Women Breaking Ground: BFF.fm’s General Manager Cosmic Amanda Connects the Bay Area's Art Community Through Radio
In a world where everything seems to have a hidden agenda, it’s rare to find an organization that stays true to its mission. This is exactly what Amanda Guest has made out of BFF.fm, a non-profit community radio station based in San Francisco that is equal parts a passion project, a community org, and a creative outlet for many. Amanda, who goes by Cosmic Amanda on the air, is the founder and general manager of the volunteer and listener supported station whose purpose is to: “celebrate the cultures that make the San Francisco Bay Area a vibrant place, through music.” In their words, BFF.fm’s aims “to support emerging and underground artists and bring the Bay Area music scene to the world through the magic of Internet radio.”
“I always really loved music and listening to the radio, and was one of those kids that would make mixtapes where I pretended to be a DJ,” Amanda says. However, it wasn’t until a couple of months before she started college that she even learned about community radio. “I happened to be listening to the radio and I just heard this crazy song unlike anything I had ever heard before, so I stayed tuned for a while to find out what I was listening to.” It turned out to be the Salem State University radio station, and as soon as Amanda started her first semester there, she immediately sought out the station deep in the basement of the campus center. Until that point, she had only listened to mainstream radio, but upon her new discovery she quickly fell in love with underground sound and the process of discovering new bands.
Amanda moved to San Francisco in 2012 after years of visiting for work. “In the early 2000’s I started coming to San Francisco for work. And then I started coming just because, and the next thing you know, I’m telling my husband, ‘Pack up the house! We’re moving to San Francisco!’” She tells me the story of the first time she ever came to San Francisco on a California family road trip at age twelve. “San Francisco was the first city that I visited when I was a kid that I thought was a city for really cool adults. It just seemed like there was a lot of creativity flowing through everything and in my mind, it became a place where I could be a creative adult.”
But moving to San Francisco wasn’t without its risks for Amanda. With radio being such a big part of her life, what if she moved and there was no place for her to do radio? She tried joining every community radio that she could find, and finally got a gig with Mutiny Radio. She enjoyed having a show there, but playing music was what she loved about being a DJ, and Mutiny had more of a talk-oriented format. She missed being part of a community built around music, particularly local music. She started thinking that maybe she could take a leap of faith and start her own station. Soon after, she was invited to a party at The Secret Alley, saw a “For Rent” sign for one of the offices, and the rest was history.
The station is located in the creative workspace and collective called The Secret Alley, with an unassuming entrance on Capp Street. The moment you walk in through the door, you’re immediately greeted by The Galallery, an art space with rotating installations that showcases local independent artists. Up the stairs, and through a few sets of doors is The Secret Alley, an open, wood-paneled space with offices, studios, and art scattered about. Inside, it feels like a pirate ship meets treehouse meets antique store. BFF.fm has two studio rooms for recording and broadcasting, one with decor reminiscent of a film noir P.I. office and the other which feels like a small library office in a submarine. The space feels like a perfectly preserved slice of the eccentric and weird San Francisco of yesteryear. It’s hard to believe a space like this still exists in San Francisco, but it’s the perfect setting for a radio station that is as eclectic as BFF.fm and a general manager as vibrant as Amanda.
“I really love the magic of being live on the radio and knowing that you’re communicating seemingly to no one, but there is another person somewhere and they are connected to you, and listening to what you have to say. I think there’s something really special about that.”
“I actually cashed out my retirement fund from an old job to pay for the initial set up of everything,” she says. Amanda figured she had enough money to keep the station going for three months and then she would wait to see what happened next. “Being a DJ is something I always thought would be really cool. I think the surprise of my life has been that I never thought I wanted to get into the operational aspect.” When she was seventeen, she never envisioned herself running, let alone founding a community radio station. But in 2013, she found herself sitting at her neighborhood bar, consulting with friends on a name for the station, and writing a manifesto of all of the things she wanted her station to represent.
