Best Frequencies Forever (AKA BFF.FM) has become one of San Francisco’s strongest and most successful community radio outlets, playing everything from Indie Rock (Indierockgirl Radio), current electronic (Ghost Hardware), to Spooky Horoscopes (Astral Projection Radio) and all things San Francisco (San Francisco People).
Spawned in 2013, BFF.FM has been voted “best radio station” twice by SF Weekly’s readers poll and acknowledged by dedicated fans and media outlets abound. A small operation tucked away in SF’s “secret alley,” it’s primarily funded by their DJ’s but doesn’t suffer from the challenges of being a small market sensation. Instead they thrive on its continuous passion and support from their listeners and broadcasters.
In a digital world with a mecca of streaming platforms that dominate people’s decisiveness and musical playlists, and mainstream radio still blaring in people’s cars out of convenience and perhaps ignorance, there’s still something lacking in these major market presences, a voice that represents and speaks to the community. The emergence of community radio might get overlooked by mainstream consumers, but provides a stable backbone for those in need of an alternative. This was the vision of BFF.FM’s founder, Cosmic Amanda, who has over twenty years experience in radio.
We caught up with Cosmic Amanda to chat about the challenges of community radio, the significance of streaming sites and a few of her favorite albums of 2015.
How did you first get into community radio?
I joined my college station in 1994 when I was a freshman. I found out a few weeks before starting my first semester that they had a station and the first thing I did was check it out.
I loved doing the radio show there. This was back in Massachusetts where I’m from. I stayed a part of the station until I moved to SF three years ago. When I moved one of the top concerns I had was that I wanted to stay involved in community radio in some way. I thought a bit about starting a station in my apartment, but like most people moving to San Francisco the apartment was smaller than I had anticipated.
I joined Mutiny Radio and did a show there for a while and in June of 2013 I was invited to a friends’ birthday party in the secret alley. I heard about the secret alley and had never seen it. It was a really magical place and it just so happened when I visited there they had a space for rent, which is now the BFF.FM studio. I went in, I arranged for an interview and casually mentioned starting a radio station and they were really into it. It was a spur of the moment thing and I basically spent the next few months buying equipment and building a station on the smallest budget possible. I figured out pretty quickly that a lot of my friends were former college DJ’s or had been involved with a radio station before, so it grew really organically. A couple months in we got a write up in Bold Italic, which led to a couple other media outlets.
Tell me more about this secret alley? If you can….
So the secret alley is an art space. It’s a fictitious environment that contains a bunch of small office spaces. The type of people they’re looking for are involved in the arts in some way. Most of the people are artists or creative people. A lot of people are involved in media. We have a filmmaker, and someone that does drone photography. It isn’t so much a traditional art studio space; it’s more of a multimedia art collective. So there are a few people that work together that maintain the space and make sure that places are rented and self-sustainable. Most of the secrecy is to preserve what it is.
What are some of the difficulties of running a Community Radio station?
The main challenges, aside from technological hurdles, is just figuring out how everything works together. Basically I run the station and my husband is the station engineer. I’ve worked radio over twenty years in some capacity but I’ve never built a station, and he’s never done anything like this even though he’s a software guy. A lot of our DJs are still around from the early days. We remember the times when the Internet would just go down and I’d send everyone home. And right now each of our DJs are paying membership dues. The bulk of our budget still comes from all of us who are involved in making the station happen. The challenges now are keeping things going at a high quality within a limited budget. Another big part is finding listeners and raising awareness. That will always be a challenge.
Do you think that streaming platforms such as Pandora and Spotify work in your favor, or against you?
I think that there’s room for all of these things. I think that the type of people that love BFF.FM and are looking out for something like our station is because they want to go beyond just having a computer pick a playlist for them. I love Spotify’s Discover Weekly, and I find cool stuff that way but there’s something really magical about getting a live recommendation from a live person. It’s that human connection that makes community radio endure.
