By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
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 Ryanfor 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."