It began with an e-mail from one of our Mission neighbors. They’d noticed that today someone had changed the Wikipedia entry for Pirate Cat Radio. At the end of the entry, someone had typed in this:
On Saturday, Febuary 12th 2011, Pirate Cat Radio ceased its live stream and podcasts. Their website also went dark. Founder, and former owner Monkey had sold a majority share in the station, took the broadcasting equipment, cashbox from the cafe, and left town. The remaining DJs are forming a collective to try to bring the station back on.
Which was odd. Pirate Cat’s Facebook page and Twitter feed mentioned no such disruption. A search for the IP address (18.104.22.168) came up with no information other than that it’s a Comcast account originating from Walnut Creek.
A call to the station found ADMG, a very nice DJ from the show Magnétisme Kultra. “All I can say is that it’s been reformed,” he said. “We’re calling it the PCR Collective. It’s not official. It’s still in the planning phase.”
Another source familiar with Pirate Cat at first declined to talk. “You’ll hear soon enough,” he said. But when Mission Loc@l read him the text of the changed Wikipedia entry, he sighed and said, “Well, that’s about right.”
Monkey — who once legally changed his name to the former, but now goes by his birth name of Daniel Roberts — started Pirate Cat Radio, the legend goes, as a 15-year-old wunderkind with a 40-watt transmitter, broadcasting out of his bedroom in Los Gatos.
Until late last night, Roberts declined to comment. When Mission Loc@l did get a response, it was just two short sentences.
“The Wikipedia page is slander,” Roberts wrote. “Pirate Cat is closed for now.”
It’s unclear what that means. Roberts is known for his creativity in keeping the station on the air. In 2002, it came to his attention that a little-known provision in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations permitted unlicensed broadcasting in times of war. President Bush had announced a “war on terror” on September 20, 2001. In April 2003, Pirate Cat began broadcasting openly in San Francisco — a pirate station that insisted that it was legal, and as American as apple pie.
KPDO is live and streaming, although the phone number for Roberts leads to a message saying that the number has been disconnected. On the air, ads for businesses like the Pescadero Bed and Biscuit mingle with tracks by Devo and DJ Shadow.
Pirate Cat’s website is down, and it isn’t streaming on iTunes any longer. But on a rainy Saturday night at Pirate Cat’s broadcast studios at 21st and Alabama, things looked much the same as they always have. Three impossibly young and delicate musicians sat in the front window: one ukelele, two acoustic guitars, and a fair amount of crooning. “Darling,” they sang, to a crowd that included one DJ, one barista, two onlookers and a woman with long black hair and motorcycle boots who appeared to be filming the entire concert on her iPhone. “Darling,” the band continued, “Darling darling.” They were quite good.
“Alright,” boomed the DJ from inside the recording studio. “That was the band Names and Faces, performing live at the PCR Collective, for the first time! What was the name of that song?”
Shayne, the ukelele player, leaned into the microphone. “Darling,” she said, sweetly.
“How did I come to play here?” said Turner, one of the guitar players. “I found an ad on Craigslist.” His previous band had just broken up, so he called in two friends to play with him. “We hardly practiced,” he said. “But Mike and I grew up playing together. We learned through watching people. Learning chords. Learning tabs.”
“Getting high,” said Mike. “Jamming together. Sliding your fingers down the strings until it doesn’t sound bad.”
“Everything is changing minute to minute,” said the DJ, emerging from the studio. “You may know more than I do.” He’s been an intern here for the last seven months, he said, and hasn’t seen anything go missing besides a few SLR cables, and maybe a microphone.
“It’s been an interesting month,” said Veronica, who was working a volunteer barista shift. The removal of equipment from the studio didn’t actually come to fruition, she said. “A volunteer was instructed to take out the equipment, and refused.” Then, she said, the website was taken down. Since then, the station has been scrambling to get back to broadcasting, which so far has consisted of putting podcasts up on the website ustream.
