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The Fall of Pirate Cat Radio

Local activists join the national fight for vibrant, local radio.



The Bay Area's biggest pirate radio station is off the air, fined $10,000 for illegal broadcast, and its owner threatened with arrest if he returns. But Pirate Cat Radio isn't going quietly into the night.

Not only is the thirteen-year-old San Francisco station still quasi-legally streaming to half a million listeners online per month, but the 1,200-watt station formerly broadcasting at 87.9 FM is fighting the Federal Communications Commission in federal court. While the station is raising funds to pay its fine with local events this month, it has joined a historic battle under way in Washington, DC over local control of the airwaves. Station owner Monkey (aka Daniel Roberts) says terrestrial radio has failed to serve the public interest, and Pirate Cat is fighting for consumer rights alongside pirates and politicians across America.

The current plan of attack includes challenging the FCC's case in court, where Berkeley communications lawyer Michael Couzens — a former FCC official — says he will dispute evidence that Monkey was involved in broadcasting the signal. The FCC has evidence of Monkey working the sound boards at the station's studio/cafe in San Francisco. But Couzens says the FCC has no evidence of him operating a transmitter since 2001. He maintains that "fans" of the site have re-broadcasted Pirate Cat's web-based stream from all around the Bay Area. Point in fact: Since the fine, Pirate Cat has been picked up by broadcasters as far and wide as Vancouver and Honduras. The unprecedented case could take months or even years to wend its way through the regulatory agency.

Meanwhile, the station has started raising funds through events at bars, music shows, and merchandise sales. The station is run by authors, musicians, artists, and photographers that rank among the most plugged-in members of the Bay Area digerati. On November 20, Triple Crown will host a benefit dance party, and on December 3, Sub-Mission Art Space will host a Pirate Cat Radio benefit and auction. The station is selling calendars, T-shirts, and beer cozies online.

The station's problems could not have come at a better time for national exposure. The movie Pirate Radio, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, just hit theaters. Pirate Cat Radio DJ Meg Escuede interviewed director Richard Curtis for her Sunday show, where Curtis performed station promos and said local advertising for the movie would mention Pirate Cat's plight.

Even bigger, a "Low Power FM" bill is wending its way through Washington that would allow hundreds of noncommercial, 100-watt stations with a three- to five-mile footprint to flourish in major metropolitan areas. Low Power FM was passed by Congress yet banned in major metro areas in 2002 because the National Association of Broadcasters, representing chains like Clear Channel, successfully lobbied that it would interfere with their signals. However, a subsequent study disproved this, and a bill to repeal the ban has sailed through committee hearings in the House, and awaits a floor vote.

"This is one of those 'call your congressman' moments," said Candace Clement, spokesperson for first amendment rights group Free Press in Washington, DC. The last twenty years will go down in history as a dark time for diversity on the airwaves, she said. Thanks to the deregulation of radio in 1994, corporate chains went on a buying spree, firing local DJs and homogenizing content.

A Free Press study in 2007 shows that commercial radio in America operates under de facto racial and gender apartheid, and dissolving media ownership rules made the situation worse. Of the roughly 15,000 commercial radio stations in America, less than 6 percent are owned by women and just 7.7 percent are owned by ethnic minorities. Some communities like Bakersfield have majority minority populations without a single broadcaster of color.

"I don't think that that's necessarily what American wants," said Clement. "The media influences and informs so much of our lives, our world view, and democratic processes, and when you have almost all media controlled by five or six companies, you're completely lacking the diversity of perspectives and viewpoints."

The Free Press notes that studies show smaller, locally controlled stations play more news and have more diverse content. The FCC's attacks against individuals building their own antennas and risking fines and imprisonment to broadcast indicates a desire for something different, says Clement.

"I do think the fact that there are so many pirate operations out there speaks to a need that's not being met in the community, and there are a lot of them," she added. "It's striking how much people want this."

California Association of Broadcasters president Stan Statham counters that "there's plenty of room for everybody" if they want to pay for a license and a station, which can run into the millions of dollars. For example, San Francisco's gay dance music station Energy 92.7 was just sold for $6.5 million to a firm now piping in "alternative" from Palm Springs.

"Pirate radio folks are of the mind that the airwaves belong to the public," said Statham. "Well, that is not correct. You can't just let everybody use the same door. It just turns into an ugly mob and people abuse it."

The Free Press says the airwaves are public property, and stations must include programming that benefits the public in exchange for use of them. "They're making untold millions of dollars off the airwaves and giving the public nothing."

The FCC's local Enforcement Bureau in Pleasanton and FCC spokesperson Janice Wise in Washington declined to comment on the Pirate Cat case. "It's considered an ongoing issue," said Wise. Indeed.