Radio Valencia – Lee Tusman

In November, artist and curator Lee Tusman started a nine-month round-the-world trip to visit artists, musicians, curators, squats, pirate spaces, galleries, underground restaurants, etc. At the beginning of the trip, he spent several weeks in the San Francisco Bay area and was invited to visit Radio Valencia along with Alien Slang, a noise musician active in the Bay Area scene, for an interview between Slang and radio host DJ Bunny Whiskers.

Radio Valencia is a small community radio station centered in the Mission District of San Francisco. Founded by Chicken John and John Hell, the station began broadcasting in August 2010. As a fan of pirate radio, a past college radio DJ for 4 years at the freeform station WBRS, and as someone deeply interested in micro-broadcasting, Lee was interested in learning from the two “Johns” about how they organized the station as well as their goals for its growth. The following is Lee’s email interview with the Radio Valencia founders.

DJ Bunny Whiskers interviewing Alien Slang on Radio Valencia

Lee Tusman: How does Radio Valencia differ from other freeform or non-commercial stations like college radio?

Chicken John: Well, I don’t really know how all the other stations do it. I’ve only ever been involved in pirate radio. This station is bullshit free. No meetings, no rules. There are dues, hardly anyone pays them. So I guess it’s pretty different. It’s about radio being a device that promotes community. Radio is a collaborative artwork.

JT: How do you develop this radio station within a supporting community? I am interested in how you take something that appears to be your original idea and pull other people in to take it over and organize and take some ownership of it.

CJ: Equity. You can’t get people to do things without offering equity. I’m kinda a magical woodland creature when it comes to projects. I’m good for getting people to come through and do stuff. I have no idea why. I’m not particularly charming or handsome.

LT: How are decisions made in the station? What is the leadership model and do you see it shifting over time?

CJ: It’s a no arguing policy. It will explode someday, but for now we keep our ambitions small. Easy. As I said, it’s about the collaboration, not a single person’s vision.

LT: I know of your background with Burning Man radio. I’m a Burner too and really enjoy the freeform, all-over-the-map, up-to-the minute nature of the radio there. Is this what inspired you to start Radio Valencia?

CJ: John Hell is the guy who started Burning Man Information Radio (BMIR). I’m Chicken John. I’m an early Burning Man guy as well, but that’s a whole other story. Believe it or not, there is a need for pirate radio. Here and in many cities. We don’t have a slam dunk radio station here. A lot of fractionalizing, but not like a one station thing that’s killer. KUSF 90.3 of San Francisco was pretty cool, but that was last week. The changing fortunes of time and all…

I’m cc’ing John Hell on this email, maybe you would like to ask him some questions…


John Hell: Hi Lee. I’m curious how you found us?

I’ve been in radio since 1988, when I joined KFJC 89.7FM at Foothill College, south of Stanford. I was there for nine years. This is where I learned the art of radio. In 1994, I co-founded Radio Free Burning Man, which I ran as program director through 1998, which was my last year at Burning Man. I worked at San Francisco Liberation Radio, 2000-2003 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) raided us. I was involved in the federal court case, which went all the way up to the 9th circuit. I did a stint at Pirate Cat Radio, and I co-founded FCCFreeRadio in San Francisco. I left FCCFree Radio in March on 2010. Chicken John, an old friend and co-conspirator contacted me about starting Radio Valencia. We’re very proud of what we’ve grown so far. As of this writing we have 31 weekly two-hour shows, with four more being added by the end of this week.

Radio Valencia's broadcasting studio

LT: How does Radio Valencia differ from other freeform or non-commercial stations like college radio?

