.
But no one is talking details. Instead, they eat, they listen to music — Bruce‘s music — and they laugh and they dance. There is ”stoner food“ strewn about: orange soda, BBQ chips, Fig Newtons. As more people trickle in, adding to the buffet, the noise level rises. Soon Martha is up and swaying with Mavis. Perrick shimmies into the center of the room, tall and gangly, pierces jingling, and does a ”Superchicken“ dance: hands in the air, fingers wriggling, strutting back and forth. Figuls pops on a tape from Thursdays at Nine, and Elliott’s voice goes out over the air.
On the radio room‘s community board, where the weekly agenda is handwritten in thick blue marker, it now says: ”Bruce D. Elliott, With all love, for ever and ever. We go on for you.“
There are tens of thousands of radio stations on the Web. According to Arbitron, the listening base for online radio is significantly up, from 6 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2001. While only 7 percent of wired households have high-speed connections, that number is expected to double in the next year. It’s such a ”hot“ topic, in fact, that if you put out an online request for an expert in ”the future of Internet radio,“ it might fill your voice-mail box, crash your computer and reunite you with a childhood friend. But the term ”Internet radio“ is still vague, encompassing anything from a teenager in her bedroom uploading CDs onto a personal Web page, to KROQ.com, to Live365.com, a free service that helps you customize and launch your own radio station (all vegananimal-rights music by vegetarian artists, say) and then integrates you into its directory of 34,091 other stations — all of which it runs ads on. And then there are Internet-only radio sites with anywhere from two to a large collective of DJs, broadcasting as a business.
Dublab.com, a ”cross-genrecross-era“ radio site based in L.A., sees itself as a Ben & Jerry‘s of the Internet. ”We’re definitely a business,“ says Mark McNeill, a.k.a. DJ Frosty, ”but running within a capitalistic environment and making money, you have a lot more opportunity to give back to the community.“ According to McNeill, many local stations went down with the dot-com crash: Soundbreak, Spike Radio. There are probably just a few dozen Internet-only radio sites left here, he estimates, and a handful of them, like Grooveradio.com, are part of Enigma Digital, a group of Internet stations recently bought by radio giant Clear Channel Communications.
The difference at Kill Radio is intent. Its ratings are small — anywhere from five to 200 hits per show, approximately 15,000 a week — but ultimately, ratings aren‘t the point. This is, for better or worse, an anti-profit collective — with a mission. ”We intend to promote the proliferation of radio in whatever form is necessary in order to challenge the corporate domination of our airwaves,“ says its mission statement. ”It is our goal to further the self-determination of people underrepresented in media production and content, and to illuminate and analyze local and global issues that impact ecosystems, communities and individuals.“ That it’s using the Internet is almost incidental — it‘s just the cheapest and most accessible medium available. And, as Chris Burnett points out, ”You don’t have to worry about the FCC. It‘s a space for us to experiment and play with, and have a potentially large audience.“
Exactly how large an audience is debatable. ”You could get a bullhorn on a sidewalk and reach more people,“ argues Jay Babcock, an occasional L.A. Weekly contributor and an ex–KBLT DJ who does not have a show on Kill Radio. ”If you have a young, dedicated, energized, idealistic group of people, then go start a pirate radio station. You reach more people in one night of pirate radio — and it’s much more exciting — than in three years of broadcasting to two pals on the Internet.“
That‘s exactly what a 21-year-old hacker from Santa Cruz did. On March 8, DJ Monkey Man launched the superpopular Pirate Cat Radio (87.9 FM), which he runs out of his bedroom in Hollywood. ”When I moved to L.A. in January, I expected to see the best in television and hear the best in radio,“ he says. ”But it’s all pointless crap — we don‘t get to see anything real.“ Monkey Man plays everything from roots reggae to Bach, and even aired all 12 episodes of the BBC radio drama The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ”No one‘s willing to take a risk. I do my show to add more diversity.“
Pirate Cat Radio isn’t the first such station to kick up a little dust in L.A. It‘s just been a while. KBLT, the now-legendary punk rock pirate station that hit the airwaves Thanksgiving night in 1995, managed to stay on the air for three years. Susan Carpenter — who until now has used the pseudonym Paige Jarred on air and in print — started the station because she found L.A. barren territory for music lovers, with too few outlets for DJ experimentation. She chose her Silver Lake apartment because it was on a hillside (”a slope, really“) and for the giant walk-in closet that later morphed into the radio room. ”Eventually, I had a lot of the old-guard L.A. punk establishment as regular DJs: Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster, Don Bolles of the Germs, Keith Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and Mike Watt of the Minutemen.“ In its heyday, the microstation named after a sandwich had 98 DJs and was a requisite stop for touring bands: the Jesus and Mary Chain, Judah Bauer from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all played live out of the KBLT closet. ”Keith Morris always said there were phenomenal acoustics in my bathroom,“ she says.
