The Radio Pirate Goes Legit

Now Pirate Cat Radio is following the rules.

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.

Roberts shows aspiring KPDO DJ 
Henry Warde how to use the board.
Ashley Harrell
Roberts shows aspiring KPDO DJ Henry Warde how to use the board.
Celeste Worden consulted her Tarot cards to figure out who should run Pescadero’s community radio station.
Dominick Porras
Celeste Worden consulted her Tarot cards to figure out who should run Pescadero’s community radio station.

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.

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