The Radio Pirate Goes Legit

Now Pirate Cat Radio is following the 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.

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