I agree that a DJ can really make or break a radio station. I can’t count how many times I’ve turned the radio off because I despised the DJ, or how many times I’ve turned on talk radio because I needed some sort of conversation between songs.
It’s funny one piece of feedback I’ve gotten multiple times, and is a testament to the BFF community, is that people will turn on the station for a specific program and find themselves listening for the rest of the day, even though sometimes the genres change a lot. Maybe a show comes on and it’s not the kind of music you love, people say they just like listening to the DJs, and feel connected to them.
Another thing speaking to Spotify and that human connection of community radio is that for people like myself who work from home or work by themselves, it’s like having a friend hanging out with you all day. We have a lot of listeners who are artists working in studios by themselves, a lot of scientists stuck in a lab, so they just listen to BFF.
So BFF is accredited for the advancement of science! Have you ever had a DJ push the envelope a little too far?
Because we’re on the Internet we don’t have a terrestrial signal so we’re not confined to the FCC standards, so we can say what we want. In general, our DJs are generally gentle people. It’s all just people that are huge music nerds and want to take a few hours out of their lives to show the music they care about with people.
We do have a couple of talk shows. The criterion is that it should serve the community in some way, or be inspired by or about the community. One of our most popular shows is Roll Over Easy on Thursday morning. It’s a roll over show with two guys who talk about how cool San Francisco is. We also have Burrito Justice, who’s our in-house Twitter representative, and he brings in a lot of local people who he meets through Twitter that come in and talk about the community. There’s nothing but positive vibes.
What’s currently on your playlist?
Like most DJs at the station, the past couple weeks I’ve been looking back and putting together my top list of 2015. So I’ve been revisiting a lot of things. This year I really loved the Tame Impala record, and also really go into Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Shannon and the Clams released an EP this year that was fantastic and started producing some really cool music videos.
I’ve been looking back at my favorite albums of 2015 and it was really difficult. There’s just so much music out there!
Before I joined my college radio I had no idea independent music existed. The only music I thought existed in the world was on mainstream radio. Then I realized the world of music was like an ocean, deep and vast and so much stuff that can be discovered. I joined my station thinking I’d be a disc jockey having this cool job with a voice to share my opinions, but over time the thing that I really loved was the music- discovering these things, sharing them and giving exposure to bands that weren’t getting the credit they deserved. I have two friends who went on to become commercial radio DJ’s and I moved to SF and started a community radio station for no money.
What’s in store for BFF in 2016?
The next phase is that we’re in the final of stages of our 501c3, waiting to be tax exempt. Our focus is to make sure its a sustainable organization through fundraising and community outreach so we can be around for a really long time. I’ve met a lot of people who run KEXP in Seattle and talk to them about what they do. They just finished raising 15 million dollars to fund their own building in Seattle, allowing them to do all the things they want under one roof. They’ve been around since the1960’s. I started telling them about what we’re doing at BFF and they were excited that we’ve been around for a few years and had a successful kick-starter. They’re excited about 15 million dollars and I’m excited about 15,000 dollars!
It’s all relative, but it proves that community radio is still a bit under the radar in San Francisco compare to other cities.
There are a lot of stations but not one has emerged as being a voice for SF. The closest thing is probably KUSF before it was shut down. It would be really cool if we had one big station that people could tune into to really hear a community voice. Portland has like three big awesome community stations that get great funding and have a lot of notoriety and support. I think there’s room in San Francisco for at least one.
Hopefully BFF can be that platform. Do you have any Christmas plans? I heard something about a BFF Christmas party?
Our Christmas party is on Friday, December 18th. It’s open to the public but space is limited. We’re selling tickets and they’re a name your own price. We’re trying to raise some funds so we can replace the main broadcast console. We’re hoping over the next couple months we can replace it and get something that will last us a long time. We’re going to have two bands play; Luke Sweeney, who we’re presenting one of the nights of his residency at Amnesia, and Hot Flash Heat Wave. We’ll also have a VIP package for $25, which gets you a tote bag full of music and some other prizes.
Get tickets to the BFF.FM Christmas party here.