“I was really angry—I was livid,” when he received the fine, said Monkey, Pirate Cat’s founder and chief executive, in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Now, after Pirate Cat’s 13 years of successfully evading the FCC, only static emanates from 87.9 FM.
Monkey (he legally changed his name from Daniel Roberts) reached out to the public on Oct. 31, requesting donations to pay the hefty fine.
He’s also challenging it, arguing that his alleged violations occurred outside the seven-year statute of limitations for operating an unlicensed transmitter. Even though Monkey runs Pirate Cat Radio, he said the FCC last caught him personally broadcasting illegally in 2001.
Since Pirate Cat Radio’s Internet feeds can be independently broadcast on FM frequencies by anyone with a transmitter, Monkey said he cannot be held responsible for more recent broadcasts.
“The FCC can’t come to you if someone else decides to start broadcasting your Internet radio station,” he said. “Nothing shows that I broadcast all those transmitters.”
Monkey acknowledged that he’s been warned dozens of times by the FCC to cease Pirate Cat Radio’s illegal transmissions, which are continually tracked. The fine issued in August states that FCC officials located a San Francisco residence transmitting Pirate Cat’s signal illegally on 87.9 FM April 28 and 29. During that time Monkey was identified by officials at Pirate Cat Radio Cafe and Studio in the Mission District and heard on the air.
“Despite numerous warnings, Roberts [Monkey] has continued to operate PCR without a license issued by the FCC. Therefore, Roberts’ violation was willful,” reads the fine.
According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the expansion of grassroots community radio, there are “a few dozen” entities in the country that self-identify as pirate stations, though an accurate estimate is difficult to come by.
“There are probably many, many hundreds more that don’t identify with the pirate community, but broadcast illegally,” said Anthony Mazza, Prometheus administration director.
Mazza said there were hundreds more illegal stations in the late 1990s, before activists pressured the FCC into issuing low-power FM licenses for community radio stations in 2000. The last filing period for the licenses, though, was in 2001, and currently they’re unavailable in over-saturated metropolitan radio markets like San Francisco.
The Bay Area has consistently been at the forefront of the pirate radio movement, led by stations like Berkeley Liberation Radio (which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year), San Francisco Liberation Radio and Berkeley Free Radio (the latter two were raided and shut down by the FCC in 2003 and 1998, respectively).
“It’s a disappointment,” said Dan Feldman, one of Pirate Cat’s 52 DJs. “Personally though, it hasn’t stopped me from being excited about my show.”
There’s still the Internet after all—where Pirate Cat Radio continues to stream live and more than half a million people download podcasts every day.
Despite the urgent requests for donations read on Pirate Cat’s webcasts every hour or so, it seemed like business as usual at the Mission District cafe and studio on Monday afternoon. DJ Gena Figueroa was still spinning her ’60s trash-rock show, and visitors were sipping the cafe’s famous bacon maple lattes and peeking into the studio’s window to watch her work.
But while Pirate Cat Radio hasn’t been silenced completely, its reach is now limited to those with a decent Internet connection.
“We represent the people that we reach and we allow them to come in and participate,” said Monkey. “That’s what we need—radio that supports the community.”
The FCC, he claims, supports corporations. According to Monkey, the cheapest commercial broadcasting license sold in the Bay Area in the last decade went for $6.3 million.
“It’s easier for the FCC to fine us $10,000 rather than saying, ‘We see that you’re doing a community service, how can you get on the air?’” said Monkey, adding that Pirate Cat DJs are required to read news bulletins, public service announcements and conduct interviews with local artists, activists or leaders during every four-hour slot. The Board of Supervisors has also commended the station formally for providing radio training and “empowering voices ignored by traditional media outlets.”
FCC spokesperson David Fiske did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It feels like the end of an era,” said Gena Figueroa, who works as a laboratory technician when she’s not manning the turntables. “It’s upsetting—you start to wonder if community radio is obsolete.”
She hopes not—she likes having a station broadcasting live in the neighborhood.
“I love just passing by, flipping the station and knowing the DJ on the air,” said Figueroa.
“Diamond Dave” Whitaker, 71, hosts a Friday morning show where he invites community members to join his animated political discussions. He’s optimistic about the possibility of Monkey’s beating the fine and getting back on the air.
“No one else is doing what we’re doing in terms of local news, local music, poetry and art,” said Whitaker. “We’re gonna keep on keeping on.”