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Tune in, turn on, say "fuck": This is the story of a man named Monkey and his very special Pirate Cat Radio

Wednesday, Jan 5 2005
Howard Stern ditches the public airwaves for satellite radio. The Federal Communications Commission's Michael Powell chastises Monday Night Football for a "racy" commercial. Santa Monica's KCRW-FM axes commentator Sandra Tsing Loh for an unbleeped "fuck." More than 20 ABC affiliates deep-six Saving Private Ryan for fear of FCC fines (even though the film's been aired twice before). The sanitizing of the airwaves -- both radio and television -- continues unabated. Where can you go to hear the whole unexpurgated truth? Where can you turn when you want a media outlet that will treat words as language rather than as weapons in some holy war? Where can you go to listen to music that's punk as shit?

Pirate Cat Radio, that's where.

Way down on the left of the dial at 87.9 FM, Pirate Cat is an illegal station whose programmers play and say whatever they want, whenever they want. That means liberal uses of the FCC's forbidden seven dirty words, as well as frank discussions of sexuality, politics, and being really fat. Plus plenty of great music.

"Most radio stations play about one good song a month and have a morning show with some douche bag making fart jokes," says Chicken from S.F.'s Fat Wreck Chords. "What's rad about Pirate Cat is that they play a ton of good records by bands I forgot I even liked."

Over the last 2 1/2 years, Pirate Cat has grown from a nonentity to a local institution. Renowned musicians such as Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8 and Stoo Odom of Graves Brothers Deluxe have their own programs, while such artists as Pitch Black, John Dwyer, and the Wendy Kroys have performed at benefits for the Cat. Not only have Jello Biafra and members of Camper Van Beethoven declared their appreciation for the station, but also local politicians Tom Ammiano, Ross Mirkarimi, and Rene Salcedo have come out in favor of it. Even the FCC cops -- who have shut down illegal stations like San Francisco Liberation Radio in the past -- have kept their peace.

Perhaps this latter blind-eyed approach has to do with the assertion by Monkey Man (Pirate Cat's pseudonymed founder) that, according to federal law, unlicensed radio stations are allowed to broadcast during "any war in which the United States is engaged," be it against terror or Iraq. Or perhaps such leniency has to do with Monkey's kinder, gentler goal for the station.

"I'd like it to be more of a pirate radio version of NPR," he says.

Watch out, Garrison Keillor.

Monkey Man's objectives for the station weren't always so lofty.

"Our first slogan was 'Pirate Cat Radio: We can say "Fuck,"'" recalls the diminutive founder, a faux-hawked twentysomething who's asked for security reasons that we say the studio is on an island in the bay.

Monkey started the station in 1997 when he was in high school in Los Gatos (hence the name, Pirate Cat). He'd gotten kicked off of Radio Free San Jose for making offensive prank calls, so he bought a Ramsey broadcast kit for $20, made himself an antenna, and started using his bedroom's five-disc player to transmit to a five-block radius. In the next six months, he improved his equipment considerably, increasing his power from a quarter-watt to 15 watts, enough to reach much of the South Bay. That's when the communication cops first began arriving.

"The FCC visited all the time, but I was still under 18 so they couldn't do much," he says.

Eventually, Monkey went off to college at UC Santa Cruz and brought the station with him. By this time, he'd transitioned to airing MP3s from a computer playlist, which enabled him to increase his library tenfold. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 2001, he'd also figured out how to set up live remote broadcasts from clubs -- even if his studio was still in his bedroom.

"We had problems with neighbors complaining their TVs were fucked up and they couldn't pick up the local jazz station," he says with a chuckle.

Monkey's time in La La Land was schizophrenic. On the one hand, he was thoroughly embraced by the community of rockers and celebs. Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister invited Monkey over to his house, David Lee Roth called in to the station repeatedly, Penelope Spheeris wanted to do a documentary about Pirate Cat, Andy Dick plugged Monkey on VH1, animators from The Simpsons would listen while they worked. Members of punk bands like the Circle Jerks, Fear, Naked Aggression, and Agent Orange were all big fans.

But at the same time, Monkey found the City of Angels restrictive -- in terms of both costs and mind-set. "I wasn't able to do everything I wanted to do down there," he says. "The mentality is different."

Monkey moved back up to the Bay Area in June 2002. "This is where I feel comfortable; this is where I feel at home."

This is also where he could rent cheap spaces for both a transmitter and a studio, so that he could air actual DJ shows instead of just computer-generated playlists. And where, for some reason, the FCC would leave him alone. "I got over 120 FCC notices before coming here; sometimes they would come multiple times in a week," he says. "Now they're nothing more than a paper tiger."

Monkey believes that, unless you're hurting someone else, the FCC won't bother you. "As much as San Francisco Liberation Radio liked to say they were shut down for saying dangerous things [last year], they were actually interfering with the Oakland airport," he says.

During that FCC crackdown, Monkey went on the air and invited the feds over to his station, offering them coffee and cookies and a look at his equipment. No one came. Perhaps they'd read Title 47 Section 73.3542 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, which states that broadcasters don't need a license during periods of national emergency. (Monkey has shown the text to several lawyers, some of whom have upheld his claims.) Most likely, they couldn't be bothered, simply because there'd been no complaints about PCR. So far, everyone -- from S.F. supervisors to old punks -- seems delighted with the station.

"Pirate Cat Radio is what radio is supposed to be," says Odeon Bar owner Chicken John. "I put a stereo in my truck just to hear songs I haven't heard in 20 years."

Certainly, PCR provides old punk and new wave fans with enjoyable walks down memory lane. But what's most refreshing about the station is its anything-goes format. Unlike those college radio stations that resort to block-programming certain genres of music, Pirate Cat is fully free-form all the time. This means that you may get 45 straight minutes of punk/country/electro/goth music or you might receive a half-hour of discussion on the Ukrainian elections, peppered with bits of Eastern European chanting.

Some shows have stronger themes than others. There's Fat-a-Tat-Tat, a program dealing exclusively with discussing large bodies, songs, and tales of sex with Evel Knievel's ex-wife; Madame Psychosis, which is "devoted to the examination of the diseased brain" and hosted by a self-described circus freak; Cyco Logic Loco, full of "pure offensive punk rock the way it should be"; She Said, She Said, a pop-culture talk show focusing on pertinent questions like "Who's the hottest first lady?"; and Drive Time With Mr. Odom, which features tracks that have been causing accidents for 80 years. All programs are produced live, save for Germany's Pogo Radio and S.F.'s long-running MaximumRocknRoll Radio.

"I'd gotten very disaffected about radio, and so it was really refreshing to hear something like this coming over the airwaves," says Graves Brothers' Odom, who went from being a listener to a DJ over a year's time.

Monkey seems quite sincere about making his station a punk version of NPR. "I'm pushing for more talk shows, more interviews with people around town," he says. "I want people to meet somebody and shake their hand over the radio, as corny as that sounds." Already he runs a daily four-hour feed of Deutsche Welle World News, the German international broadcasting service. "I don't want anything that's ultra-right wing or ultra-left wing," Monkey explains. "I want something very centrist that gives you the facts and allows you to make up your own mind."

He's also working with an after-school program called Just Think, offering airplay to kids who make their own hip hop songs. Then there's Pirate Cat TV, an analog pirate station that he's looking to launch early this year.

Who knows, before long, Monkey might join the ranks of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch in the world of oddball media moguls. But don't worry. Pirate Cat Radio's motto will always remain "You can say 'Fuck.'"

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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