Endless repetition of the same 40 songs, no skip button, a deluge of advertisements that aren’t even tailored to your interests—terrestrial radio has a lot working against it.
What’s the point of flipping through FM stations in search of new tunes when you could just pull up Spotify? Why scroll through the AM dial when you can tune in and out of your favorite podcast at will?
Given all of its shortcomings, plenty have written off radio as a dying medium. However, for a dedicated community of local radio enthusiasts, the format is alive and well—it’s just moved online.
Amanda Guest fell in love with radio as a college student working at Salem State University’s station, WMWM. But as deep as her reverence for broadcasting runs, she is well aware of its flaws.
“When you think about the landscape of terrestrial radio, since the 1990s, there has been this overwhelming consolidation, where only a handful of companies own all of the frequencies that you can tune into,” Guest said, expressing her frustrations with the current state of commercial radio. “That means that you have someone in Texas or somewhere programming the station that you're listening to here in the Bay Area. You're not really getting that local flavor.”
Rather than turning her back on radio, the founder of San Francisco-based BFF.FM has spent the past decade reimagining it for the 21st century.
Guest and the staff of BFF.FM want to bring back the local flavor, quirky flair and in-depth knowledge that once made FM radio so captivating for music fans. Since launching the online station in 2013, she has used her platform to champion DJs, bands and other local artists who she believes don’t get the attention they deserve on commercial radio and other mainstream outlets. Others in the local internet radio ecosystem share her philosophy.
Denis Makhlin and Luis Castillo—the 20-something founders of Hyde.FM, another local internet radio station—say their aim is to uplift the local arts community of San Francisco. Makhlin and Castillo have built a space for veterans and newcomers within the Bay Area music scene to flex their creativity and showcase local talent through on-air programming, live concerts and more.
“We’re not only representing the city; we’re representing the individuals.” Makhlin said. “They’re so talented and so great and just don't have the right recognition. We want to … be a stepping stone for people”
The upside to running a nonprofit internet radio station is also the downside. Though stations like BFF.FM and Hyde.FM are not beholden to advertisers in the way commercial radio is, bringing in enough money to keep up with costs often proves challenging.
Janelle Viera and Guillermo Goyri are the co-founders of Psyched Radio, which runs its programming from a room above Thrillhouse Records on Mission Street in San Francisco. They said that starting Psyched has been rewarding, but acknowledged that finding ways to fund the project has been a struggle. Some money comes to the station in the form of charitable donations, but the founders often spend their own cash to keep the lights on.
Though Viera said she doesn’t want to continue paying out of pocket to keep her station running, she does feel blessed to be working with people who are willing to dip into their own savings in support of the project. “It just shows us how much the people involved love this,” she said.
Castillo and Makhlin can relate. Much of the equipment and furniture in their studio was donated. One of their mentors gave them a turntable, the speakers came from Castillo’s college dorm and the stools they sit on were purchased secondhand on Facebook Marketplace. They shared a laugh as they discussed the bootstrapped nature of their operation.
Though Hyde.FM started with Castillo and Makhlin taking money out of their own wallets, it now benefits from fiscal sponsorship through the Intersection for the Arts—a nonprofit that supports artists all over the Bay Area. But when asked if they make any personal profit from the station, the two shake their heads.
“We don’t even know how much we have.” says Castillo, glancing at Makhlin questioningly. He shrugs.
Though locals might not recognize him if they saw him on the street, many are likely to be familiar Aaron Axelsen’s distinct vocal fry. The former music director of Live 105—and later, Alt 105.3—presided over the Bay Area’s long-running alternative music station for 25 years.
In the spring of 2020, a little over a year before changing formats in October of 2021 and becoming Dave FM (part of the massive Audacy network), the radio station laid Axelsen off. He now serves as head of programming for Flood FM, an internet radio station that the former San Francisco DJ says features the best of terrestrial radio without all the corporate BS. That means knowledgable and entertaining personalities who help curate playlists and introduce listeners to things they may have never found on their own, even with the help of a music-discovery algorithm.
“The personalities were a big part of FM radio in its heyday,” Axelsen said. “They’d tell stories, create a narrative around the songs, become your friends, your buddies. You knew them.”
Another thing that a local internet radio station can do that larger corporate stations and web-based platforms like Spotify can’t, Axelsen said, is tap into a local identity and entrench itself within the community.
“When you saw a Live 105 bumper sticker on a car it said something,” Axelsen said. “It reflected your personality, your politics, your views. It was a badge.”
Internet radio stations like BFF.FM aspire to do the same thing. Guest has been a part of San Francisco’s creative community for 10 years, but she said she is still pleasantly surprised and excited whenever she discovers a new artist to share with her listeners.
“Everyone says the city is dead,” Guest said. “And it's undeniable that there are challenges living here. But there's still a lot of unbelievably creative stuff that's just happening on the down low. And I think that's amazing.”
Makhlin shares that sentiment. When asked to name his favorite thing about San Francisco, he immediately identified the community.
“There's no other place Hyde.FM could have happened,” Makhlin said. “People come out to support and give words of encouragement. There's just a lot of love.”
Nick Veronin contributed additional reporting for this story.
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