Last year there was a lot of buzz about San Francisco’s formerly pirate radio station Pirate Cat Radio going somewhat legit, with its founder and owner, Daniel “Monkey Man” Roberts, taking over the management and re-launch of nearby FCC licensed community radio station KPDO in the coastal community of Pescadero. In the months following that news, there were also hints that Roberts had his sights set on other FM frequencies and that perhaps he had dreams of a radio empire.
Two weeks ago I started to hear rumors that changes were afoot at Pirate Cat Radio. Initially I heard the salacious account (which turns out to be mostly untrue) that Daniel had stolen money, skipped town to Switzerland, and had been ousted by staff after taking Pirate Cat’s stream down. Although he denied my request for an interview, stating that it is a “legal matter,” he said, “Pirate Cat Radio is still mine, it’s just closed for now.” Daniel’s Facebook page says that he’s currently in Estonia; although it’s more likely that he’s in Bristol, England, having recently worked on the December 1, 2010 launch of community radio station Bristol Static. In an article in the SF Weekly, Daniel Roberts’ lawyer indicates that as of February 16, he believed Daniel to be in the U.K.
In the meantime, back in San Francisco, the DJs and staff at Pirate Cat Radio and Cafe have organized themselves into the PCR Collective and tell me that they are excited about the station’s future. It’s been a hectic two weeks for them, starting with a short, but contentious call on February 13, in which they confronted Daniel with questions about the ownership and finances of the station. During that call, in which they were asking for more transparency about station operations, Daniel refused to address their concerns. After hanging up, he proceeded to take the Pirate Cat Radio website and web stream offline. Despite those moves, staff of PCR Collective are trying to operate the station and cafe as they did previously. They’ve re-established a web stream and have set up a new website for the PCR Collective.
I caught up with several staff members on Sunday at the station. Although there is clearly animosity between the DJs and Daniel, I was told that many of the rumors floating around about the station shut-down aren’t true. Pirate Cat’s DJ Canary told me, “Monkey did not steal anything.” However, many DJs did express that there had been ongoing concerns about the management of the station over the past few months.
In November 2010, DJs were told by Daniel that he had sold 80% of Pirate Cat Radio Cafe to an outside investor. They were also asked to pay their monthly DJ dues to the new investor starting in December. At their next staff meeting, DJs were told to no longer pay the investor, but to instead deposit money into the Pescadero Public Radio Service (the license holder for KPDO) account. This turn of events created some concerns, which eventually led Pirate Cat’s Minister of Technology, DJ Pirata Margarita, to ask for more transparency from Daniel. When she asked to see a budget, he fired her.
A December 1, 2010 filing with the City of San Francisco indicated that “Pirate Cat Cafe and Studio” was owned by Pirate Cat Radio Inc. starting on November 19, 2010. A January 4, 2011 filing with the City of San Francisco said that “Pirate Cat Radio Station” was also owned by Pirate Cat Radio Inc. beginning November 19, 2010. These filings supersede an earlier fictitious business name filing for Pirate Cat Cafe and Studio (from March 2008 to December 1, 2010) in which Daniel Roberts is listed as the owner. Based on information gleaned from the California Secretary of State website this week, Daniel Roberts is the “agent of service of process” for Pirate Cat Radio Inc. Understandably, members of the PCR Collective told me that it’s still unclear who owns what. They also mentioned that they were surprised when Daniel recently told them that Pirate Cat Radio had actually been sold back in August 2010 to Pescadero Public Radio Service (whose President is currently Daniel), which operates community radio station KPDO.
Although there are still legal and ownership issues to sort out (particularly in terms of who owns the radio station and who owns the cafe), the members of PCR Collective say that they are focused on moving forward by creating a very different organizational structure from the Pirate Cat Radio of the past. This time around, it will be a “consensus-based media organization,” in contrast to the “almost fascist” management style that one DJ attributed to Daniel. One DJ who sees great potential in a San Francisco “network of autonomous collectives,” is Diamond Dave, who has a long history in the San Francisco underground, with connections stretching from the beatnik era to anarchist organizations to modern-day collectives.
According to a statement by the PCR Collective,
“The volunteer staff of Pirate Cat Radio are not a party to the sale of the Pirate Cat Radio. Our efforts from the beginning have been to extract ourselves from the ownership situation and focus on our core mission: making quality radio and building a supportive community. That is what we are focusing on now.”
