.Pirate Cat Radio Rocks San Jose

A pirate radio station operator’s journey from outlaw to community broadcaster

On the edge of Silicon Valley, in the town of Los Gatos, a radio station from the long-lost 1990s once again rides the airwaves. The reborn Pirate Cat Radio is proving to have almost as many lives as its namesake.

Its creator, a brash teen DJ, now thirtysomething, and the once unlicensed station has gone legit—albeit still very much noncommercial.

Pirate Cat Radio, with call letters KPCR at the 92.9 FM frequency, is the “work in progress” of its creator, Daniel Roberts. The station’s website notes that KPCR came to life in 2020 but only recently relocated to Los Gatos, in December 2023. For Pirate Cat Radio founder Roberts, that move was a homecoming—the culmination of a journey that began in the town of the cats and included stops in San Francisco, Pescadero and Santa Cruz.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

Bedroom Broadcasting

In the late 1990s, Roberts—then calling himself Monkey Man—began microbroadcasting on the bottom of the FM dial at 87.9 megahertz from his bedroom in his mother’s Los Gatos home. His antenna was in a tree, and his equipment (purchased from Radio Shack for about $30, plus donated or recycled gear) was under his bed.

One day, the Federal Communication Commission—referred to as “men in suits” by Roberts—dropped in and demanded possession of his equipment, taking exception to his broadcasting without a full FCC license. The men in suits drove around in a specially equipped van that detected Roberts’ low-watt pirate station.

“I asked the FCC agents if they could show me how they locate unlicensed radio stations, and they offered to take me for a drive to show me,” Roberts said. “I happily jumped in their van and went for an educational ride.”

Among the things he learned: There was a $10,000 daily fine for broadcasting without a license. (And as of 2020, that rate increased to as much as $100,000 per day per violation, with a maximum of $2 million, according to the FCC.)

In the 1998 Metro article “Buccaneer Broadcasting,” reporter Jeff Kearns wrote, “Monkey Man is not going to shell out the $10,000 daily fee to the FCC for a broadcast license anytime soon, and even if he did, the FCC won’t license puny little stations under 100 watts.”

Radio Renegades

Roberts got his start in microbroadcasting at Free-Radio San Jose (93.7 FM).

After that, Roberts says, “I spoke with other radio renegades like Free-Radio Berkeley’s Stephen Dunifer and Dr. Slick from Free-Radio Los Gatos.”

Dr. Slick (not his real name), who infrequently broadcasted an unlicensed station at 91.3 FM), “helped me understand more about the legalities of broadcasting in the US and about the science behind RF [radio frequency] engineering,” Roberts says.

It was around this time that Roberts read “Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community.” The author, Lorenzo W. Milam, became Roberts’ hero. Milam offered practical instructions (the word “sex” was just to attract attention) and tales from his experience of creating KTAO (95.3 FM), the first community radio station in Los Gatos.

Less than one year after launching his own pirate station, Roberts went from broadcasting one watt to a wattage ranging between five and 30. The broadcasts could be heard from Sunnyvale to the Highway 17 summit.

“I also became a hero of local commercial broadcast engineers from Clear Channel and Entercom (two large broadcast groups), who not only taught me more about the legalities and commercial side of the radio business but also donated old equipment from KFOG, KSJO and others,” said Roberts.

Roberts later sailed his pirate station to other waters, spending some time in Hollywood, according to an LA Weekly article from 2002, as well as in San Francisco and at a tiny licensed station in the San Mateo County coastal hamlet of Pescadero.

Over the years, in his dealings with the FCC, Roberts used a specific federal provision from 1944 that protected unlicensed stations during wartime. (A 1945 public notice from the FCC stated, “The Commission’s Statement of Policy of January 26, 1944, relating to the construction of new radio stations and the making of improvements in existing radio facilities, is to be interpreted in the light of present conditions, which require that all available manpower and critical materials be devoted to furtherance of the war program.”) In the early 2000s, when Roberts was operating a station in San Francisco, he argued that the loophole applied during President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.”

New Rules

But a lot has changed since 1944. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by former President Bill Clinton, allows large syndicated radio stations to purchase individual local community nonprofit stations.

According to the FCC, “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years. The goal of this new law is to let anyone enter any communications business—to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.”

The act affected not only radio but also telephone service, cable programming, broadcast services and education.

Back in 1998, Roberts told Metro that San Jose, Santa Cruz and Berkeley had popular pirate radio sites, and that there were likely between 500 to 700 stations in California operating with more than one watt. In 2000, SF Gate wrote, “The Bay Area is the capital of pirate radio stations—low-power, unlicensed stops on the FM dial—and now they’re leading the rebellion against corporate giants of the airwaves, lawyers and raids by the FCC.”

Fast forward to 2020 when the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act was signed into law. This law requires the FCC to sweep for pirate stations annually within the five most active markets: New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The FCC maintains a Pirate Radio Enforcement Action database, and California hasn’t made the cut for “enforceable action” since 2020.

Local Stations Beware

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law, America’s radio culture has become much more monochromatic.

National conglomerates now control and broadcast national content using the former nonprofit stations they purchased in the Bay Area and across the country. For example, San Francisco broadcast license KEXC sold for $3.75 million. And the frequency and call letters may be changed at the discretion of the FCC. Its call letters—now KEXP—and frequency were sold to Washington State University in Seattle.

Conservative Christian syndicates have taken over local nonprofit and locally owned stations. KUSP, the longtime public radio station in Santa Cruz County, was picked up at auction in 2016 for $605,000 by Educational Media Foundation, a Christian radio conglomerate. The same takeover happened to KRTY, a country music station that was one of the last locally owned stations in the Bay Area. The license for this frequency was also purchased by the Education Media Foundation—also known as KLOVE.

