Denis Makhlin helps set up the online community-based radio station at HydeFM in San Francisco on Feb. 7, 2023. (Beth LaBerge)
Waiting on the corner of 16th and Mission between a boombox and a banana stand, you’d never know what’s inside the hollowed-out California Savings Bank. When Luis Castillo guides me up the stairs, the sounds of the street morph into a wild rhythm of drum and bass. In a drab green hallway, a black door scrawled with the name “HYDE FM” barely contains the music and pink lights within.
Inside, Clearcast is playing high BPM techno and electronic music with a group of friends; the hour before, another DJ was spinning lo-fi hip-hop and downtempo leftfield pop. The next scheduled block has Brazilian jazz and funk records lined up – all under the HydeFM banner.
This vibrant DIY internet radio station was founded in 2019 by Castillo and his longtime friend Denis Makhlin. Inspired by the college radio scene and other arts and radio collectives in Los Angeles, they decided to do something similar in San Francisco, Makhlin’s hometown.
In doing so, they joined a thriving Bay Area internet radio scene that has created countless opportunities for the musical communities it nurtures. During the pandemic, with clubs closed and live events canceled, even more DJs turned to streaming their mixes over the internet. Stations like HydeFM and Oakland’s Lower Grand Radio grew exponentially as people sought connection and comfort through music. Now, with venues reopened, these stations are pulling their digital communities into physical space.
You too can DJ
HydeFM’s first set-ups were a far cry from their current Mission digs: Castillo’s art school dorm room; Makhlin’s mom’s house; a shared apartment in Daly City. From the start, their goal was to build a collaborative and intersectional community that didn’t cater to a single musical audience.
Techno DJs mixing fast-paced rave music, hip-hop heads and jazz cats waving dusty 45s — at Hyde, artists of all stripes are invited to represent the diverse sounds of San Francisco’s many music scenes. Word began to spread, and by the time the pandemic hit, people were contacting the station en masse to volunteer their time and talents. That’s when they upgraded to their current Mission District studio.
Hyde now hosts over 30 residents and dozens more guest DJs per week. “I don’t think that would happen in any other city,” Makhlin says of the excitement around the station. “San Francisco is so special that people here are actually about uplifting a scene, and they’re about helping each other.”
I was one of the DJs who joined both Hyde and Lower Grand later in the pandemic, after hearing whispers of them at my college station in Davis. I knew my music well, but I had almost no experience with mixing or using standard DJ equipment beyond turntables. Internet radio became my training field, and as an organic cross section of Bay Area culture, it also turned me onto local music.
The collaborative nature of these communities helped me and other emerging DJs improve our skills. Most crucially, they have attracted those who would never have attempted to DJ otherwise.
“That’s something that we pride ourselves on is that if people are going to take this step into DJing or whatever they want to do in the music scene in general,” Makhlin says, “we would love to be that facilitator and be the first step into that field.”
DIY radio, but legal
The appeal of internet radio is clear. It is significantly cheaper and easier to build an online radio station than it is to acquire an FM signal. Operating a terrestrial broadcast requires compliance with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which means restricted programming, fees and licensing (which can cost thousands of dollars), and an array of complex rules.
Before internet radio came on the scene, pirate radio stations stuck lead pipes through rooftops to circumvent these laws. Aside from being highly illegal, these setups required knowledge of radio engineering and logistics, all under the threat of a hefty FCC fine or a raid.
Today, streaming on the internet requires only an internet connection, and the Bay Area has a rich history of both DIY and pirate radio stations. San Francisco’s BFF.fm was founded in 2013, Lower Grand Radio started in 2015, and Fault Radio launched in 2018.
The accessible and unrestricted nature of internet radio attracts creatives from niche and marginalized communities, people of color, and members of the queer community. And in many instances, these communities are the ones supporting the stations directly, donating funds and volunteering their labor.
Franky Kohn, aka Clearcast, joined HydeFM in 2020. A guitarist and bassist who grew up in Los Angeles, they started making electronic music as a teenager and expanded into DJing when they moved to the Bay Area in 2019. Kohn discovered DIY radio while attending underground raves put on by Hyde and other stations.
Hyde provided them with their first opportunity to DJ anywhere outside of their bedroom; now they have a monthly show at the station. “They lifted me so much,” Kohn says of the station. “I basically had very little to no experience on performing as a DJ. Without a radio station that lets people come on and perform, I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to reach out for things that I reached out for that end up leading to other opportunities.”
