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.

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