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The Radio Pirate Goes Legit 

Now Pirate Cat Radio is following the rules.

Wednesday, May 26 2010

Page 3 of 5

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.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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