In a tucked away, nondescript complex in an industrial section of San Francisco, community radio fans gathered on Sept. 4 in anticipation of the launch of KXSF(LP) by non-profit group San Francisco Community Radio.
A rare opportunity to witness a terrestrial radio station’s debut in San Francisco, the celebratory low-power FM party spilled over into an adjacent room at Lightrail Studios, the music recording and rehearsal space that houses KXSF(LP).
While KXSF volunteers, listeners and other interested parties nibbled on pizza and sipped wine, a videographer roamed about, bearing witness to the launch. Although it’s a brand-new LPFM radio station, the story of San Francisco Community Radio has attracted both local and national attention because of its connection to the former full-power college radio station KUSF.
KUSF AND KUSF.ORG
Well-loved college radio station KUSF operated on 90.3 FM in San Francisco from 1977 until early 2011. The license holder, the University of San Francisco, opted to cede control of its airwaves, ultimately selling the 90.3 FM signal to Classical Public Radio Network to be used as a KDFC-branded classical music station.
Today, the license is held by University of Southern California and the 90.3 frequency continues to carry KDFC programming. The call letters (changed from KUSF to KOSC in 2012) changed to KDFC in 2017.
Even after KUSF left the FM dial, KUSF.org remained, at first airing a loop of music post-shutdown. By 2012, college students at University of San Francisco were running and programming KUSF.org as an online radio station, which is alive and well today.
Prior to 2011, KUSF(FM) had a roster of programmers who ranged from college students to long-time community-member volunteers. The loss of the FM station was met with anger, sadness and protests. Although the university did not waver in its decision to dispense with the license, committed radio enthusiasts, including many former KUSF volunteers and DJs, resolved to return to the airwaves.
After forming the non-profit San Francisco Community Radio, the group applied for a new low-power FM license at 102.5 FM on the crowded San Francisco radio dial.
San Francisco Community Radio — KXSF(LP) — and San Francisco Public Press — KSFP(LP) — emerged victorious and were granted construction permits for a timeshared facility in July, 2016. Two years later, KXSF(LP) was ready to launch, while KSFP(LP) was preparing for its debut scheduled for July 2019.
After tackling mounds of paperwork and engineering challenges, KXSF set its inaugural broadcast for Sept. 4 at high noon. As San Francisco’s weekly emergency siren blared at 12 p.m., eager listeners leaned in to a boombox at the station’s headquarters — and were met with static. Undeterred, the party and the programming carried on as technical experts sorted things out behind the scenes.
KXSF engineer and board member Bill Ruck explains, “We had been checking and testing the transmitter for a couple of weeks, and we thought that we had exorcised the gremlins. Tuesday morning, I checked the transmitter around 10 a.m. and realized that there was no modulation.”
Fellow board member and KXSF’s IT expert Ted Dively did some troubleshooting, trying to get the audio working with the station’s Comrex BRIC-Link II.
Dively recounts, “In the moment, I was just trying to ‘make it go,’ and of course, I was disappointed, but I knew we’d figure it out. Working with the fine Sutro tower staff, we think the issue was radio frequency interference — RFI — causing our network gear in the cabinet to go sideways. One of the things I learned during this exercise is that Ethernet cables can act as antennae, which can create odd-to-diagnose connectivity issues.”
Within a week, on Sept. 10, KXSF was on the air at 102.5 FM. Regarding the fixes, Dively notes that, “Bill has reworked the wiring in our cabinet to better shield everything from free-floating RF, and so far, everything seems very stable.”
For now, KXSF is the sole station on 102.5 FM in San Francisco, airing its programming from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. every day. When San Francisco Public Press is ready to launch, its programming will run during the remaining hours. For now, the transmitter shuts off automatically during non-broadcast hours.
An unusual set-up, KXSF is operating at a miniscule 2 Watts of power due to the tricky, hill-filled San Francisco landscape. Ruck sought a central location in the city for the transmitter to reach as many listeners as possible, choosing Sutro Tower.
“The problem, though, was that the middle of San Francisco is higher than the edges due to Twin Peaks, Mt. Sutro, Mt. Davidson, etc., so even at the lowest height we could use at Sutro Tower, the second level, our ERP became 2 Watts,” Ruck clarifies.
UP AND RUNNING
A couple of weeks post-launch at another KXSF gathering, volunteers swapped tales of listening reports, chiming in with places where they had unexpectedly heard the station on FM and pointing out interference from a faraway broadcaster. As San Francisco Community Radio settles into its 102.5 FM home, it also runs programming online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
San Francisco Community Radio secretary and board member Carolyn Keddy was a veteran KUSF DJ and began working on efforts to get back on the air starting in 2011.
Pleased to have reached this point, she shares, “I am looking forward to the sense of community we had with the old station. People do not really call into internet radio stations because you are usually listening at work in your cubicle or listening on your headphones while commuting. But people listen to the radio at home or in the car or outside, and if you get the urge to call, you can and do. I am looking forward to more requests and just hearing from more listeners.”
The current roster of around 30 shows includes a mix of adventurous music and talk programming, dual language shows, a kid-hosted music show and a radio theater program.
Program Director/Executive Director Steve Zweig says, “Unique content is encouraged. For music shows, focusing on local music, new music and underground music is important — it’s our mission statement.”
Regarding San Francisco Community Radio’s long journey to FM, Keddy expressed her gratitude, reflecting, “I appreciate everything everyone has done to get us back on the air. There have been so many people, groups, bands, organizations and businesses over the years that have helped out that is hard to thank everyone in one shot, but I will every time I get the opportunity. Thank you San Francisco, and the world, for sticking by us and getting us here! Hurray for community radio!”
Jennifer Waits is a co-founder of Radio Survivor and a research associate on the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force. She obsessively tours radio stations, which she chronicles on her blog Spinning Indie. A college radio DJ since the 1980s, she’s been at four stations and has hosted a music show at KFJC(FM) since 1999.
More Technical Details
From Engineer Bill Ruck:
“We are using a Comrex BRIC-Link II from the studios at Light Rail to Mt. Sutro via the internet. Our ISP at Light Rail is Sonic and at Sutro is Sutro Tower. There the BRIC-Link II audio is connected to a Nautel VS300 with Orban Inside. The VS300 then feeds an EMR isolator and two cavities to minimize potential issues with Intermodulation Distortion. The second level at Sutro Tower is where some of the auxiliary antennas are located, and we did not want to ever have IM problems. All of the equipment is located in a DDB weathertight cabinet on the second level of Sutro Tower. Our antenna is a Jampro JLLP-1.”