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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.

At 16, Roberts was expelled from high school. Unlike some renegades, though, he also had a strong work ethic. In his dedication to providing a forum for himself and others to say anything they wanted, he was able to build a radio station and attract hundreds of like-minded people to take part.

Pirate Cat became known for its edgy, original, and often profanity-laced content. Except for mainstream crap, nearly every kind of music was welcome — punk, classical, garage rock, whatever. Many of the shows were in Spanish; one was in Greek. DJ Canary, the music director, described the station as a patchwork quilt. In essence, Pirate Cat was everything commercial radio was not.

DJ Che-X started his show, Notes from the Underground, each week with "FCC Song" by the Monty Python comic Eric Idle. It goes, "Fuck you very much, the FCC/Fuck you very much for fining me/Five thousand bucks a fuck, so I'm really out of luck/That's more than Heidi Fleiss was charging me."

"I was stomping all over the FCC 'cause I don't like those people," DJ Che-X explained at Roberts' 29th birthday party, attended almost exclusively by Pirate Cats. "They're stifling the creativity in the country."

"The most creative radio these days is low-power, noncommercial, and listener-supported," said Bob Summer, an NPR engineer who also runs the Burning Man station. He contemplatively sipped a PBR, then added, "Radio is an art trapped in a business."

True enough, but one major conundrum for a pirate station is that the more it appeals to a community, the more it tends to get noticed. In August 2009, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recognized Pirate Cat for its "trailblazing efforts toward freeing the airwaves from corporate control, providing the community with training in radio broadcast skills, empowering voices ignored by traditional media outlets, and contributing to the advancement of the city's coffee culture." Even author and chef Anthony Bourdain visited the station for his No Reservations TV program to try the station's infamous maple bacon latte. (The station consists of the studio and an adjacent nonprofit cafe, staffed with volunteers, which infuses Pirate Cat with funds.)

When the FCC realized that the wartime clause was being used by other pirate stations, it took one such station in New Mexico to court. The FCC prevailed, and rewrote the clause, Roberts says. Then on November 11, 2009, the FCC fined Pirate Cat Radio $10,000.

More specifically, it fined Roberts. Although he has recently worked building Web sites for Shutterfly, Disney, MCA Records, and even an adult film company in Las Vegas ("I got into writing scripts, and put a film or two together," he mentions offhandedly), he had been unemployed since October 2008.

To raise money for the fine, Roberts threw parties, but he also contacted a well-known communications attorney, Michael Couzens, who agreed to take the case pro bono. Couzens had also represented Allan Weiner, a former pirate DJ who once broadcast from a boat off Long Island Sound, but now owns an FCC license and a station.

Couzens filed a defense with the FCC, explaining that although Pirate Cat programming was being broadcast illegally in San Francisco and beyond, Roberts was not responsible. "Fans are broadcasting it, and I have no control over that," Roberts says. "In Seattle, Oregon, Chico, Los Angeles, San Diego, Honduras ... and even in San Francisco. But there's not a lot of evidence of Monkey Man, Daniel Roberts, operating a transmitter anywhere."

Roberts is still waiting for a verdict. In the meantime, he continues broadcasting Pirate Cat on the Internet. Although he says the number of listeners hasn't diminished — more than a million people subscribe to the Pirate Cat podcast — it's not the same. Fewer seem to be listening live, or calling in to shows. What once seemed like a community resource has become inaccessible to those without computers and less of a dialogue. Roberts wants to re-establish a connection to the community, even if it means being surrounded by chickens.

Roberts' dream had always involved being on the radio. Not the Internet. Not television. The radio. Saying whatever he felt like saying. Playing whatever he wanted. Just like Howard Stern did.

There's something about being on the air, where anybody scanning the dial can stumble onto your thoughts and your music. Maybe listeners will like what they hear, or feel inspired. That's how plenty of Pirate Cat DJs got involved. Two years ago, DJ Canary heard Pirate Cat in her car, and was so excited about the music that she immediately called up and volunteered.

