Pirate Cat Radio has never been a clandestine operation. It's easy to locate in the Mission at the Pirate Cat Radio Cafe, on the radio dial at 87.9 FM, and online at www.piratecatradio.com. The San Francisco news and music outpost is as visible a presence as the city's more commercial radio entities. This is despite the fact that Pirate Cat Radio operates without a license. Now all that exposure could cost the organization's founder, 28-year-old Daniel K. Roberts (better known as “Monkey”), $10,000 in fines from the FCC — and it has pushed his station off the air.
Monkey says that for the past seven years, Pirate Cat has been open with the FCC, reporting the station's existence as a nonlicensed operation to the agency and “blatantly admitting” information about its broadcasts. He says his organization was able to operate due to a clause in FCC regulations that allowed a station to function without a license during wartime — in this case, the broadly defined war on terrorism.
For a good year and a half, agents stopped visiting Pirate Cat completely. The problem, Monkey believes, came when other stations around the country caught wind of this loophole and started using it too — he says one New Mexico commercial station went to court with the FCC and lost in April 2008. After that case, Monkey says, the FCC rewrote the wartime clause rules. “From my understanding, [pirate radio operators] have been playing a Whac-A-Mole game with the FCC ever since,” he adds.
On Aug. 31, the FCC issued Monkey a “notice of apparent liability” for operating an unlicensed broadcast radio station. The notice gave him 30 days to either pay up or challenge the fine. In response, Monkey hired a lawyer to protest the agency's claims, and the station shut down its terrestrial signal in mid-October, keeping its 24-hour broadcasts Web-only.
FCC spokesman David Fiske didn't respond to the question of why the agency came after Monkey now, after years of Pirate Cat broadcasts, but the FCC's notice states that the San Francisco bureau has issued numerous warnings to him for having an unlicensed operation.
Pirate Cat Radio has been Monkey's baby for the past 13 years. He started the station out of his Los Gatos bedroom while still in high school. Over the years he became buddies with radio engineers across the Bay Area, people who taught him the ropes and lent him the equipment for his station. In January 2008, Pirate Cat got its official San Francisco home when Monkey and some friends opened the cafe and radio studio at 2781 21st Street. The station is currently staffed by 83 volunteers and nine interns. Pirate DJs around the world can transfer the organization's Internet stream into a terrestrial broadcast simply by connecting their computer to a radio transmitter. Monkey explains that the shows have been broadcast around the city and around the world, as far away as Canada and Honduras.
Monkey is using the fact that anyone can transmit Pirate Cat Radio as his defense. Through his lawyer, he sent a letter to the FCC that refutes the charge that he's personally responsible for Pirate Cat's terrestrial broadcasts. His attorney, Michael Couzens, wrote that none of the locations to which the FCC traced Pirate Cat's radio transmissions — on Post Street and Corbett Street — were directly under Monkey's control. “The Internet streamed program service from Pirate Cat Radio can be, and apparently has been downloaded and broadcast by third persons a number of times,” Couzens wrote.
When asked why he has been so overt with Pirate Cat's operations, Monkey claims a deeper mission is at stake. He strongly believes in San Francisco's grassroots involvement in his organization — evident in the eclectic mix of band interviews, political news, and neighborhood announcements broadcast by its DJs. The station is a loose, fun listen where every program is a wild card: One minute you're hearing industrial punk, the next it's former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos discussing the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
“You can't truly serve the community by hiding and being elusive,” Monkey says. He adds that it was important to him to prevent the station from becoming a Web-only enterprise because of the costs to listeners. “The Web is still not attainable to all,” he says, adding that the price of computers and DSL lines far outweighs that of a FM radio. But after the FCC notice, he's agreed to steer clear of any illegally transmitted radio stations, instead putting his efforts into advocating for change through legal channels. “The FCC should be helping organizations like ours to obtain a license and continue serving our communities,” Monkey says, “not to fine us and attempt to destroy a community resource.”
Monkey doesn't have the money for a big legal battle — in his letter to the FCC, he claims his taxable income in 2008 amounted to only $2,000 — but he hopes his negotiations with the agency will lead to rules that make it easier on the independent broadcaster. He's also working toward a low-powered television license, which, ironically, would allow him to broadcast legally through television's analog signal. “It's another roundabout way to legally get on the air again,” he says. “It's the only viable option that I can see in the near future.”
Pirate Cat Radio isn't the only pirate station in the city — other neighborhoods have housed community stations — but Monkey's is the most prominent. Cable network star Anthony Bourdain visited the Pirate Cat Cafe on his No Reservations program, and Monkey says the Board of Supervisors approved a Pirate Cat Radio table for reporting from its meetings. The station has become an integral part of the city, and its volunteers have rallied to Monkey's cause. DJs broadcasting online last week asked listeners for financial donations, both in direct contributions and indirect ones — in the form of buying Pirate Cat Radio T-shirts and “bacon-maple lattes” from the cafe. The group's Facebook page also lists the live music and DJ benefits being planned.
Monkey believes he'll end up having to pay some sort of fine — it's just a matter of finding out how much — but he's undaunted in his passion for community-based broadcasts. “I've been doing this for 13 years; I can't imagine not having radio in my life in some way,” he says, “especially after seeing all the things people get out of it.”