Longtime Pirate Cat DJ Patrick Simms said although he recognizes that Daniel “put himself out there to build Pirate Cat Radio,” he finds fault with his leadership style. DJ Pirata Margarita agreed, saying that Daniel did a lot of great things and that perhaps a driven personality like his was required to accomplish all that he did. Patrick said that Daniel (aka Monkey) helped to put a structure in place for the station and that the only difference between the old and the new Pirate Cat Radio is that “Monkey is no longer here.” Pirata Margarita explained that in the restructuring of the station, the plan is for things to work “more democratically.”
As part of their plan to move forward, DJ Pirata Margarita worked to re-establish a webstream for the station. She told me that fellow community radio station Radio Valencia was very supportive and that one of their tech folks helped her to get the Pirate Cat stream going again. She also told me that Radio Valencia also challenged the Pirate Cat Radio volunteers to a bowling match, as a sign of friendly competition. She added that “inadvertently…Monkey has set the stage…for this community of radio stations” in San Francisco, since by this point there are so many former Pirate Cat Radio DJs doing radio at other stations.
In addition to the turmoil and confusion over at Pirate Cat, there is also some concern at the other station run by Daniel Roberts, FM community radio station KPDO in Pescadero. In November, after Daniel left, he told KPDO volunteer Shannon Bowman-Sarkisian that he would be out of town for awhile due to a family emergency and asked if she would manage the station in his absence. It was her understanding that Daniel was in England, where his wife was from.
By January, Shannon said that she started to become concerned because Daniel wasn’t saying when he’d be coming back. She told me that she felt “blind-sided” by the turn of events at Pirate Cat Radio and was especially surprised to read in the SF Weekly article that Pirate Cat had supposedly been sold to Pescadero Public Radio Service, since she had no knowledge of that. Shannon said, “I’ve never met anybody from Pirate Cat. How can we own them? How can we be expected to know what’s good for Pirate Cat? It’s a really weird situation and it’s not really what I expected to happen with KPDO.”
When asked about this rumor, KPDO founder Maggie Celeste Worden told me today, “That’s actually kind of a legal impossibility” for Pescadero Public Radio Service to own Pirate Cat Radio.
Shannon also told me that since Daniel’s disappearance she’s also learned about KPDO’s relationship with Common Frequency. She said that she heard that “Common Frequency helped us get a new license that is supposed to increase our broadcast range. We were told after the fact…Even if it is a really good move for the station; I don’t think you can just make decisions.”
According to Common Frequency’s Program and Technical Director Todd Urick, “Common Frequency is providing KPDO pro bono assistance in options for strengthening its broadcast signal.” Additionally, he told me that “Monkey has been providing assistance [to Common Frequency] in preliminary planning for some speculative Bay Area radio projects” and that his “role at any future station hasn’t been defined yet. His current role is a project facilitator, but since he has been in the UK we have been in less communication with him.”
Shannon added, “I feel really upset. I feel like we’ve been betrayed to a certain extent.” Like her cohorts at Pirate Cat, she also said that she respected Daniel’s work, saying, “It’s not that I think he’s a bad guy…He’s put all this time, money, and energy [into the station]…On the one hand, I recognize that and appreciate it…KPDO wouldn’t be what it is without him….at the same time, I don’t agree with the decisions he’s made, they’ve been made unilaterally.”
To that end, KPDO staff members met yesterday to discuss the station’s future. Shannon said that she feels really positive about the future and is particularly excited about the station’s upcoming 1-year anniversary party on May 7th, saying that as a staff they feel competent to run the station in Daniel’s absence.
Today, station founder Maggie Celeste Worden concurred, telling me that “the station is doing fine,” that it has an “amazing staff of volunteers” and that “KPDO is solid and standing on its own two feet.” She told me that in the past year she swapped duties with Daniel and that he is now President of the Board, while she is the Secretary. She also said that Daniel’s expected date back at the station is in April. Maggie, who has lived out of the area in recent years, said that she’s been considering moving back to the Pescadero area and is thrilled to see that the station that she dreamed about 17 years ago is up and running and providing an outlet for different voices in the community. She added, “The excitement is amazing…if one person can turn on a station, then we can keep democracy alive.” In terms of the perceived turmoil, Maggie surmised, “I think there’s much ado about nothing.”
To get more background on the history of Pirate Cat Radio and KPDO, read my field trip reports on Spinning Indie:
Radio Station Field Trip 21 – KPDO in Pescadero (May 2010 visit for station launch)
Radio Station Field Trip 23 – San Francisco’s Pirate Cat Radio (June 2010 visit)