Even former DJs who have had tiffs with Roberts over his sometimes-harsh management style say they support his endeavors. Chicken John, a cantankerous activist and one-time mayoral candidate who had a falling out with Roberts, says he'd prefer "not to waste our time talking about what a piece of shit Monkey is." Really, he just wants to celebrate the gift of collaborative community radio, which he considers an underused form of media: "The romance of putting up an antenna and just broadcasting to people. You just can't beat that."

Whether it's the romance or the power trip, once people become obsessed with being on the radio, it's not easy to walk away. Couzens has seen plenty of pirates go legit and stay on the air. "I believe that people who are active in pirate radio, who are smart and have talent, come to recognize that at some point it's a losing battle," he says. "They get warned. They get hassled. They get $10,000 fines. Guys show up with badges to inspect the station. After a while, they say, 'This is a drag. There's got to be a better way.'"

There is. If you can get a license.

When Roberts was fined by the FCC, he considered running away to Germany. But he wanted a future in radio in America — so, as DJ Che-X likes to say, "Monkey ran straight toward 'em."

When Roberts enlisted Couzens, he wound up getting more than legal help. The lawyer knows a lot about Bay Area radio, and at the time he took Roberts on, he happened to hear of a noncommercial license transfer gone wrong.

UC Santa Cruz had wanted to take control of KPDO in Pescadero. But then a Christian broadcasting network, Life on the Way Communications Inc., contested the transfer. According to Roberts, it was an attempt by the company to expand the territory of a Christian rock station on the same frequency. (No one at Life on the Way responded to an interview request.)

Not keen on spending thousands of dollars on lawyers' fees to prove it had a right to the license, the university gave up. Couzens tipped off Roberts, and Roberts immediately began researching KPDO.

He learned that in 1996, Celeste Worden was a Pescadero substitute teacher trying to engage struggling middle-school students. She eventually introduced a community radio project that proved so successful that she decided to try to start a real station.

She teamed up with engineer Mussell, who figured out that a rare pocket of about 100 watts on the 89.3 FM frequency was available. They formed the nonprofit Pescadero Public Radio Service, and began the long application process. In 2003, when the FCC finally awarded KPDO one of the last noncommercial licenses on the Northern California coast, Worden had moved to Chico to get her teaching credential.

The FCC dictates that if a station is off the air for 12 consecutive months, it must forfeit its license. So for the next six years, Mussell turned things on just often enough to keep KPDO alive. Then, last year, he moved to Hawaii — and there was no one to flip the switch.

When Roberts got in touch with Mussell, he learned that the station had been off the air for almost a year. Mussell had no plans to return from Hawaii, but Roberts offered to pay most of Mussell's plane fare — an offer Mussell couldn't refuse.

He came back, and the two broadcast Tibetan chanting for 96 hours. "That did it," Roberts says. "I saved KPDO from being lost and letting the Christians take over."

The next step was to approach Worden. It was around this time that "Monkey" became Daniel Roberts. After all, he wanted to be taken seriously.

Roberts and Worden met at a bar, and Roberts gave her his proposal for a community-oriented station, where schoolkids and other residents could learn to be radio DJs. Worden liked the sound of that, but she wanted to see that Roberts could get local backing. The next day, he drove around San Mateo County, introducing himself to business owners and making contact with nonprofits like Sonrisas Community Dental Center and South Coast Children's Services.

Roberts collected signatures on a petition asking that he be the one to build up the community radio station. But by the time he reported back to Worden, she had received another inquiry from Rob Skinner, who sat on the board of the Pescadero Municipal Advisory Committee (PMAC), the town's unofficial governing board.

Worden told Skinner to do just as Roberts had, to prove that the community was behind him. But he didn't put much work in, Worden said. Then she consulted her Tarot cards, and sure enough, Roberts "showed up."

"He was the knight of pentacles," Worden said, beaming. "The dark horse, bringing forth energy. Bringing things into fruition. There he was."

When Roberts jumps into a project, he wastes no time. Not a month after Worden decided to bring him onto the board of her nonprofit and hand him the reins to her station, he secured a place to live in San Gregorio, a small town just north of Pescadero. He found a rental space for the radio station, and a hill on which to erect the transmitter.

