Mutiny Radio, located in San Francisco, California, is a unique independent radio station led by Pam Benjamin and Daniel Roberts.
Mutiny Radio at 2781 21st St., San Francisco. Photo by Yujie Zhou, Feb. 6, 2024.

Obscure art pieces, buckets of XLR cables, stereo equipment, mixing boards, a camcorder, a tent and an old cooler were among the items on sale in early January at Mutiny Radio, a clubhouse for comedians, storytellers, poets, musicians and artists that shuttered its storefront at 21st and Florida streets on Jan. 31.

“It was my entire life that I sacrificed everything for, for 10 years,” said Pam Benjamin, 49, the owner of Mutiny Radio since 2013. “It was my business. It was my income. It was my struggle.”

The same could be said for the others who kept the clubhouse at 2781 21st St. alive over its 18-year life span. Benjamin was the last of its operators.

Originally founded in 2006 in the midst of the dot-com boom, Mutiny Radio was always a bit out of sync with a changing San Francisco, and more a throwback to the Summer of Love or the 1980s, when punk spaces emerged along the Valencia corridor. But, by the time Mutiny Radio opened its doors, that San Francisco was gone, and the counterculture venue was at odds with the dot-com era already underway.

The project started as Pirate Cat Radio, an unlicensed radio station where like-minded people put in hours making cool stuff for no pay, said Aaron Lazenby, one of the founding members. In 2011, after founder Daniel Roberts, also known as Monkey Man, was fined $10,000 for broadcasting without a license and disappeared suddenly, the DJs and volunteers he left behind organized into a collective and soon rebranded it into Mutiny Radio. “This guy [Roberts] skipped the country,” said JW Blunt, who was Mutiny’s music director. “[The others in the collective] changed the name of the radio station so they could avoid getting fined.”

At its peak, everyone in the 50-person collective had a vote in decisions. Benjamin took over the space in 2013, when some of the collective members, including Lazenby, decided to move on. In retrospect, Blunt believes Benjamin, whom he described as an “out-of-the-closet” socialist and “my hero,” assumed control because she had a passion for “having a platform where people could express themselves freely.”

The main cost of running the space was its $2,300-a-month lease, according to Blunt; for a decade, Benjamin managed the finances with fundraisers and by hosting shows at other venues.

“I’m tired of the GoFundMes every year. I’m tired of begging people for money,” said Benjamin. Three GoFundMes in 2017, 2018 and 2020 raised $10, $2,545 and $8,650, respectively. Other venues sometimes paid Benjamin $150 to host a show, and she sold See’s Candies for fundraising. The San Francisco Arts Commission awarded Benjamin $20,000 and Mutiny Radio $50,000 in 2023 for facility rent and monthly overhead expenses. Blunt said Benjamin paid a year’s rent at once with the grant. With rent at $27,600 a year, it is unclear if most of that money went toward back rent but, by the end, Benjamin said she was on food stamps and out of money. 

Earlier in her tenure, Benjamin shifted Mutiny’s focus from radio to open mics. On its more active nights, poet and San Francisco staple Diamond Dave Whitaker “lit the place on fire” with his freestyling poetry coupled with politics, according to Lazenby.

“Everyone was just turned on by him. Everyone was cheering,” said Lazenby. “Young people, old people, all ethnicities, all groups of people, just showing up and occupying that space and making it what was possible there.”

The pandemic created the last “huge spike” for Mutiny Radio, Blunt said. In the spring of 2020, when most other venues were closed, Mutiny hosted its open mics on the sidewalk to ensure social distancing. “You got all these comedians that are coming out and telling jokes on the sidewalk, and you got all these neighbors, and all these people from out of town that are just walking by, or like, ‘Oh, What is this? This is cool,’” said Blunt. 

On the other hand, the pandemic cost Mutiny Radio a lot of DJs, who moved away and didn’t come in anymore. “I think that [Pam] got burnt out,” said Blunt. “Pam was [hosting open mics] six days a week. She basically didn’t have a life outside of this. And her strength is her weakness; she overworked herself.”