Amanda believes in the power of community radio to connect people. “I think radio is a really magical medium where yes, you’re kind of mass-communicating, but everyone is, for the most part, experiencing radio on a one to one connection,” she says. “People are putting earbuds in their ears to listen to your radio show, and that’s such an intimate and direct connection.” Not only that, but it’s a community where the focus is on discovering new sounds and sharing them, and giving bands a platform to talk about an upcoming gig or play a song. “That sort of thing can be really powerful, even on a small scale. One person listening to a broadcast could fall in love with a new band and start seeing them live and bring their friends, and that has the potential to have a big impact on a band.”
Growing up, she always loved disco music. The intersectionality of disco has had a profound influence on the way she sees the world. It’s the message of inclusivity that ties together her radio station and the rotating roster of DJs that share their music expertise on the airwaves. She currently has 112 volunteer DJs, who produce close to 158 hours of original programming every week. “What I wanted to create was this really positive space that was welcoming to different types of people.” Community radio is unique in that it creates a platform for people of all different backgrounds to have an opportunity to become what people hear. Amanda tells me that it’s a way to give a voice to people who might not be represented in more mainstream forms of media, and that includes not just the DJs themselves, but also the artists that they play and the people that they have on as guests. “I really love the magic of being live on the radio and knowing that you’re communicating seemingly to no one, but there is another person somewhere and they are connected to you, and listening to what you have to say. I think there’s something really special about that.”
For Amanda, it’s always been about connecting with others and she advises others looking to get involved in the Bay Area arts community to do the same. “If you’re trying to find your place in the art community, I don’t think there’s anything better that you can do than to just be your true self and make authentic, real connections with other people,” she says. So many of our interactions with others have become transactional. People often feel like they can’t reach out if they don’t have something to offer. “Over and over, the best things that have happened to me in my life and related to BFF have been from connecting with people on a real level, instead of trying to make business happen,” she says. Amanda seems like someone who knows herself well and is able to connect with others easily. It’s not hard to see how she was able to take a personal passion and turn it into an opportunity to connect with the Bay Area artistic community.
I think the challenge for the future of the city is to make sure we’re doing everything that we can so that these things are able to sustain and proliferate, but also bring more art and culture to the forefront again and make it more of a priority.” What’s a city without art, culture, or music?
In a city like San Francisco that is constantly changing and rapidly developing, it’s easy to get jaded and disheartened if you’re part of a creative community. But Amanda is more optimistic than some in her feelings about the San Francisco arts community. “There’s so much going on below the surface in the Bay Area that most people don’t get to see on a regular basis. I think the challenge for the future of the city is to make sure we’re doing everything that we can so that these things are able to sustain and proliferate, but also bring more art and culture to the forefront again and make it more of a priority.” What’s a city without art, culture, or music?
For those who want to feel as optimistic about the state of arts in the Bay Area, Amanda has some advice for you: “Listen to your local community radio station and check out independent media that is around. It’s a little extra effort, but it’s well worth it to feel connected to being here.” She also tells me that if you want to start something new in the arts world, her best advice is to tell every single one of your friends about it. There are so many creative people here that are looking for something to get involved in that it’s pretty easy to find a community of people to work with.
“Success to me looks like building something of value to the community,” she says. Amanda’s vision for BFF is for the station to one day become a cultural touchstone for San Francisco. With such a positive and inclusive message to spread, it’s not hard to envision BFF.fm becoming a household name. More personally, Amanda always wanted to get to a point where she could make running the station her primary focus. Last April, Amanda lost the job she had for the past 6 years and came to a crossroads where she had to decide between either getting full time job or doubling down and making BFF her job. Thanks to the fundraising and outreach that the station did last year, the BFF’s board of directors voted to create a full time position for general manager. Today, Amanda is the first paid employee of the station. “I’ve never been so excited to make so little money!” she says. “I’m getting paid minimum wage but it’s really cool to be able to say that I built this thing that is now supporting me and making it possible for me to do even more of what I love to do.”
The BFF.fm community is doing important and valuable work for the Bay Area arts community. It’s easy to see that something really special is going on in this studio. Donate to BFF.fm today to help support Amanda and her station continue to thrive and connect diverse music lovers all over the Bay Area.