Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco
All photos: J. Waits
On a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning I headed out to San Francisco's Mission District to finally visit Pirate Cat Radio. The online-only community radio station began as a pirate station way back when station founder Daniel Roberts was a 14-year-old living in suburban Los Gatos. Eventually he took his operation to San Francisco, where until recently he has been broadcasting over the FM airwaves at 87.9 FM. Last year, however, after yet another notice from the FCC (this time, a fine for $10,000), Pirate Cat opted to focus on being an Internet-only station. According to Daniel, he hasn't actually broken the law in at least 7 years, as he has not been responsible for transmitting the station over FM (although his fans might be).
The Pirate Cat Radio website explains this history further, stating:
"Pirate Cat Radio from time to time has been downloaded from the web and transmitted over the air as an extra-legal (unlicensed) service in Los Angeles, in Vancouver B.C., in Berlin, and in San Francisco using 87.9 fm and possibly other frequencies.
The Federal Communications Commission is charged with promoting 'the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest.' Pirate Cat Radio believes that the FCC has failed in that mission by not creating a practical means for local and neighborhood program services like ours to gain access to the air.
We have sought licensing in the past and been ignored or turned down. The FCC appears to have no path of access to air, except for parties having millions of dollars to invest. This is wrong. We do not try to regulate the use and re-use of our program service, and are not able to do so. Pirate Cat Radio will continue to look for ways to obtain legal broadcast authorizations for our service."
One thing that sets Pirate Cat Radio apart (especially when it was truly a pirate station) from most radio stations is that it operates in public, inside of a cafe run by Pirate Cat Radio DJs. Customers can purchase vegan treats, donuts, and caffeinated drinks from the modest cafe.
When I arrived at Pirate Cat Radio on the morning of June 5, I couldn't resist sampling their signature beverage: The Maple Bacon Cafe Latte. This drink ended up with a cameo on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations TV show (he called the drink "delightful" and "evil and good"), so it's actually been helping to lure customers into the cafe. The guy who made me my $5 latte was a former college radio DJ-turned Pirate Cat Radio punk show intern. He told me that just that week he'd done his first on-air interview at the station and was looking forward to getting more involved.
After getting my caffeine fix, I met up with Pirate Cat's Music Director Katherine (aka DJ Canary Turd). It turns out that Katherine and I both had a shared DJ history at KSPC at Pomona College, which once again reminds me of just how small the college radio world is. She's been at Pirate Cat for nearly 3 years and actually joined the station after noticing the cafe.
Pirate Cat Radio Studio, with View of Pirate Cat Radio Cafe
As Music Director, her role is to provide music options for DJs; although she is the first to admit that most DJs aren't investigating the music that she adds. She told me that they used to require DJs to play a certain percentage of new music, but that it was a challenge to get people to actually do it. In the past, Pirate Cat also asked every DJ to donate an album a month to the station. Music could have been solicited from labels, purchased, or been handed down from an individual's own collection. These days Katherine handles all of the music being added.
Katherine is mostly adding digital music, although she maintains a shelf of "hard copy" CDs in the studio for both new and local music. They don't intend to build a physical music library at the station and instead opt to just digitize any CDs that they want to retain the music from for future use by DJs. She said that it was a "hard choice" to go completely digital, but said, "we just don't have the space for a library," adding, "we're not an archive."
New and Local CD Library at Pirate Cat Radio
Although Pirate Cat has turntables in their studio, Katherine said that aren't in the best location for DJs. Stashed behind the mixing board, they are "out of the way" and frequently get broken. Despite these problems, there are some DJs who play all vinyl and there were a handful of vinyl records on the studio shelves. Katherine said that it's rare for the station to get sent any vinyl from record labels or bands.
Katherine adds a wide range of material to the station's library and it's up to DJs to decide what to play on their shows, as there aren't any format rules at Pirate Cat. Some of the current shows on the air include an all-Spanish language music program, a Greek blues show, a comedy program, news, and shows that play a mix of music from ska to reggae to electronic to punk. The one requirement placed on DJs is that they are supposed to do interviews on their programs or have live guests. Katherine said that by airing interviews, it "really connects the station with the community."
Pretty Swank for a Radio Station Couch!
Often there are live events at the station/cafe, including the Mission Underground Film Festival, various station benefits, and live music. Katherine agreed that, "people mostly come to try the latte..." Some locals are regulars at the cafe, including firefighters from a nearby station. She said that the neighborhood has been changing a lot recently, with a new art gallery and restaurants cropping up nearby.
Although DJs at Pirate Cat have a lot of freedom over the air, they do still have to abide by a number of station rules. Everyone has to volunteer for a station department, known at Pirate Cat as "ministries." Ministries include departments like Music, Public Service Announcements, PR and Marketing, News, and Interviews (to name a few). DJs are required to donate around 2 hours worth of work to the station every week and interns have to work in the cafe. In addition to that, there are station dues (which can be swapped for hours spent working in the cafe) and mandatory monthly staff meetings.
Pirate Cat Radio Doesn't Have the Band-Sticker-Covered Cabinet that Most Stations Have,
But Look at Their Trash Can!
During my visit I was surprised to see Pirate Cat founder Daniel Roberts hanging out at the station. Just a month before he had launched KPDO in Pescadero and I knew that he was just getting that station off the ground. He told me that he's been splitting his time between the two stations and said that he'd actually been at Pirate Cat four days that week. There are days when he'll spend a part of the day at each station, no small feat given the fact that it's more than an hour's drive between Pescadero and San Francisco.
Daniel said that he was pleased with how things were going at KPDO and when we spoke he had nearly 30 DJs working towards getting shows. As with Pirate Cat, he plans to have monthly staff meetings. One difference, however, is that KPDO DJs are asked to contribute 8 volunteer hours a week to the station. He said that there is so much that has to get accomplished there, that he has to delegate the work. One of his goals was to get the schedule filled with local DJs by the end of summer. At the time we spoke he was rebroadcasting Pirate Cat Radio programs on KPDO when there wasn't a scheduled DJ.
Daniel Roberts and Pirate Cat Radio DJ La Pirata Margarita
As I wrapped up my visit, Katherine, Daniel and I looped back to a discussion about music and talked about the challenges of being a Music Director and trying to convince DJs to expand their musical horizons. Daniel said that at KPDO he's having the same struggles, made even more difficult since the station hasn't built up a library of music. While we spoke he began hauling the modest collection of the rarely-played vinyl out of Pirate Cat's studio, with the intention of bringing it down to KPDO.
In the weeks since my visit, Pirate Cat Radio has gotten a new coat of paint and a jazzed up menu (coconut curry mocha, anyone?) and KPDO has been fundraising (they want to boost the station's broadcast power and range) and connecting with the community through a summer film festival. I'm glad to see the passion for radio at Pirate Cat and to have witnessed the birth of KPDO. Thanks again to the DJs and staff of Pirate Cat Radio for taking the time to show me around their San Francisco digs.
View of 21st Street from Pirate Cat Radio Studio
Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:
Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco
Radio Station Field Trip 18 - Flirt FM in Galway, Ireland
Radio Station Field Trip 19- WRXP 101.9 in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 20 - WGBK at Glenbrook South High School, Illinois
Radio Station Field Trip 21 - KPDO in Pescadero, California
Radio Station Field Trip 22 - KZYX in Philo, California