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The Radio Pirate Goes Legit 

Now Pirate Cat Radio is following the rules.

Wednesday, May 26 2010

Daniel Roberts is bigger on being heard than seen, but this is an interesting time to take a look at him. It's a Wednesday afternoon in late April, and he's ensconced at his desk, looking oh-so-pirate-radio in mod attire, dark-framed glasses, and a restive smirk.

San Franciscans know Roberts, the man behind the city's infamous Pirate Cat Radio station, as "Monkey," which is shorthand for Affenmensch, he explains casually. Affenmensch is German for "monkey man." The name has something to do with what a hellion Roberts was as a kid, but he isn't going to talk about that.

Lately, this Monkey Man has had to do a bit of growing up.

Today, he's far from his natural San Francisco habitat, an hour south of the city in a coastal farming town where there are plenty of chickens but only one stoplight. Here, Monkey is Daniel Roberts, and for good reason. When you take over a small-town radio station, you just don't introduce yourself as Monkey.

The story of how Roberts found himself in Pescadero (population: 2,042) begins when he was 13, the age he contracted the radio bug. He loved messing around with broadcasting equipment, and eventually rigged up the first iteration of Pirate Cat Radio in his Los Gatos bedroom. Several years later, he started illegally (and unapologetically) broadcasting Pirate Cat's bizarre smorgasbord of music and news on 87.9 FM in San Francisco.

Last year, Roberts was fined $10,000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for operating a station without a license, so he transitioned Pirate Cat off the airwaves and onto the Internet. That sucked, since Roberts lives to provide a way for people to get on the air, play what they want, and say what they think.

To do this, he was willing to leave San Francisco for Pescadero, a place where people speak "farmer" and barns are said to be haunted. "It's this weird mix of crazy cowboys and farmers and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test people from La Honda, all meshed together in this unique way, kind of like a more wholesome Twin Peaks," he says.

Becoming a stranger in a strange land was not really so daunting — or rare — for Roberts. What was more awkward about the whole thing was the fact that for the first time, he would be turning in his eyepatch to run a legit radio station — with an FCC license.

Does that make him a total sellout? Or just lucky?

The Bay Area is the fifth-largest radio market in the United States, meaning that an affordable, available FCC license is about as common as a live jackalope. The problem, according to radio engineer Don Mussell, is that the airwaves from south of Salinas all the way north of Santa Rosa are saturated. "There are no more frequencies," he says. "Everything is jammed together."

To get in at KPDO 89.3 FM — Pescadero's dormant, noncommercial radio station — Roberts had to overcome a few obstacles. First, he had to rescue an up-for-grabs license before it reverted to FCC control. Then he had to persuade the owner of the license — an emotive, New Age-y teacher — that an out-of-town ex-pirate was a better choice than a member of the town's governing committee. In the end, the future of Pescadero's community radio came down to a Tarot card reading. Seriously.

Today, at the freshly painted station on Pescadero Creek Road, people are stopping by to see what's up, which is the Pescadero way. It's nice to have community support, but Roberts has serious work to do, and time is running out before the station launch on May 8. He hasn't been getting a whole lot of sleep. The rooster next door makes sure of that.

Going legit in a small town has brought bigger challenges than Roberts imagined. For one thing, he must ensure that the programming — some of which will come from Pirate Cat Radio — is free of profanity. Additionally, he has found himself in the unenviable position of having to recruit sponsors for his nonprofit to survive. There are just 22 businesses in Pescadero, and a local pastor has already advised him that his sales approach is "too urban."

"I have to be careful," Roberts says. "It's a small town."

A few weeks ago, Roberts was puffing a filtered Lucky Strike outside Pirate Cat headquarters at 2781 21st St. in the Mission and explaining a few things about the station when one of the station's DJs sped in on a bicycle. The rider hit the curb at about 10 miles per hour and sailed off the bike, narrowly avoiding disaster, then laughed about it.

That kind of recklessness was a good explanation of Pirate Cat — or, more accurately, what Pirate Cat used to be. In April 2003, when Roberts began broadcasting in San Francisco, he didn't hide from the authorities. Instead, he argued that his station was operating legally, based on a little-known provision in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that allows unlicensed broadcasting in times of war — and the War on Terror qualifies, does it not?

Roberts was the first person to use that loophole, which gained him recognition in the national radio community. Here was a guy in his early 20s, running his own station and subverting one of the government's own rules.

That's no surprise to Nir Bialik, a friend from Roberts' youth in Los Gatos. The two often used to hang out, cohosting pirate radio shows in San Jose, seeing movies, and occasionally trying to get Roberts' pet iguana to smoke pot. (Roberts denies the last part.)

They saw the Howard Stern movie, Private Parts, together, and Bialik remembers it had a big impact on Roberts. "I think he always wanted to be like that," Bialik says. "Someone who could say what's on his mind."

Roberts' frankness sometimes got him in trouble, Bialik says, particularly with sensitive or timid people. The San Jose pirate radio gig ended in part because the guy running the station was afraid of the FCC, and Roberts made it clear, over and over, that he wasn't.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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