JH: Having worked for a great college radio station, KFJC, I can tell you that the air sound is much looser and more freeform. The only true place you can find freeform radio today is in the pirate realm. Most college radio stations report their playlists to numerous radio publications, which help them get service from the record labels. We don’t report, we don’t get serviced, we’re not beholden to anyone but our listeners. We don’t micro-manage. There is no mandatory playlist. We encourage our staff to challenge themselves and their listeners in their music selection. If it can be played on KROQ, 106.7 FM our of Los Angeles or the Bay Area’s Live 105, 105.3FM then please don’t play it on Radio Valencia. Also, to show support for the community, please do interviews with local musicians, artists, writers, activists, politicians, etc…

LT: I love BMIR’s freeform, all-over-the-map, up-to-the minute nature: anyone can walk off the playa and make an announcement, or the DJs are responding to their immediate neighborhood surrounding them, from a few feet to a mile away. I think the station serves as an information source, a proto-Internet. Off the playa, at home, we have internet access, Pandora, Facebook… With these other new technologies is the form of community radio or news as essential in the outside world?

JH: The mission of Radio Free Burning Man was to be a community bulletin board. I loved it when people came in and asked us to make an announcement for a hammer, or some milk (the center cafe used to ask for a lot of stuff back in those days), and then come in five minutes later to ask us to stop announcing it because they got what they needed. This too is the goal of any conscious community radio station. You’re right, with the Internet at our fingertips, we can get whatever we want, when we want it. But what you cannot get so easily is a voice for your community. A resource you can go to, that will elicit such an immediate, vocal response. If each neighborhood in an urban center had a low power FM (LPFM) acting as a community center, you would see more people participating in their community. Can’t make it to the mayoral debate? Tune in to Radio Valencia. Can’t afford to advertise your small store on the big radio stations? Underwrite our programming for a mere pittance, and allow us to announce your store in your neighborhood. I could go on and on.

LT: How do you develop a supporting community? How do you take your idea and pull other people in to take it over and organize and take some ownership of it?

JH: Door to door. Really. It’s all about starting small. When Chicken John and I started events like the Church of the Bleeding Ulcer, back in the mid-90s, only about 5 people came. We had no promotion to speak of. NOTHING. A few weeks in, after word of mouth, we had to move to a larger location, because where we were couldn’t hold more than 25 people. We had 200 that wanted to be there. It’s about quality. We’re not out to make any money here. We’re here to ask the community: What are the priorities to you? What’s important to you? We have no political agenda.

LT: How are decisions made in the station? What is the leadership model and do you see it shifting over time?

JH: As for a leadership model, it’s a collective of sorts. I’m happy to facilitate, and many would point to me as the “leader”. I’m not going to shy away from it, but I’m seriously NOT the leader. This is a station that runs on the energy of the collective. I’m happy to facilitate discussion, and be the point person for new recruits, but I regularly post questions to our Google group, so the staff can comment. Nothing new happens at Radio Valencia without the staff being able to comment on it. I have yet to make a concrete station decision without the staff being able to comment first.

We ask the staff to do what they can. I see in the future the growth of committees and even sub-committees. Promotion, publicity, production being the most obvious. There’s already a technology committee, which includes the folks who run the server, the website, the archiving, etc. There’s a committee for studio technology too. These things emerge organically. No one is going to be forced into any position. If that means the station grows slowly, then so be it. Anything worth doing right, is worth taking the time to do it so.

When staff realize that they actually have a real say in what happens with the station, then they take ownership. No one is looking over their shoulder telling them what they can and cannot play or say.

Recently, KUSF was sold, and we opened our doors to the KUSF staff to come and do shows at our station, long-term, or temporary. Many have taken us up on the offer to do long-term “permanent” shows. We’re excited about where we’re going.

On the studio walls



  1. John Hell

    Thanks for the article, Lee. One point of clarification, I was not involved with BMIR. I was a co-founder and program director of Radio Free Burning Man. Thanks.

  2. Karen Carpenter

    The only programme worth listening to on Radio Valencia is NOSE HAIR LINT GLAND (Wednesdays 10pm-midnight). The rest is shite.

  3. trousertrout

    We dig some Radio Valencia in the south. Thanks alot guys, you sound good out on the East coast in the heart of the Carolinas!!!!

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