“40 Watts“ is the frank and funny tale of Carpenter‘ s foray in fast-paced journey into the world of mid-‘90s, California pirate radio, and her amazing story is a salute to free-spirited mavericks everywhere who attempt to do something about a situation that they find sub-par.
In this case, it was what Carpenter, then a bored, broke, yet terminally hip college grad heard - or wasnt hearing - on the radio that led her to take matters into her own hands and create two different radio stations. Its a story that is all the more remarkable because it is true, and one that needs to land on your “must-read“ list if youve ever had a brush with being a DJ, worked for a college radio station, or fantasized about what it would be like to fill the airwaves with all of the music with which you wanted to enlighten the rest of the world.
In the Introduction, we quickly learn that for author Carpenter, the radio is much more than something one puts on for background distraction or entertainment:
“It‘s a Friday, about 11 A.M., when the station turns to static. My pulse doubles in an instant. I can‘t believe they did it again. I don‘t even know who “they“ are, but it‘s the second time they‘ve turned off the transmitter in two days.
Yesterday, they figured out which antenna and transmitter were ours from the half-dozen others scattered on top of the same high-rise, but they were gone before we could get there and identify them. Today, I‘m not going to let them get away. I run out the door and kick start my beat-up Honda. Ordinarily I‘d let the little junker warm up, but there‘s no time. I keep the choke on and speed down the street, revving the throttle hard.
I‘m about to shift into second when a red light stops me. I train my eye on the signal and peel out the instant it goes green, taking the corner so fast my left knee almost scrapes the ground. My front tire is inches from rear-ending a Mercedes. I can‘t believe this traffic. It isn‘t rush hour. It isn‘t even lunchtime. Where did all these cars come from? And why are they moving so slowly? I scream at them through my face shield. They need to get out of my way.
Don‘t they understand what‘s happening here? KBLT, the radio station I built from scratch, the station I‘ve sacrificed my apartment for -- and my sanity -- might be permanently kaput. I lay on the horn. I can‘t stand these L.A. drivers and their lane-hogging SUVs. I can‘t squeeze through. I pass three cars in the turning lane, praying the cops won‘t bust me for reckless driving.
Three glorious years -- well, sometimes glorious years --of squatting on the FM dial. It can‘t be over. What have we done wrong? Who turned us in? Why now?
This Friday morning is no different from any other at my radio station: Eddie knocks on the door, I let him in, and he spins dub, krautrock, or whatever other music he wants for whoever‘s tuned in. Two hours later Hassan stops by with his crate of classic jazz, and so it goes, nonstop, around the clock, twenty-four hours each day. So what if I don‘t have a license to operate? I just couldn‘t scrape together the $100 million I needed to buy my way onto the FM band in L.A. It can‘t be so wrong to co-opt a little underutilized air space so music lovers can show off their record collections. It makes no sense that that‘s illegal.
I focus on the tower at Sunset and Vine two miles away. A jumble of antennas and satellite dishes clutter its roof. Shit. There‘s something moving up there. There are people moving. I feel sick. I need to calm down. If I don‘t pull it together I‘m going to slip under the fender of a Mack truck and sever a leg.
Okay. One mile. Just one more mile and I‘m there. Jesus, the sun is bright. In my rush, I didn‘t manage to grab my sunglasses. I‘m squinting and can barely make them out in the distance, but two tiny ant people are wriggling somewhere in the vicinity of the KBLT antenna. This just might be the end.“
Carpenter‘s radio odyssey began when she was going nowhere in a dead-end job as a law office receptionist and her relationship with a junkie boyfriend seemed on the skids. In 1995, she turned a chance meeting with an attorney into an opportunity to become a radio station owner. As she does with all things, Carpenter did it her way, though, and with the help of some subversive-minded technology geeks and pirate-radio veterans, she built her first transmitter in her hilltop San Francisco apartment, and launched KPBJ, which she named after the sandwich.
When she lands a magazine job in Los Angeles, Carpenter takes her transmitter with her, and establishes KBLT, again named after the sandwich. Over the next three years, it grows into one of the city‘s best-loved radio stations, staffed by more than a hundred DJs who said and played whatever they felt like, and sought after by major music labels who wanted to tap into her eclectic cult of an audience. Through it all, our fearless leader stays one step ahead (barely) of the FCC, hosts everyone from members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to an unbelievable cast of local characters in her living room/studio, and becomes a pop culture icon in her own right.
The wilder the times and people are in Carpenter‘s book, the more fun it all is, and she has a casual, self-deprecating sense of humor that works well in her narration and makes the reader quickly feel as if they know her. Her motives were fairly simple at first - Carpenter just wanted to play better music than what she was hearing - but when youre running a pirate radio station, things arent going to stay uncomplicated for long. The station eventually becomes a money pit, Carpenter doubts herself and her hobby constantly, and the non-stop parade of oddballs wandering into her home all begin to take a toll. Eventually, the FCC will shut down her operation in 1998, but not without an array of mini-dramas taking place.
As with most stories of this sort, the downside is never as much fun as the rise, but it still makes for enjoyable reading. As much as anything, this is a tale of a young woman in search of herself who never could have predicted what she would find through the love of music. This seems destined for the big screen, or at least an installment of VH-1‘s “Behind the Music,“ but until that happens, dont miss the fun of Carpenters own words and rebellious attitude.