A journalist looks back on her adventures in the outlaw world of low-power radio during the ’90s.
Carpenter, now an editor at the Los Angeles Times, was a receptionist at a San Francisco law firm in 1995 when her yen to explore radio and a lack of access to legitimate airtime led her to found the pirate station KPBJ in her bedroom. Her timing was just right: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to massive consolidation that placed the airwaves in the hands of a few powerful conglomerates such as Clear Channel. Carpenter makes a strong case for the righteousness of her cause—creating an island of “people’s radio” in a sea of mind-numbing corporate broadcasting. She later moved to LA’s bohemian Silver Lake district, where she started up another low-power in-home operation, KBLT; that station ultimately became a popular local phenomenon employing dozens of unpaid DJs before the FCC shuttered it in the late ’90s. She is adept at depicting the exhilaration of running an illicit radio operation on a sliver of appropriated bandwidth and the clandestine machinations required to remain one step ahead of the FCC. Her descriptions of her travails riding herd on an unruly pack of volunteers working out of her cramped home are especially well-observed and amusing. However, Carpenter never effectively delineates her transformation from curious radio aspirant to firebrand pirate zealot. Other than an ill-defined restlessness, her motives for plunging into the hazardous demimonde she chose for herself remain somewhat mystifying; she admits to an initial ignorance of and lack of real interest in the offbeat music that became the mainstay of her underground stations. The author also exhibits a tin ear for convincing dialogue, and a potentially colorful cast of Bay Area and LA radio misfits is rendered flatly in her hands. It’s easier to admire Carpenter’s spunk and spirit than her skill as a memoirist.
Like pirate radio itself: worth tuning in to, but in the end the signal’s too weak.