Roberts shares an apartment with his wife, naturalist Jane Orr, inside the San Gregorio House, a former hotel built in 1865 for travelers from San Francisco. It's supposedly haunted by two ghosts: a little girl named Annie who drowned in a nearby creek in 1880, and Mildred Bell, a former owner who died inside. By the way, the neighbors are goats.

Where exactly, the Pirate Cat DJs wondered, did this move leave Pirate Cat?

"I really don't know yet," Roberts says. At this point, he's essentially running two radio stations, and seems pretty pleased with the idea. "I'm a small version of the evil Murdoch," he jokes.

Aware that he may be stretched thin, though, he briefly considered allowing a group of DJs to take over Pirate Cat. In the end, they couldn't raise the money. Roberts had also wanted to move Pirate Cat to a higher- profile location on Valencia Street, but instead he renewed the current lease. He'd rather not deflect attention from KPDO.

"It's the new baby," DJ Canary says. "We're the old teenager. We're like, 'Whatever, dad, you got a new baby. You like it better.'"

In a way, that new baby is everybody's baby, because Roberts has asked the Pirate Cat DJs to share their shows with KPDO. Almost all of them — including DJ Canary — have agreed.

The downside, of course, is that they have to abide by the FCC's regulations. That means giving up potty-mouth privileges and music with expletives — not exactly the pirate way.

But eventually, even DJ Che-X, the guy who played "FCC Song," came around. He had a friend rewrite the song, leaving its ideas intact but extracting the swear words.

Roberts had the DJs begin practicing with the new rules a month before the KPDO launch to ensure the transition would go smoothly. Although he briefly considered instituting a three-strikes policy, he realized there was no point: If one person says "fuck" on the air, just a single listener complaint could lead to an astronomical fine. But the DJs, for the most part, have been compliant. "We go along with it, not because we think the FCC is right, but because we think our programs have more of a value if they are on the air," DJ Canary says.

Interestingly, the DJs at Pirate Cat have had less trouble going FCC-friendly than Roberts has had in securing underwriting — a form of sponsorship that includes factual statements broadcast about the sponsor — for either KPDO or Pirate Cat. In San Francisco, many of the businesses that would like to support Pirate Cat are suffering, said DJ Canary, who is in charge of local fundraising.

Roberts' approach in Pescadero, his advisers warn, has been intense for a small town. But when he asks them exactly what they mean by "too urban," they can't really explain it.

Jack McKinnon, a local pastor with a new weekend show, The Garden Coach, says that Pescadero is just a tough town to crack. "If you haven't been here three generations, they don't want to talk to you," he says. "The farmers here have sort of a clique. They talk farmer." Of course, there are certain ways of ingratiating yourself: "When I talk with them, I talk gophers. I talk fertilizers," he says.

At his desk, Roberts is wearing his smirk again, and glancing through his bible, Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community. The book has been great, but it hasn't helped him sell underwriting. He's put in hours of work making phone calls and sending e-mails to businesses in Pescadero and Half Moon Bay with no real response so far. "People have been hesitant," he says.

Orr tries to comfort him: "You only did that yesterday."

"I like immediate response," Roberts quickly says.

Grants are another option for financing the station, but Roberts has had little luck on that front, either. His application to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was recently rejected. "I'm sure there's some level of nepotism involved with who gets those grants," he says.

He's beginning to wonder whether he should pass part of the burden to the DJs and make them obtain their own underwriting. Just as he's mentioning this, a new DJ, Angel Lopez, knocks on the door. He's come by to talk about his new show, Furthest Edge, which is about radio dramas.

Lopez is one of 15 locals who have applied for shows. Others who have gotten the nod and started learning how to use the board are Tom Shu, the bartender at Duarte's Tavern, who will host Shu's Blues. Then there's Ian Harrington, a 15-year-old who goes by Zed and will discuss world politics. Henry Warde, a 24-year-old musician, will present Baseball and Bluegrass.