But the venue only had a niche following. “The idea that it ever had any kind of real audience was questionable, in my mind,” said Chris Carlsson, a longtime Mission resident and one of the historians who runs FoundSF. “It was always a very marginal operation, very close to the edge.”

  • A group of people sitting in front of a window.
  • A woman in front of a microphone in a recording studio.
  • A man smoking a cigarette in front of a microphone.
  • A woman in a white dress standing in front of a microphone.
  • A woman in a black skirt singing into a microphone.
  • A group of people standing in front of a window.
  • A woman standing in front of a store with a microphone.

Radical freedom of speech and counterculture

Bejamin decorated Mutiny with artwork depicting luchadores, Jesus with lasers coming out of his eyes, a psychedelic Abraham Lincoln and a giant banner that read, in raised text, “Fuck this shit,” according to a frequent visitor. 

“You could do anything on [Mutiny Radio’s] stages; that’s what made it cool. I would eat food on stage, or roll around on stage,” said Jay Steward, a 31-year-old open mic performer who frequented Mutiny Radio, making jokes about police brutality, drugs and religion. He usually performed for three to seven people, in an audience area that could accommodate some two dozen, at most.

Some jokes on Mutiny’s stage were “incredibly sexual,” and others could be “anything from 9/11 jokes to incest jokes to school shooting jokes,” said Steward.

Benjamin, who is now in Athens, Greece, remains bitter, and talks about a city that no longer cares about its artists. “San Francisco used to be a place of authenticity and dirtbags,” she said. Now, “as a people, we champion mediocrity … now it’s all fake it until you make it.” 

But she is also angry at the artists who, she says, failed to support her.

Lack of appreciation

Larry Dorsey Jr. 33, a comedian who was involved in Mutiny for more than 10 years, says Benjamin is known as “the godmother of Bay Area comedy,” for all of the help she gave emerging artists. But the favors were not reciprocated, Benjamin said.  

“Every single comedian in San Francisco has come through the doors of Mutiny Radio, and I’ve been holding open the door,” Benjamin added. “And every time they go through the door, they shut the door behind them.”

Dorsey agreed. “I feel as if more people could have shown her love and support, because of all the support and love that she’s shown others,” he said, adding that Benjamin taught him how to operate the boards and mics when he started doing radio there 10 years ago.

“It had a storefront, like a headquarters location,” said Natalie Wu, a comedian who performed at the Mutiny Radio Comedy Festival in 2022. While many other open mics typically take place for a single night at a bar or a restaurant, Mutiny bred a sense of community, she said.

“Mutiny was a great place for people who wanted to start trying to do comedy,” said Dorsey.” If we’re comparing it to school, it was like community college.” 

“Begging people for money”

Community college, however, has never been a place for profit. 

The revenue streams were meager: The shows at Mutiny were generally free, though Benjamin led comedy- and poetry-writing classes, charging several hundred dollars per student.

And, in the end, even the small clientele had moved on. 

Benjamin made the decision to close after a lukewarm annual comedy festival, which, she said, ended up raising only 15 percent of what Mutiny needed to keep afloat in 2024.

“I’m surprised it lasted this long,” said Lazenby. “She did a tremendous job keeping that place alive. The fact that it survived 10 years after a bunch of us left is a testament to her commitment.” 

While Mutiny Radio has closed its doors, its podcast archive remains active, and it will host open mics at various venues. “Even though the storefront is not there, the open mics are alive,” said Blunt. 

Benjamin is on a three-month sabbatical with two suitcases, hoping to finish her novel, musical, a film, and perhaps try her hand at longer comedy sets, at bigger venues. “I’ll never go back to San Francisco,” she said.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. There were two inexplicable things at that corner. The bike that never seemed to move and never got stolen and Pirate Cat. Now I know the story behind one of them. Good luck on your next endeavor Benjamin.

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