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Beyond the Dial: Pirate Radio Packs Up and Moves to the Unregulated Wilderness of the Internet 

Wednesday, Dec 4 2013
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Page 3 of 4

The FCC has never been a fan of this.

On Oct. 15, 2003, the FCC raided the studios of San Francisco Liberation Radio. The feds seized the station's transmitter and its more mundane equipment (computers, CD players), gear that the FCC reported at $5,602 in value. It was not their first tangle; the FCC had issued multiple Notices of Unlicensed Radio Operation to Liberation Radio over the previous few years. The FCC also denied Liberation Radio's application for permission to construct a legitimate, Low Power FM broadcast station, citing an amendment that bars anyone known to have broadcast an unlicensed radio station from being granted a license. One strike, and that's that.

On Sept. 8, 2009, after Pirate Cat Radio had been Internet-only for a few months in response to receiving multiple notices of its own, the inevitable occurred: The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against Pirate Cat's owner, Daniel Roberts, for $10,000, having "apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934" — for operating a radio station without a license. The NAL also rebuked Roberts' long-held assertion that the FCC's "Application for Emergency Authorization" document allowed for unlicensed radio stations to operate as a public service in times of war. America was in a well-publicized "War on Terror," he reasoned, so, case closed, right? The FCC disagreed.

Several months later, on the same day in May 2010 that SF Weekly ran a cover story about radio pirates going legit, the Bay Guardian printed an ad placed by FCC Free Radio, announcing that the station — which had begun broadcasting illegally on 107.9 FM in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2009 — was now only available online. Indeed, on May 7, 2010, FCC Free had turned off its transmitter.

In an interview with Jennifer Waits of the Radio Survivor blog on July 6, 2010, FCC Free founder John Miller explained that after the FCC visited the transmitter site and sent them a few letters, it made sense to just shut the transmitter down and go Internet-only. "Unfortunately," Miller said, "people go to jail now."

On Oct. 29, 2011, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order against Pirate Cat's owner Daniel Roberts for that $10,000, and the tentative language of the 2009 order was replaced with far more direct words: Roberts owed the FCC, and the feds intended to collect. In the two years since the order had been issued, Pirate Cat Radio had been replaced by the online-only and fully legal Mutiny Radio, the staff of which was not liable for the fine. Roberts himself had long since left the country by then, after making a mess of Pirate Cat as well as of the non-pirate, fully licensed KPDO 89.3 FM in Pescadero, having served briefly as its station manager. He might have left because he knew that the $10,000 order was coming down the pike, and that the end was near — at least until the statute of limitations expires.


Even without the instructive example of that $10,000 FCC smackdown, the former pirate stations likely would have relocated onto the Internet anyway. Mutiny Radio's Benjamin acknowledges that they're online "to avoid illegalities regarding the FCC and transmission airwaves," and that they'd love to be legally on the air, "but not until we can say and play whatever the fuck we want." Besides, she points out, "The Internet is a big place. We like worldwide outreach."

It's the local outreach that may ensure community radio's longevity, however. "We want our voices and expression transmitted to a worldwide stage while maintaining a positive physical presence in the Mission District," says Benjamin. Even back in the unlicensed-airwaves days, these stations were a regular stop for local and touring indie acts, as well as anyone who had a show or other creative product to promote — and, most importantly, who are unlikely to even be acknowledged by stations owned by media monoliths such as Cumulus or Clear Channel.

San Francisco's community stations sponsor music and comedy concerts throughout the Bay Area, do interviews with artists whom the general public has actually heard of (George Clinton, Bill Ward from Black Sabbath), and even the occasional local politician. The community stations can also be found participating in Sunday Streets, broadcasting from respectable events such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' triennial Bay Area Now exhibition, and are generally above-ground and active in the mainstream world in a way that was far riskier when they were having to keep an eye out for the FCC.

Some may argue that this newfound openness results in stations that are not as edgy or dangerous as they once were, but that's why they're calling themselves "community" rather than "pirate," and not just because there's nothing illegal about being online. Being shadowy or attempting to live by some arbitrary notion of what it means to be rebellious or "punk" by broadcasting without a license doesn't seem to have as much of an appeal anymore.

For now, it seems like the best of both worlds that the stations are able to interact with the community — being there for comedy or ping-pong — and also be able to play a seven-minute compilation of all the swearing from a given episode of Deadwood, if they're so inclined. And anyone who wants to set up a transmitter and broadcast without a license can still do so, if they really want to take their chances with the FCC, but it hardly seems worth it in the post-Pirate Cat era.

About The Author

Sherilyn Connelly

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