The Radio Pirate Goes Legit

Now Pirate Cat Radio is following the rules.

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.

DJ Canary, who is also Pirate Cat Radio’s music director, will have her electronic music show broadcast in Pescadero.
Jamie Soja
DJ Canary, who is also Pirate Cat Radio’s music director, will have her electronic music show broadcast in Pescadero.
Pirate Cat Radio’s station and cafe, the home of the maple bacon latte.
Kim A. Quinones
Pirate Cat Radio’s station and cafe, the home of the maple bacon latte.

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.

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