Carpenter is pleased that many of her DJs have found a place to continue their shows. ”Kill Radio is aligned, spiritually, with KBLT,“ she says. ”But I don’t think the Internet is the same — it‘s not as populist a medium.“ Greg Bishop, who hosted Hungry Ghost on KBLT, adds that Kill Radio is ”a close second in feeling, but a distant second in the way it’s run.“ He feels the clandestine nature of the pirate station drew the DJs closer together. ”It felt like people were more into each other‘s shows, and the family was closer. Maybe because we thought we’d be hauled off to jail any second,“ he says.
In 1998, the FCC‘s ”Operation Gangplank“ shut down more than 500 pirate stations around the country. On October 29, KBLT ”just went out — I think Kerry Chaos was on the air,“ says Carpenter. The next day, the station went dark for good.
It is Saturday night at the Troubadour, March 31, and Kill Radio is in the throes of a benefit concert that’s taken two months to organize. Local punkpop band the Start is jamming: ”Rise up, and don‘t let them think for you,“ the lead singer snarls into her mike. The place is packed, with 500-some people milling about. Most have come for the lineup — which also includes Bluebird, De Facto, and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers — unaware that Kill Radio exists. There’s a table up against the back wall of the bar piled with fliers, stickers promoting ”the cure for corporate radio“ and a donation box. ”I think there‘s a general sense of urgency among anyone who might feel threatened by the fact that all their news and media input is controlled by the exact same corporation that provides their toilet paper,“ DJ Michele Knapp yells over the music. But the storm of noise drowns out any opportunity to connect with passers-by, and the collective’s black banner, opposite the stage, fades into the dim background.
Still, the night is a success, ”at full capacity,“ says Troubadour bookermanager Paul McGuigan. ”I wish all my shows were as successful.“ Which is good. Because perhaps even more important than netting $2,780 is building recognition for the site. It‘s critical, actually: Whereas one stumbles onto a radio station by flipping through the dial, one must type in a Web address to get to an Internet site. So tonight there are brief ”station identification“ breaks between sets, in which Kill Radio DJs take the stage to let loose about everything from corporate monopoly to personal sentiments. The crowd oscillates between enthusiastic (if a bit clueless) to downright dismissive. ”Let’s get on with the show!“ two rockers rage while awaiting Frusciante‘s solo set. But when Quinn Russell strides up to the mike in a gray garage mechanic’s jumper (”working-class chic“), her short black hair parted into two stubby pigtails, the crowd and Kill Radio are one.
”We‘re a group of people just like you — anybody can be involved — who decided we wanted to have a voice that wasn’t censored by the corporate bastards,“ Russell wails. (Cheers from the crowd.) ”So we did it.“ (A lone hoot of appreciation from the back, near the men‘s toilet.) ”We’re not anybody with money, or any special credentials. We got a fuckin‘ Internet hookup, we got a group of, like, 30 people who want to be DJs, we play music, we talk a lot of shit, and that’s why you should listen to Kill Radio.“
It is easy to forget, amid hollers from the crowd and De Facto‘s trippy dub with spacy keyboard effects, that it is Internet radio we’re talking about, with all its inherent limitations and technical imperfections. At the end of the night, however, after hundreds of potential listeners stream out of the Troubadour with Web-address stickers stuffed in their pockets and stuck to the bottom of their shoes, it is an overdue bill that, ultimately, gets in the way. RegenerationTV‘s server, located in a warehouse downtown, cuts it off, and Kill Radio goes down for two days.