Now Kohn has been consistently headlining raves and events at San Francisco venues, bringing their eclectic collection of electronic music to dancing crowds. In early March they even booked a set at The Lot Radio, New York City’s well-known internet radio kiosk. Kohn says they feel lucky to be part of a movement of like-minded music lovers eager to collaborate.
‘A big community effort’
HydeFM works closely with Oakland’s Lower Grand Radio, which, over the course of eight years, has become the biggest local internet station. Alex Shen started Lower Grand in 2015, and shares space with artist Jeffrey Cheung’s Unity Press in a Broadway Avenue storefront. The two childhood friends grew up in the East Bay and played in bands together before developing their projects in tandem.
They first broadcast out of a shipping container at the MacArthur BART station before moving to the loft in a downtown bookstore, streaming music over the busy shelves. Shen says that visibility helped attract more participants, including DJs, artists, computer programmers and engineers.
“If you have the space for things to do, that’s like a public park,” Shen explains. “If you do meet each other, you’re going to connect with people and do something cool. And that’s the beauty of it, we don’t have like a set genre that we stick to or, you know, the FCC rules don’t necessarily apply here. So it’s almost like whatever goes.”
In 2019, Lower Grand moved yet again, this time into the former Oakland Surf Club on 41st and Broadway. With help from friends and station members, they built a DJ booth in the back and cleared space for Unity’s press and skateshop in the front.
“It’s just a big community effort,” Shen says, echoing Makhlin’s sentiments about Hyde. “I think since we’ve come here, more people are connecting and doing parties together, practicing, doing their DJ skills and stuff. And it’s cool that internet radio can kind of be that facilitator.”
The lockdown surge in DJing touched Lower Grand too. Pre-pandemic, they had around two dozen residents and guest shows; they now boast over 100 monthly shows and 60 resident DJs. Streams at primetime hours attract around 1,000 local and international listeners.
One of those resident DJs is college radio alum and dancer Ari Boostani, aka DJ Ari B, who joined Lower Grand in 2021. They found out about the station from other DJs at DIY raves, specifically at one centered on Middle Eastern and South Asian music.
At Lower Grand, Boostani found something they’d been looking for. “I like just having total freedom of what kind of event you can put on in a space that’s safe,” they say. “Especially as a queer person, I think having these spaces that are aimed towards being queer, femme, trans, artists — I think that’s what was missing before.”
See you on the dance floor
Internet radio stations like HydeFM and Lower Grand have become fixtures in a thriving local music ecosystem. Some venues, such as San Francisco’s natural wine spot Bar Part Time, make a point to book underrepresented and local DJs. The bar hosted a residency with Hyde, and now several station DJs play there on a regular basis. Bar Part Time’s co-founder and music director Jeremy Castillo (who is also a DJ) says their mission in starting the bar was similar to the stations’ intentions.
“I think when we first opened, I just wanted it to be for all the creative people who are left in San Francisco,” Castillo says. “And you know, we sell natural wine, the whole movement is extremely democratic and inclusive ... I think that’s the space that we really strive to be, is a place for everybody.”
On any given night, Bar Part Time fills with the sounds of what Castillo calls “wine music.” As the vino flows, mid-tempo grooves and disco get the crowd packed into the intimate dance floor, many bending over the DJ table to get a look at what vinyl is spinning.
“We have really good talent here. It’s like, why do we need to bring in a DJ from Berlin to get people into the door?” Castillo says. “I think it’s easy to really overlook what’s around you.”
On Feb. 23, Bar Part Time hosted resident DJs from Lower Grand as part of the station’s eighth anniversary celebrations, which stretched across three nights on both sides of the Bay. You’d never know it from the festive atmosphere, but the night before the party, Lower Grand had been burglarized, losing almost all its DJ equipment.
In the true spirit of a DIY, any sense of defeat was quickly snuffed by action. The GoFundMe Shen put together to buy new gear hit its goal of $11,500 after only five hours. By the third night of the anniversary parties, toasts were being made to the love and generosity of everyone who donated.
It is this kind of persistent community ethos that Makhlin says is his motivation to continue HydeFM, and the reason it has grown so much here in San Francisco. The scene does not thrive in spite of the Bay Area – it is the Bay Area.
As Makhlin says, “People always say San Francisco used to be like that. No, I think San Francisco right now is like that.”
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