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Ann Powers on KUSF: One personal memory speaks to terrestrial radio's power

February 4, 2011 |  1:54 pm

K86jp7nc A cultural earthquake hit San Francisco on Jan. 18. It was a targeted tremor, though hugely felt by a diverse community that includes indie music fans, drivers twisting the dial in search of local voices on the radio, and others seeking the sounds of their communities.

On that day KUSF, the eclectic community radio station that had broadcast at 90.3 FM since the 1970s, was shut down by the University of San Francisco, who'd sold the frequency to the University of Southern California-owned Classical Public Radio Network. The deal between USF and USC was conducted without involvement from the students and community members who have run the station since it first became a major force in the indie music scene more than three decades ago.

KUSF supporters have reacted in outrage to the change. Protests on the USF campus and at City Hall have attracted hundreds of participants. USF President Father Stephen Privett has repeatedly said that the decision to sell the frequency for $3.75 million was motivated by the fact that it was not primarily serving the university, because its staff was a mix of community members and students, and that the money would enhance the university's ability to serve its attendees. KUSF supporters have decried the loss of a vital force in the community, expressed skepticism about the university's response that the old KUSF can thrive as an online-only concern and noted that what's happened is part of a larger trend of universities selling off their stations to chains.

I'm not here to offer a hard-hitting analysis of terrestrial radio consolidation, the shift toward the Internet and the relative value of indie-pop formats versus classical music. I'd just like to offer one memory of listening to KUSF as a testimony to the power of terrestrial radio and a means of meditating upon what might change as new forms of reaching listeners take over.

It was 1987. I lay in my bed in the flat I shared with a bunch of other weirdo kids on the corner of Baker and Fulton streets in the Western Addition. The time was getting toward 11 a.m.; I had to get to work, but my body wasn't moving so fast, probably because I'd pounded it with mixed drinks the night before at a house party in the Haight.

I'd lived in San Francisco for a few years by then, having fled my native Seattle in pursuit of a career as a poet (my youthful brain was very good at nurturing likely impossibilities back then) and, equally important, a community of music-mad outsider kids like myself. Pursuing the life's work idea at San Francisco State University by day, I connected with my new chosen family by night, at local punk palaces like Nightbreak and the Kennel Club. I bought my clothes used at Buffalo Exchange and ordered my burritos big at Pancho Villa. KUSF was my station.

As that particular morning inched toward noon, I reached over groggily, flipped on my clock radio and went back to dozing. Suddenly, a voice grabbed my ear with the force of a stern drill sergeant -- my Catholic brain instantly registered it as a clarion call, the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. It was Sinead O'Connor, singing "Troy," the first single from her debut album "The Lion and the Cobra."

The small room shrank, it seemed. I was pinned. That voice! The words were a threat, an explosion. Who was this person? Was she singing to me? She was singing for me. The wet crystal clarity of O'Connor's singing rushed over me; I was soaked. My reaction to this one song -- this long unfolding jeremiad, the likes of which are heard less and less on terrestrial radio today -- marked me as O'Connor's eternal fan. More than that, it further defined me as a woman who understood herself and the world through the voices of other women struggling, resisting, pushing through the same stereotypes and expectations I experienced, through song.

One chance selection by a DJ could do all that. I'll never forget hearing "Troy" on KUSF, and I know that one reason the moment's impact was so strong was that it was both completely unexpected and firmly located in a particular place and time. That rectangular room in the Western Addition, with its window looking out on nothing but the wall across the way. Me, at 23, probably extra vulnerable because some crush had recently blown me off, and so open, in love with the place where I lived and the people who were changing me every day, including the ones I knew only as DJs, talking to me across that frequency.

Could the same cataclysm occur for someone stumbling upon a live Internet radio stream? I'm not saying it couldn't. I've talked with friends helming shows at hybrid stations like KEXP or Web-only ventures like Birmingham Mountain Radio about the thrill of reaching people across continents or just the satisfaction of finding a way to keep playing music that means something to them in the face of massive terrestrial radio consolidation. Just this morning, I spent time checking out a new artist I'd previously overlooked by making my way through videos on YouTube and becoming a convert.

Yet the revelation of that moment when O'Connor's voice rattled every one of my bones -- the first moment I'd ever heard that voice -- was deeply connected to the time and place when it happened. It was a gift given to me by a neighbor, someone just down the road in another room, choosing to play that song when I most needed to hear it. The accidental nature of my waking up just then, tuning in just there, made me uniquely open to being moved by what I heard. And the fact that the music emanated from the 90.3 frequency -- a source I trusted enough to let it wake me up every morning, no matter how bad my hangover or fresh my heartbreak -- made a difference too.

I'm a steely optimist when it comes to the changes technology brings to pop. That's how pop was born, after all, the player piano and the Edison wax cylinder, and how it grew, from 78s to singles and albums, from border radio to FM freeform to MTV, and now through podcasts and live streams. Change is hard, though it often takes us somewhere unimaginably exciting.

Yet I deeply empathize with the Bay Area listeners in furious mourning for the loss of KUSF, their sonic home base. A specific and powerful means of cultural discovery is lost when a local radio station goes under. It is a social death. I understand why KUSF lovers are reacting by staging political funerals.

For more on the fight to save KUSF, see this website. For the new Internet station, go here. For previous reporting on what KUSF will become, see this Culture Monster piece.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Sinead O'Connor, photographed in 1990. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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