40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey Into Pirate Radio (2004)
by Sue Carpenter

Like most memoirs of my generation's movers and shakers, 40 Watts From Nowhere attempts to make a grand, Morian mountain out of the miserable molehill it actually is. It's a real failure of my peers to lack the insight and contextual awareness they'd require to realize that whatever it is that they've done, it's not much in the grand scheme of things.

The book traces Sue Carpenter's experience running a pirate radio station, first in San Francisco (KPBJ), then more successfully in L.A. (KBLT). The author employs a propulsive present-tense narrative style that keeps things feeling immediate, though after a short while, the hackneyed similes and tonedeaf dialogue prove 40 Watts to be a reasonably interesting 5-page article stretched out painfully to book length. It's like trying to make a feature film out of a "Dear Abby" letter.

The witless call letters of her stations let you know immediately that this is someone who, though pretty pleased with herself, isn't terribly clued in, and this notion is borne out through 225 pages of self-aggrandizing prose desperately trying to convince the reader of Carpenter's hipness. But just as you can buy the fixings for a pirate radio station at Radio Shack, the poses and totems of hipness are easily acquired – and they don't amount to hipness if all you're after is people thinking you're hip.

Carpenter's lack of imagination pervades the book, from her dopey call letters to her selection of a pseudonym (Paige Jarrett, the real name of a former classmate), and even to her motivation for becoming a pirate in the first place: she wants there to be a radio station that plays all kinds of music, free from the shackles of corporate ownership and mandated playlists. Everyone has this idea, and to her credit, Carpenter actually made it happen (even if her main inspiration was – seriously – Pump Up the Volume). But how her station was ultimately any different from every college station in the country remains a mystery. KBLT broke no ground at all, despite the many arguments for that idea in 40 Watts – it's success was a predictable result of hipsters jumping on board anything perceived to be renegade.

Absinthe isn't really illegal; nor is it particularly hard to get – but its mythos keeps it attractive to the bohemian type. Similarly, pirate radio evokes romantic ideas of a life led constantly trying to stay one step ahead of The Man – but on the scale of rogue things one might do, it's hardly enlisting in Franco's army or running a stretch of the Underground Railroad. Especially if all you're doing is playing alternative music at the height of that trend's popularity.

KBLT struck enough of a nerve that it garnered a large and devoted audience, as well as a passionate staff and even high-profile guests to Carpenter's studio (run out of her apartment). Yet is it some kind of achievement to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers into your apartment? You probably could do that by offering them some shirts.

The success of KBLT is simply an illustration of how a boho "scene" develops. Someone knows someone, word gets out, and credibility builds as more impressive names get involved. Mike Watt of the Minutemen becomes a DJ, suddenly the perception is that this is some seriously subversive shit. In reality, Mike Watt was probably happy to find something that lent him the subversive image he obviously feels is important to embody. The fact that Carpenter wasn't familiar with the Minutemen is only one of countless details that reveal her to be a poseur … albeit one willing to go much further than most people to mask that fact.

The insularity of Carpenter's narrative starts taking on delusional qualities when she starts making statements like "Silver Lake is becoming the new Seattle," no small thanks, it is implied, to KBLT. Silver Lake is a cool place, sure, but it was not then, nor is it now, "the new Seattle," and for that matter, KBLT at its height was still very fucking small. Why does everyone my age think they are the center of the universe? Where is the Gen-X Galileo to point out that there is still a fucking sun?

The book's central problem is its author's absolute lack of self-awareness, or perhaps refusal to be personally revealing. She admits to being, at heart, a geeky suburban girl with a hard-to-pinpoint thrillfactor for cool music – but she spends an awful lot of time making references to her supposed hipster quirks (she drives a motorcycle; she dyes her hair; she dates a heroin addict). For all her evidence-gathering to prove her validity as a cool chick, she shines through nakedly as that geeky suburban girl, whining from the get-go about every inconvenience the pirate radio lifestyle causes her. She has to clean up beer cans and cigarette butts; she gets no sleep as DJs come and go; she has to shell out for equipment repairs; she has to hide her double life from anyone in her "real" career (journalist). Never does she stop to ask herself why she's chosen the situation, nor whether she ought to just abdicate it.

As KBLT ascends, so does Carpenter's journalism career, and it's here that the book really loses any shred of indie cred. The station is increasingly fueled by major-label PR efforts, and she's writing for Jane and Spin, infiltrating various subcultures to tattle on them to The Man. It becomes clear, as she crafts a career as a contemptible Gen-X mutant clone of George Plimpton, that the whole pirate radio thing was all just one big posture trying to fill whatever gigantic emotional blanks Carpenter obviously has deep down.

Though the author is quick to dismiss political talk-radio pirates as too far-out and uninteresting, she's quicker to lump herself with those freedom fighters when it's convenient to do so, as in the epilogue where she takes pride in having a hand in "changing the rules." Sue Carpenter changed no rules; she ran the equivalent of a Live 365 webcast before that was easy to do. You know you're dealing with someone who needs a dose of reality when one of the high points of her tale involves interviewing Beck.

Review by La Fée