Roberts will host a news show every weekday from 8 to 10 a.m. as well as a Sunday evening show, Plane Crash Playlist, which will feature interviews with locals and play the 10 songs they'd want to hear if they were hopelessly stranded.

Roberts asks Lopez whether he could find an underwriter for his show. Lopez says it might be hard to raise $500, the cheapest year-long sponsorship package Roberts is offering.

Roberts needs to sell about $7,200 in sponsorships to cover the station's rent for the year. Raising $95,000 would be enough for rent and a full staff. That will be tough, though, considering how few businesses there are in Pescadero. Already, Roberts worries he's made an enemy of a woman who owns one of the bed-and-breakfast establishments. His instinct tells him to keep pushing until he sells the underwriting. But, in a small town, if he comes off as aggressive, it will certainly damage his reputation. "Word here spreads like wildfire," he says. "Everyone knows you before you know them." He says he's heard people whispering, "That's the radio guy ... he's not from here."

There have been other unforeseen challenges. For one, every restaurant in town closes at 8 p.m., and by every, that means Duarte's Tavern and the taqueria inside the convenience store. For Orr, the move to San Gregorio has meant she has a two-hour-or-longer daily commute.

That isn't to say that Roberts and Orr don't like small-town living. Being able to see all the stars is nice. They enjoy the sense of decompression. When Roberts does get time to sleep, he likes to drift off with the sound of chirping frogs and crickets all around.

If you were driving down Pescadero Creek Road on Saturday, May 8, around 10:30 a.m., with your radio set to 89.3 FM, you would have heard static. Then, just like that, you would have heard a voice.

"My ears are battered and burned, and I have just learned that I have been listening to the wrong radio station," a man's voice said. "My mind has been brutalized, and now the pain can't be disguised. I've been listening to the wrong radio station."

This diatribe against commercial radio, written and performed by British poet Benjamin Zephaniah, continued for several minutes. Roberts believed it was a perfect way to return to the airwaves.

"I couldn't think of anything more poignant to play," Roberts explained at the launch party outside the station. "Basically, what he's saying is, all media is telling him what to do. ... Instead of participating, he has to be an audience member."

With KPDO in town, the "Peskies" no longer have to be passive recipients of their media. They can have shows. They can walk into the station, and have been doing so frequently in the past several weeks.

Today, a crowd of people involved with Pirate Cat Radio has converged on Pescadero for the celebration. Several bands will perform live and be broadcast on KPDO.

The outsiders are eating up the best Pescadero has to offer — the artichoke bread from Arcangeli Grocery, the Portuguese sausage omelette from Duarte's, the lavender-infused goat cheese from Harley Farms Goat Dairy. Some steal away to look at an art exhibition in a field. One display has two giant goats made of tree trunks, surrounded by a small wooden fence. The goats are far taller than the fence, yet they stand inside it.

The creator of the exhibit, a Neil Young doppelgänger in a shabby baseball hat, sneaks up on a few onlookers. "They could leave anytime," he says. "It's only their minds holding them back." It's a piece of art Roberts would almost certainly applaud.

An ultimate go-getter, Roberts has been running around all day, ensuring things are done right. In fact, many things are going right. Since the bleak day in the station when he was feeling down about finances, he has sold two underwriting packages. Catherine Peery, the chair of PMAC and thus the town's unofficial mayor, purchased the first for her retirement planning group, Peery and Associates. Farmageddon, a company that fixes tractors and sells organic fruits and vegetables, purchased the second.

Finally settling on a log to observe the party and be interviewed, Roberts talks about the interesting transition from pirate radio to a licensed community station. It's forced him grow to up a little, he admits. "I think I finally reached 23 — at 29," he says. "I finally reached the age where I'm doing responsible things."

Since he now has to abide by FCC rules, Roberts has made it a point to thoroughly study them. He's been surprised at times by how much sense they make. He was particularly interested to learn that the FCC gives citizens the right to investigate public radio stations. That's important, because lots of stations put out more power than they should, he says, which interferes with other law-abiding stations.

"How do I say this?" he says, then pauses, weighing the implications of his words. "I guess I've finally started to respect some of the rules the FCC has in place."

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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