On Friday, the FCC posted a notice that a forfeiture order (PDF) for $10,000 was issued to Pirate Cat Radio founder Daniel “Monkey Man” Roberts for “willfully and repeatedly violating section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934…by operating an unlicensed radio broadcast station” in San Francisco.
The letter is a follow-up to an earlier Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture that was issued to Roberts on August 31, 2009. Roberts responded to that notice on October 23, 2009 and claimed that he wasn’t involved with the broadcast transmissions of Pirate Cat Radio and that he additionally was “financially unable” to pay the $10,000 fine.
Last week’s forfeiture letter from the FCC discounts Roberts’ arguments and reiterates the FCC’s finding that Pirate Cat Radio “operated a radio broadcast station without a license issued by the FCC on 87.9 MHz in San Francisco, California.” It goes on to describe that the station had operated from Pirate Cat Cafe and Studio in San Francisco beginning in 2008 and that “the Enforcement Bureau’s San Francisco Office issued numerous warnings and Notices of Unlicensed Operation (‘NOUOs’) to Roberts…” In late April, 2009, FCC agents located the source of the radio transmissions, identifying an antenna on a roof of a residence in San Francisco. At the same time, the agents also “observed Roberts operating and controlling the unlicensed radio station” and subsequently “recognized Roberts’ voice and identified Roberts as the voice on the unlicensed transmissions on 87.9 MHz.3.”
In Roberts’ response he argues that broadcast transmissions did not emanate from the Pirate Cat Radio studio and “alleges that the internet streamed program service from PCR is downloaded and broadcast by third parties.” The FCC refutes this and used statements from the Pirate Cat Radio website, Pirate Cat Radio press releases, and from press accounts to argue that Roberts knowingly operated a pirate radio station. The Forfeiture Order states,
“Roberts solicited funds on the PCR website stating that ‘[d]onations go towards monthly station cost of running the FM transmitter and help Pirate Cat Radio buy new radio station equipment.’ Roberts also stated on the PCR website ‘that Title 47 Section 73.3542 of the U.S. Code of federal regulations currently allows Pirate Cat Radio 87.9fm to legally broadcast with out [sic] a formal licence [sic] from the FCC.’ In addition, in August 2009, Roberts accepted a certificate from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which recognized Pirate Cat for its ‘trailblazing efforts toward freeing the airwaves from corporate control, providing the community with training in radio broadcast skills, empowering voices ignored by traditional media outlets, and contributing to the advancement of the city’s coffee culture.’”
Requests for an interview with Roberts went unanswered, but his attorney Michael Couzens tells me that he is “surprised” by the forfeiture order. Couzens says, “We will pursue all our legal rights and remedies. It’s my belief that freedom of association is a fundamental right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They are using ‘guilt by association’ to tie Mr. Roberts into an extra-legal transmission, where there’s no evidence of him doing it. I hope that is not the law of the land. We’ll fight.”
DIYMedia‘s John Anderson is a long-time follower of enforcement actions against pirate broadcasters. He told me that it’s hard to say if the FCC will actually collect any money from Roberts. Anderson says, “The FCC’s overall forfeiture collection rate is pretty abysmal – in 2000 it was under 25%, and that was the last time the agency officially studied the issue.” He also explained that forfeiture orders have a “five-year statute of limitations, and the FCC can’t force collection without filing a civil lawsuit for judgment against a recalcitrant pirate.”
After the FCC’s “Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” back in 2009, Pirate Cat Radio ceased its terrestrial broadcasts. The station continued as an online-only station and by May, 2010, Roberts helped get community radio station KPDO on the air in Pescadero, California. By October, 2010, Roberts and Pirate Cat Radio were working to raise funds in order to launch additional FM radio stations. However, starting in November, 2010, questions emerged about the relationship between KPDO and Pirate Cat and by March, 2011, Roberts argued that he’d transferred Pirate Cat Radio’s web streaming service to the non-profit entity that owns KPDO. That statement was later refuted by KPDO’s founder and Roberts subsequently left his position as KPDO’s station manager. By this time, Roberts’ involvement with the day-to-day operations of Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco had also ceased (he was apparently out of the country), leading Pirate Cat Radio DJs to re-launch the station on June 1, 2011 as Mutiny Radio.
The staff at KPDO have also moved forward without Roberts and are working to get their station back on the air terrestrially after they were forced to move their antenna and vacate their old studio several months ago. Catherine Peery, President of Pescadero Public Radio Service (which oversees KPDO), told me that KPDO is fundraising and navigating the permit process in order to get the station’s antenna relocated. They are currently broadcasting online and are retrofitting their new studio, which will be housed in a bread truck. The hope is that KPDO will be broadcasting over FM by early 2012.