Watts Up

Roberts urges any would-be broadcasting buccaneers to take note that it is illegal to buy or ship radio transmission equipment, and that it would be foolish to “think that they are able to broadcast without approval from the FCC. 

“My advice is to reconsider, as the FCC fines are $2 million now versus the $10,000 it was prior to 1996,” Roberts says, further suggesting that the FCC does not have a sense of humor or forgiveness.

The FCC defines pirate radio stations as “generally involv[ing] an individual operating an over-the-air radio station in the AM or FM frequency band without an FCC license that exceeds the unlicensed radiated emission limits found in part 15 of the Commission’s rules.”

“Unlicensed radiated emission limits” include more than a quarter of a watt. “If you are over one quarter of a watt you are breaking the law,” Roberts says.

Fully, and with FCC compliance, Pirate Cat Radio (KPCR 92.9FM) broadcasts at 100 watts. This is the wattage of a LPFM station (Low Power Frequency Modulation), which KPCR uses to broadcast as a nonprofit community station licensed by the FCC. A commercial radio station can broadcast a signal of one watt to well over 100,000 watts, depending on its license. Commercial stations typically broadcast at 50,000 or 100,000 watts. Examples include Live 105 (KITS) at 15,000 watts, KFOX at 24,000 watts, KOIT at 24,000 and KQED at 100,000 watts.

Community Voices

Marauding pirates are helping others find a way to be heard, becoming voices for those unable to speak for themselves. Now Roberts is in a position to help nonprofits and communities to broadcast. This means helping these entities acquire a Low Power Frequency Modulation license.

Through the magic of radio, KPCR 92.9 offers a platform to film directors, book authors, local alternative musicians, underground artists and societal misfits. “Tune in—everyone has a voice here,” Roberts says.

KPCR does public service announcements to promote services and events offered by nonprofits and community organizations. The Los Gatos Music Boosters, which helps K-12 have access to musical education, and the Los Gatos Anti-Racism Coalition are two such groups.

Roberts is actively recruiting new volunteers and radio hosts, as well as local businesses that may have marketing budgets and could become sponsors.

In Los Gatos, residents are already fortunate enough to have live music at coffee shops, bars, sidewalks, alleyways, parks, farmers markets and restaurants. The town has highly regarded coffee, food and adult beverage establishments. It features extraordinary boutiques, unique art galleries, historic buildings, a plaza with a lovely fountain, majestic redwoods and now its own radio station to share with Silicon Valley.

Roberts’ childhood dream is becoming a reality, and Silicon Valley will benefit.

“I want people not to just hear a lot of miscreants on the air, something raw and straightforward,” he says. “A home for those who would typically go unnoticed by mainstream media. Here in SV we hear about big tech names, yet equally impactful are the folks who do not get the light of day. Who contributes to their community not for notoriety—just because.”

Roberts’ journey took him from pirate to engaged community member. He reiterates this advice: “Do not go pirate—it is a struggle and it could be very expensive. Send in what you wish to program, and we will fit you into a slot to broadcast over KPCR.”


Pirate Cat’s Programming

I Want You to Know…

Host: Nero Nava

Schedule: Tuesdays at 5pm

Description: Nero Nava interviews various guests, from artists and archivists to taste-makers and activists. These interviews are sandwiched between songs selected by the guest and Nero himself. By getting to know his guests through their music and stories, Nero invites listeners to know themselves better.

Salt Lake Dirt

Host: Kyler Bingham

Schedule: Mondays at 6pm

Description: Kyler Bingham focuses on the creative process and how artists find inspiration. In each interview, guests discuss their work, influences and thoughts, providing listeners with a behind-the-scenes look at the work of contemporary artists.

ANNOYED

Host: Susan Maleta

Schedule: Tuesdays at 8pm

Description: Susan delves into her most infuriating pet peeves and explores mind-blowing articles on anger management. She also sits down with local comedians to discover their biggest annoyances and how they conquer them with epic humor and wit.

Frequency Horizon

Host: Drew Penner

Schedule: Fridays at 10pm

Description: Listeners can immerse themselves in the pulsating beats of electronic music and the vibrant surf culture with captivating interviews, mind-blowing mini-docs, and heart-pounding DJ mixes.

In Defense of Ska

Host: Aaron Carnes

Schedule: Fridays at 5pm

Description: Aaron Carnes and Adam Davis defend ska music, proving that it’s just as valid and worthy of respect as any other genre.

Re&Co Radio with Jurgis Didžiulis

Host: Jurgis Didžiulis

Wednesdays at 5pm

Description: Jurgis Didžiulis invites different guests to join him in discussion and musical exploration, diving deep into topics related to regeneration while co-creating original music inspired by their conversations.

Programs not played on other stations or very few:

Ukrainecast

Schedule: Every morning at 8am

Description: Ukrainecast provides the latest from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, daily.

Native America Calling

Schedule: Weekday mornings at 10am

This call-in program generates thought-provoking conversations about issues that are relevant to Indigenous communities. Guests and experts engage with callers throughout the United States about improving the quality of life for Native Americans.

Somewhere in Time: Classic Reruns of Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM

Schedule: Thursday nights

Some of the best from the late Art Bell, who created the very popular overnight talk radio show.


Drew Penner is the editor of the Los Gatan, a Weeklys publication, and Aaron Carnes is Metro’s calendar editor. —Editor

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Giveaways

Enter for a chance to win tickets to Music in the Park featuring Steel Pulse on Friday, August 16. Drawing August 7, 2024.
Enter for a chance to win tickets to Music in the Park featuring E-40 on Saturday, August 17. Drawing August 7, 2024.
spot_img
10,828FansLike
8,305FollowersFollow
Metro Silicon Valley E-edition Metro Silicon Valley E-edition
music in the park san jose