One of the iTunes reviews of Good Radio Tuner praised it for what it does, but gave it a one-star review due to a lack of parental controls. In other words, it's a Danger to the Children. Like the word "fuck" or Janet Jackson's nipple, that's the kind of moral panic that often caused the FCC to swoop in on old media, and sent Howard Stern packing for satellite radio in 2005.

For now, Internet radio is beyond the FCC's reach, and in fact, the FCC claims that one of the points of its recent "Open Internet" initiative is to make sure that neither the government nor broadband providers can regulate content or "restrict innovation." (Net neutrality is a can of worms which is thankfully beyond the scope of this article.) But the FCC is a slippery bunch, and the former pirates in particular have good reasons to want the commission to stay off the 'tubes.

Officially, the FM broadcast band stretches between 88 MHZ to 108 MHZ, divided into 100 individual frequencies between 88.1 and 107.9. (Of course, 87.9 not officially being on the FM band hasn't kept pirates from using it over the years.) To legally broadcast on any of those channels, a license must be obtained from the FCC, a process which requires jumping through many hoops and forking over many dollars. Transmitting equipment is not particularly expensive, however, and many have broadcast without a license over the years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The FCC has never been a fan of this.

On Oct. 15, 2003, the FCC raided the studios of San Francisco Liberation Radio. The feds seized the station's transmitter and its more mundane equipment (computers, CD players), gear that the FCC reported at $5,602 in value. It was not their first tangle; the FCC had issued multiple Notices of Unlicensed Radio Operation to Liberation Radio over the previous few years. The FCC also denied Liberation Radio's application for permission to construct a legitimate, Low Power FM broadcast station, citing an amendment that bars anyone known to have broadcast an unlicensed radio station from being granted a license. One strike, and that's that.

On Sept. 8, 2009, after Pirate Cat Radio had been Internet-only for a few months in response to receiving multiple notices of its own, the inevitable occurred: The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against Pirate Cat's owner, Daniel Roberts, for $10,000, having "apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934" — for operating a radio station without a license. The NAL also rebuked Roberts' long-held assertion that the FCC's "Application for Emergency Authorization" document allowed for unlicensed radio stations to operate as a public service in times of war. America was in a well-publicized "War on Terror," he reasoned, so, case closed, right? The FCC disagreed.

Several months later, on the same day in May 2010 that SF Weekly ran a cover story about radio pirates going legit, the Bay Guardian printed an ad placed by FCC Free Radio, announcing that the station — which had begun broadcasting illegally on 107.9 FM in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2009 — was now only available online. Indeed, on May 7, 2010, FCC Free had turned off its transmitter.

In an interview with Jennifer Waits of the Radio Survivor blog on July 6, 2010, FCC Free founder John Miller explained that after the FCC visited the transmitter site and sent them a few letters, it made sense to just shut the transmitter down and go Internet-only. "Unfortunately," Miller said, "people go to jail now."

On Oct. 29, 2011, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order against Pirate Cat's owner Daniel Roberts for that $10,000, and the tentative language of the 2009 order was replaced with far more direct words: Roberts owed the FCC, and the feds intended to collect. In the two years since the order had been issued, Pirate Cat Radio had been replaced by the online-only and fully legal Mutiny Radio, the staff of which was not liable for the fine. Roberts himself had long since left the country by then, after making a mess of Pirate Cat as well as of the non-pirate, fully licensed KPDO 89.3 FM in Pescadero, having served briefly as its station manager. He might have left because he knew that the $10,000 order was coming down the pike, and that the end was near — at least until the statute of limitations expires.

Even without the instructive example of that $10,000 FCC smackdown, the former pirate stations likely would have relocated onto the Internet anyway. Mutiny Radio's Benjamin acknowledges that they're online "to avoid illegalities regarding the FCC and transmission airwaves," and that they'd love to be legally on the air, "but not until we can say and play whatever the fuck we want." Besides, she points out, "The Internet is a big place. We like worldwide outreach."

It's the local outreach that may ensure community radio's longevity, however. "We want our voices and expression transmitted to a worldwide stage while maintaining a positive physical presence in the Mission District," says Benjamin. Even back in the unlicensed-airwaves days, these stations were a regular stop for local and touring indie acts, as well as anyone who had a show or other creative product to promote — and, most importantly, who are unlikely to even be acknowledged by stations owned by media monoliths such as Cumulus or Clear Channel.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Thinking of Big-Time TV on Max Headroom reminds me of one more thing to mention  here - the first pirate TV station West of the Mississippi, Pirate Cat TV.  PCTV broadcast live, through the airwaves, in a half-mile-square area in the Mission on broadcast channel 13, for almost a year in 2005. Founded by Monkey, me, and DJ Jess B., and pumping out Dr. Who, underground videos, anarchist documentaries, first-run movies that were in theaters at the time, and the first season of "Twin Peaks", PCTV never really got a chance ro fulfill its potential, as the PCR empire began to hit some turbulence. But it was a noble effort and a technical achievement at the time, and we even got Mayor Gavin Newsom to give us an on-camera thumbs-up and a station ID that we ran all the time.  YouTube pretty much wiped out the idea of Pirate TV, but some of that piratical energy lives on in my current online "TV" station,  Those were pretty exciting times.  


Someone else I forgot to mention, somebody who was really a pioneer in the switch to online, was an internet radio outfit run by some rebels from PCR led by Mungo called

It was always planned as an online presence, and its server still spins on, with an occasional live show on Monday nights. At one point, we seriously kicked around the idea of putting a broadcast set-up in the back of a delivery van and prowling the SF streets, broadcasting mobile, like Big-Time TV on "The Adventures of Max Headroom", but we never got that together. For a few years, there were half a dozen weekly live shows streaming at the site (mine included), and Mungo dreamed up a "block" software that allowed different DJs to assemble 20-minute chunks, which would be archived and randomly served up when a live show wasn't on. 

For now, you can still check out the various blocks built by the Awesomeville DJs at the site.  As the original staff was all people who had walked out on PCR after one of the various outrages, and they created an early, efficient, long-running "radio" site online, I thought they deserved a mention in this thread, too.    

aaaradio also exists.. 


Hey, Sherilyn!  Great article.  You only missed a couple small ones - Free Radio SF and Radio X, two stations run briefly by our ol' cohort Tee-Why. Pirate Radio (mostly at PCR) has been the most exciting thing I've been involved with in SF (besides actually gigging) since I got my overpriced radio degree back in the 80s.  And since they moved online, I've stayed involved, first at PCR, then at FCCfreeRadio, and now I've got a weekly "exercise" show on SFCR, KUSF-In-Exile.  But those heady days of PCR and Free Radio SF, actually going out into the damp airwaves of San Francisco, were really special.  There is a magical element to spinning out that music that is your true heart's desire, with the possibility that out there somewhere there was a kid tuning in for the first time, perhaps hearing songs and ideas that had never ocurred to them. There's a big difference between internet radio and broadcast, and that's the possibility that you can be found by accident.  All internet radio "suffers" from the element that the listeners have to come to you, you're not reaching out into the waves to be found by accident, by someone tuning along the actual band with an actual dial and an antenna.  But those days are probably gone for good.  Though I tried recently, unsuccessfully, to recruit the Pomo Indian Tribe up here to go in with me on a new LPFM application at the FCC, my pirate background would have probably blocked me anyway.  It was great to read your report, and fill in some of the details I'd missed in the ongoing dramas of the ol' familiar names.  One of us has got to write a movie about those days before it's all forgotten! 


Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.