”Fuck the FCC. Fuck them.“ Monkey Man takes his motto (”We can say fuck: Pirate Cat Radio“) seriously, delivering his morning on-air rant. ”There’s no reason for the FCC anymore. Go there, kids, and burn it down.“ Then he gives the street address in Cerritos, with ZIP code. ”Burn it, tear it down, flatten it. Of course, they could hold me responsible . . . Fuck, do it anyway. Attack, attack, attack. That would be so swell.“
It‘s no wonder, then, that on April 5, Monkey Man found the FCC rooting around on his roof. ”I knew what was happening. A tall Asian man and a short, stubby little woman up on my roof taking pictures.“ The FCC served him a ”notice of unlicensed operations,“ threatening a $10,000 fine and possibly a year in jail. ”I’ll just find another spot to broadcast from,“ he says. Now a devoted Kill Radio fan since running into two DJs at a Kinko‘s, Monkey Man says he refuses to go down without first giving the collective some airplay, so he’s been plugging his DSL line into his mixer and broadcasting its shows on the FM band — pirating the pirates.
Chris Burnett admits it would be tempting to tap into Monkey Man‘s audience, but he says matter-of-factly, ”Pirating is illegal.“ The collective even developed a written ”loose-lips protocol“ stating, in part: ”Kill Radio is a Webcast-only station. As such, we do not promote, nor endorse, anyone who broadcasts Kill Radio illegally . . .“ Kimo Arbas says simply, ”We don’t want to get shut down.“
”If this continues, all these little leftist groups and little music groups, we‘ll have a halfway-decent counterculture again,“ says Edi Vache one late night in the radio room. Edi wears, appropriately, a floppy velvet ’70s cap and thick platform sneakers. ”The seeds for another left-wing movement like the ‘60s are in place. But I think they probably need figureheads. And I think they need leaders. One of the problems with Kill Radio, even, is that there is no leader, there’s no one in charge that you can look to.“
And there are other nitpicky problems interfering with saving the world: Not everyone has a key to the front door. (Per the routine, before a recent midnight show Hassan Jamal stood on the sidewalk with a crate of vinyl records in his arms, pelting gravel at the window so someone would let him in.) The collective is still young, and there are recurring issues that have yet to be resolved: archiving programs, figuring out a system — that works — for collecting rent, compiling a comprehensive list of shows. Though listenership is growing, from 54 page requests the first month to 5,043 in April, Urb magazine associate editor Dan Chamberlain points out that online, ”Everyone makes their own music, everyone has their own radio show. It‘s very hard to cultivate an audience.“
The Star 98.7 billboard has been replaced with a black-and-white MOCA ad, a dispiriting intersection of art and commerce. But more often now, potential DJs drop by, inquiring about how to get a time slot, and new faces regularly pop up at meetings. There is talk of launching a local news hour that, perhaps, other Independent Media Centers and community radio stations around the country might pick up, and the collective would like eventually to purchase its own DSL line and broadcast 24 hours. Certainly it’s not lacking for anything to play, or to say.
”All art is political, and music right now is especially political,“ says Chamberlain. ”Music, more than anywhere else, is where that independence is heard.“ Internet expert Steve Jones, though wary about the future of Internet broadcasting, stresses that collectives such as Kill Radio are hugely important. ”They matter enormously,“ he says. ”Every type of non-mainstream media content that‘s available matters in a big way. Because it says, ’We can do it.‘ People like that, they give us hope.“
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon, the last weekend in April, and the spring heat accentuates the dorm room must that hangs in the hallway at Kill Radio. Today, hardly anyone is around — a caravan has headed up to San Francisco for the IMC meeting at the Project Censored convention, and another has set out to the desert for the Coachella music festival. But the radio room is not quiet. Kimo Arbas sits alone at the console in a blue Maui T-shirt and combat boots, blissfully cutting back and forth between turntable and tape deck, creating a raucous mix of Jimi Hendrix, Edgard Varese‘s ”orchestral turn-of-the-century chaos“ and an album of dogs barking. He is uncharacteristically laconic. When, finally, he lifts the padded headphones from his ears, he says seriously, self-importantly, ”This is an improvisational ensemble. I couldn’t play half my shit on regular radio.“ Then a full-on grin breaks across his face, and he adds, ”Plus, it‘s a blast.“
In the Music section: Is Napster preserving our musical heritage?