In 2012, Amanda Guest found herself bored with her publishing career in Massachusetts. She missed her days at Salem State University, where she had a show on the college radio station, WMWM, for 10 years.
"I just knew I never wanted to be a commercial radio DJ," she says.
So Guest did what any reasonable person in her position would do: she negotiated for her job to let her work remotely and moved cross-country to San Francisco, a city to which she hardly had any connection other than her fascination with bands like Shannon and the Clams and Sonny & the Sunsets. After a brief gig hosting her own show at community station Mutiny Radio, she found a space in the Secret Alley, an interdisciplinary art space in the Mission, and liquidated her retirement savings to launch her own station, BFF.fm, in 2013.
"I wanted to stay in community radio or college radio where you have the freedom to play what you wanna play," she tells me when I meet her in BFF.fm's headquarters. With its wood-paneled walls and assortments of surrealist art and odd knick-knacks, the vibe is art gallery-meets-pirate ship, akin to a set from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. "You're providing this service of introducing people to all these sounds they may have not been exposed to otherwise."
Five years later, BFF.fm (Best Frequencies Forever) has grown into a force in the local music scene. On Sept. 7, the station celebrates its fifth anniversary with DJ sets at Off the Grid, the food-truck party at Fort Mason Center. For the month of September, BFF.fm also has a pop-up at the Mission Street art space Artists' Television Access, where they'll host live shows.
Every week, dozens of DJs cycle through BFF.fm's studios, and the station's robust daily schedule is filled with eccentric, eclectic and free-form programming. On Astral Projection Radio Hour, for instance, DJs Shewolfe and Beatrix Gravesguard play music with occult themes, interview self-described witches and ruminate on astrology.
"They do 'snackoscopes,' which are horoscopes where they provide snack pairings," Guest says. "But they also talk about feminism and all sorts of fascinating topics—anything from outer space to cartography."
Casually Crying is a show about "normalizing emotions," where DJs Teary-Eyed Teresa and Sad Dad Shaina play artists who give them the feels, like James Blake and Ezra Bell. Rude Awakening is a time warp into your high school ska phase. And popular news blog Mission Local has a show called Listen Local, spotlighting Bay Area artists.
"Five years ago, I didn't even know what to expect," Guest says of the station's growth. "I think the DJs, through just expressing themselves, have pulled this concept in directions I never thought were possible."
As Guest's roster of shows has expanded over the years, she's forged unexpected connections with music lovers from across the city and the globe. Sábado Ecléctico (or Eclectic Saturday) features two hours of underground sounds from Latin America. The DJ, Diego, is based in Mexico City but frequently comes to San Francisco to work on a startup and to record in the studio.
"It's truly the most eclectic Latin music show," Guest says. "One day he was playing Mexico City underground punk and juxtaposing that with traditional Cuban music. Everything always hangs together really well, and I feel like that's an art."
On my visit to BFF.fm's headquarters on a recent Friday, it's The Long Lunch Break, a show with a rotating cast of DJs (including Guest, who also goes by Cosmic Amanda) who base their song selections on particular locations in San Francisco. Suldrew, a longtime fan of the station, is the guest DJ today. He's playing a lot of classics: Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Erasure and Styx, with some newer stuff like Tune-Yards.
"I started listening when [BFF] was really new," says Suldrew. He started out as a fan, then a donor, then a guest DJ—and now he's angling towards launching his own show.
"Free-form radio doesn't really exist anymore," he says. "Everything is so commercial. When you tune into any of these shows, you have a very different perspective on things, whether it's classics or new music."
For Guest's part, she's figuring out ways to make BFF financially solvent enough to make it her full-time gig and hire a couple staff members, which is tricky to do without advertising. "We're entirely listener-supported and self-supported," she says. "My over-all curatorial vision is to provide a platform for all different types of people to have a voice on the radio."
BFF.fm celebrates its 5th birthday on Friday, Sept. 7 at Off the Grid with sets by Doncat, Cassiopeia, Love Jerks and DJ Cosmic Amanda. Details here.