The original logo for Mutiny Radio, which can still be seen above the station’s doorway at 21st and Florida streets, depicts a hand reaching out of the sea gripping a microphone. The intent was likely to demonstrate nothing could sink its broadcast. But station manager Pam Benjamin now sees the graphic differently. “It looks like we thought we were drowning,” she said.
When the logo was developed the station was barely afloat. The Federal Communications Commission had clamped down on its predecessor, Pirate Cat Radio, for unlicensed FM transmission. Pirate Cat founder Daniel “Monkey Man” Roberts pulled the plug in 2011 after becoming embroiled in a disagreement with the DJs. A collective arose after his departure; it took several months for the new organization to take root.
Today, a new logo appears in the station’s window: a sturdy ship’s bow intertwined with a nautical steering wheel. “I think we are in a better place now, so we’re changing it over,” Benjamin explained.
The sea-themed symbols are almost all that remain of the Pirate Cat days. Most of the DJs are new. The station’s site, once a coffee shop where patrons could watch the broadcast through soundproof glass, has been replaced with a performance space. And, even though Mutiny Radio barely covers its costs, there is sense that things are getting easier.
Aired solely on the Internet now, whether it’s covering the Occupy Movement or interviewing musicians such as George Clinton, the station offers its DJs the opportunity to present an independent community voice. For $75 a month – which works out to less than $10 an hour – and a few weeks training, anyone with a concept can get on the air.
“We’re really about promoting art and free speech and giving people a voice,” said Benjamin, who noted that the DJs range in age from 78 to college undergraduates. “I’ll give technical advice, but otherwise it’s radical free speech. They can do anything they want.”
The station rents out airtime to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. “For $40, they can have two hours with a board op, the space and a podcast,” she explained. If they’re enterprising, they can charge admission to the space as well. The door is split with the station, up to $100. “I want to give people the opportunity to try to create their own economics with their art and, if not, still get to do a free show for 20 bucks an hour,” she added. “I’m a socialist and I believe in people making money for their work.”
The space seats 30, thanks to chairs donated just two months ago. The socialist theme is reflected in the station’s current art exhibit, which features posters of labor leaders as baseball cards. The artist, Bill Morgan, a retired San Francisco elementary school teacher, hosts the show Labor and Love on Saturdays. “As a teacher I always wanted to get the labor movement into the curriculum,” he explained. While he wasn’t entirely successful, he collected a lot of materials over the years that are now useful in his program. “I define labor pretty broadly. I think poverty, immigration and social security are all based on labor,” he said. And the protest music he intertwines between news and interviews is as much Tupac and Queen Latifah as it is Woody Guthrie.
Morgan’s show is one of 40 now on the air. Themes range from news to LGBT discussions to Japanese retro music. Flat Black Plastic plays all vinyl, the DJ having built his collection working several years at Ameoba. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day; any open time is filled with previously recorded shows.
Six nights a week Mutiny hosts live events, the newest a sex-positive talk and demonstration on Wednesdays. A majority of the station’s programming is self-created, rather than copyrighted music. Comedy – Benjamin’s art – dominates the live entertainment. The curated Pamtastik’s Comedy Clubhouse on Friday night averages 30,000 podcast downloads a month.
In March the station hosted a comedy festival fundraiser, featuring 25 shows in five days, which raised more than two-thirds of the $3,000 Mutiny needs annually to cover its expenses. In the past the station has utilized Kickstarter to generate funds.
The $3,000 makes up what the DJ fees don’t cover in rent. Benjamin explained she’s loath to make those cost-prohibitive to people getting on the air. While the comedians who participated in the fundraiser donated their time, she refused to make it a pay-to-play affair for them. “I’m a socialist,” she repeated. “It seems in San Francisco artists and teachers of any kind have to be poor and there is an attitude that people who do what they like to do shouldn’t get paid.”
Mutiny Radio isn’t anything close to a profitable affair, but it’s surviving nonetheless with a wealth of underground spirit.