When asked if any money was taken, Veronica paused. “Some money. That is what started this whole thing, I think.” She declined to elaborate. “I really thought that people would jump ship,” she said, hammering the grounds out of an espresso portafilter. “But everyone is pulling together. We all have a chance to be more involved.”
“It is,” she said, “going to be fun.”
Pirate Cat volunteers and others are accustomed to different versions of fun.
In its first years, Pirate Cat operated on the knife’s edge between legality and illegality — broadcasting as a low-power FM station on the 87.9 frequency in both San Francisco and the East Bay. In an interview with Mother Jones in January 2010, Roberts described the process: The FCC would send a letter demanding that Pirate Cat’s transmitter be shut down. Roberts would respond with an application to be registered as a radio station operating in a time of war, along with a check for around $10. The FCC would cash the check. Then, a few months later, the whole thing would begin again.
At first, Pirate Cat was mostly a stream of punk and postpunk music. Gradually it acquired a devoted and eclectic lineup of DJs, and became that great rarity in San Francisco — a real community radio station, even if that community came from all over the Bay Area. The station added a coffee shop in the room next to the DJ booth; the profits paid the rent on the studio, and the cafe earned Pirate Cat a moment of television stardom when Anthony Bourdain came by to sample its maple bacon latte.
Where other small radio stations struggled to stay alive, Pirate Cat had a restless, appealing energy that often exceeded its grasp. There were the intermittent experiments with Pirate Cat TV, which broadcast on channel 13. It was intended to be a community television station, but seemed to show mostly first-run films that were still in movie theaters, raunchy cable dating shows and — most often — a shot of a frozen computer desktop.
Then, in November of 2009, a few months after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors publicly commended the station for its role in covering local politics, the FCC finally moved in on Pirate Cat. Other pirate radio stations had been operating more or less in the open, under the same loophole as Roberts. The FCC sued one such station, won, and used that court victory to effectively close the loophole for good. The FCC fined Roberts $10,000. He turned off the transmitters, and the station became Internet-only.
According to an article published in the SF Weekly in May of last year, it was Roberts’ pro bono attourney, Michael Couzens, who tipped him off to the existence of KPDO, a legal low-power radio station in Pescadero whose license was about to expire. Roberts stepped in, helped get the license renewed, and persuaded the schoolteacher who was the original license holder to bring him on to the station’s board and put him in charge, by promising to run a radio station for the community, one where schoolkids and other residents could learn to be DJs.
According to the article, a tarot reading also played a key role in Roberts’ selection. “He was the knight of pentacles,” the schoolteacher was quoted as saying. “The dark horse, bringing forth energy. Bringing things into fruition. There he was.”
It’s unclear how much Roberts stayed involved in the running of Pirate Cat once he moved to Pescadero. When the SF Weekly article was published, KPDO routinely rebroadcast the shows of certain Pirate Cat DJs. No one from Pirate Cat appears to be on the current schedule.
The SF Weekly article also mentioned that Roberts was having a hard time raising funds and selling ads in Pescadero, a fairly clannish, small-town community where he was an outsider. He considered transferring Pirate Cat to its DJs, but they couldn’t raise the money in order to do so. Instead, he joked, he had two stations. “I’m a small version of the evil Murdoch.”
PCR Collective member Jeremy Pollock writes in with this:
I just wanted to emphasize that no one at the PCR Collective is making any allegations about Monkey taking broadcast equipment or money.
Here is our current statement about what’s going on:
— Pirate Cat Radio is subject to an ownership dispute.
— Until that dispute is resolved, the staff of Pirate Cat Radio has organized as PCR Collective, to maintain radio operations and keep the community intact.
— PCR Collective is exploring ways to get back on the air, which may or may not involve the Pirate Cat Radio name (subject to the settlement of the dispute).
— We encourage all involved parties to come forward and resolve this matter promptly. In the meantime, the PCR Collective will continue organize and manage itself and its content.
— Further updates will be posted on our website, http://pcrcollective.org/.