Everybody says that the city is dead. SF internet radio stations begin to differ


Endless repetition of the same 40 songs, no skip button, a deluge of ads that don’t even suit your interests – terrestrial radio has a lot going for it.

What’s the point of flipping through FM stations looking for new tunes when you could just access Spotify? Why scroll through the AM dial when you can tune in and out of your favorite podcast at will?

Given all of its shortcomings, many have dismissed radio as a dying medium. However, for a dedicated community of local radio enthusiasts, the format is alive and well, having just moved online.

Internet resurrects radio star

Amanda Guest fell in love with radio when she was a college student working at the Salem State University station, WMWM. But despite his deep reverence for broadcast racing, he’s well aware of his flaws.

“When you think about the terrestrial radio landscape, since the 1990s there has been overwhelming consolidation, where only a handful of companies own all the frequencies you can tune into,” Guest said, expressing his frustration with the current state of commercial radio. “That means you have someone in Texas or somewhere programming the station you’re listening to here in the Bay Area. You’re not really getting that local flavor.”

Instead of turning her back on the radio, the founder of San Francisco BFF.FM has spent the last decade reinventing it for the 21st century.

Guest and the staff at BFF.FM want to recapture the local flavor, quirky style, and in-depth knowledge that once made FM radio so captivating to music fans. Since launching the station online in 2013, he has used his platform to champion local DJs, bands and other artists who he believes are not getting the attention they deserve on commercial radio and other mainstream outlets. Others in the local internet radio ecosystem share his philosophy.

Co-founder Ryan Babasa adjusts the knobs on his mixing desk during his live radio show “The Uncle Ryan” on the Psyched! Radio studio in the Mission District of San Francisco. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

Dennis Mahklin and Luis Castillo, the twenty-something founders of hyde.fm, another local Internet radio station, say their goal is to energize the local San Francisco arts community. Mahklin and Castilo have built a space for veterans and newcomers within the Bay Area music scene to showcase their creativity and showcase local talent through on-air programming, live concerts and more.

“We don’t just represent the city; we are representing individuals.” Mahklin said. “They are so talented and great and they just don’t get the proper recognition. We want… to be a springboard for people”

The struggle is real

The advantage of running a non-profit internet radio station is also a disadvantage. Although stations like BFF.FM and Hyde.FM aren’t as committed to advertisers as commercial radio is, raising enough money to keep up with costs often proves challenging.

Janelle Viera and Guillermo Goyri are the co-founders of Excited! Radiothat runs its schedule from a room above exciting records on Mission Street in San Francisco. They said that from Psyched! It has been rewarding, but he acknowledged that finding ways to finance the project has been a struggle. Some money comes to the station in the form of charitable donations, but the founders often spend their own money to keep the lights on.

Although Viera said she doesn’t want to keep paying out of pocket to keep her station running, she feels blessed to work with people who are willing to dip into their own savings to support the project. “It just shows us how much the people involved love this,” she said.

Castillo and Mahklin can be identified. Much of the equipment and furniture in her studio was donated. One of her mentors gave them a record player, the speakers came from Castillo’s college dorm, and the stools they sit on were bought secondhand from Facebook Marketplace. They shared a laugh as they discussed the self-sufficient nature of their operation.

Although Hyde.FM started with Castillo and Mahklin drawing money from their own wallets, it now benefits from fiscal sponsorship through the Intersection for the Arts—a nonprofit organization that supports artists throughout the Bay Area. But when asked if they get any personal benefit from the station, they both shake their heads.

“We don’t even know how much we have.” Castillo says, looking questioningly at Mahklin. He shrinks his shoulders.

a complete love

Although locals may not recognize him if they see him on the street, many are likely familiar with Aaron Axelsen’s vocal characteristics. The former music director of Live 105, and later, Alt 105.3, presided over the Bay Area’s long-running alternative music station for 25 years.

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In the spring of 2020, just over a year before changing formats in October 2021 and becoming david fm (part of the massive audacity network), the radio station fired Axelsen. He now works as the head of programming for FM flood, an Internet radio station that the former San Francisco DJ says features the best of terrestrial radio without all the corporate bullshit. That means knowledgeable and entertaining personalities helping curate playlists and introducing listeners to things they might never have found on their own, even with the help of a music discovery algorithm.

Veyda Alvarez performing live for Hyde.FM in San Francisco. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

“Personalities were a big part of FM radio in its heyday,” Axelsen said. “They told stories, they created a narrative around the songs, they became your friends, your companions. You knew them.

Another thing that a local Internet radio station can do that larger corporate stations and web-based platforms like Spotify cannot, Axelsen said, is leverage a local identity and gain a foothold within the community.

“When you saw a Live 105 bumper sticker on a car, it said something,” Axelsen said. “It reflected your personality, your politics, your views. It was a badge.

Internet radio stations like BFF.FM aspire to do the same. Guest has been part of the San Francisco creative community for 10 years, but said she is still pleasantly surprised and excited every time she discovers a new artist to share with her listeners.

“Everyone says the city is dead,” Guest said. “And it is undeniable that there are challenges living here. But there’s still a ton of incredibly creative stuff that’s just going on in the background. And I think that’s amazing.”

Mahklin shares that sentiment. When asked to name what he liked best about San Francisco, he immediately identified the community.

“There is no other place where Hyde.FM could have happened,” Mahklin said. “People come out to support and give words of encouragement. There is much love”.


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