The Face of Pirate Cat Radio

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

My listeners are FUCKING CRAZY and I FUCKING LOVE IT. I hope that I can continue to fulfill their need for BETTER radio in L.A., because we all know KROQ sucks my big hairy monkey ass.”

DJ Monkey Man, who has been running Pirate Cat Radio (FM 87.9) out of his bedroom for the past year, is packing it all in — and up. With just a few hours left before he pulls the plug, Monkey Man is already loading boxes into a U-Haul truck parked in front of Marlon Manor, an enormous beige stucco apartment complex on a quiet residential side street in Hollywood. For someone who has been “screwing the airwaves since 1997” — setting up radio stations in backyard sheds, parking garages, hotel rooms and cars — and who is evidently in love with the word fuck (“Fuck the FCC, fuck them!”), Monkey Man is somewhat of a surprise: He’s a slight, articulate, suburban-looking kid barely over the legal drinking age, wearing an oversized Johnny Rotten T-shirt and black-rimmed eyeglasses held together with duct tape. And his real name, he reveals, is Daniel Roberts.

Since last March, Roberts has been broadcasting around the clock to indie radio fans within a 20-mile radius of his 30-watt transmitter — from Silver Lake to as far west as the 405 — everything from punk rock to classical music to all 12 episodes of the BBC radio drama The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, he’s moving to Santa Cruz to live with his girlfriend. And so far only one of his friends, fans and fellow DJs has shown up to help him move. “It’s depressing,” he says.

Inside, Adam Ant’s “King of the Wild Frontier” is blasting onto the airwaves, and the house phone, which is also the number announced on-air, rings every five minutes. Ikea-like furniture has been pushed into the center of the living room, boxes and beat-up suitcases are everywhere. It feels like a well-off college senior’s last day on campus: candles burned down to their bases, dried flowers in empty wine bottles, framed movie posters, a lava lamp, a guitar leaning against one wall, volleyball and scuba equipment against another. Wally, a beefy club promoter who is also a DJ at the station, wraps dishes in newspaper while Roberts buzzes energetically between rooms, tossing random items — board games, old Converse All-Stars — into open crates, answering questions and holding a cordless phone to one ear and his cell phone to the other.

“Hey, Andre. Yeah, the transmitter . . . Oh, hi, Mom, how are you? (rolls eyes) . . . Andre, you still there? Hang on a sec . . . I’m okay, Mom, just packing everything up . . . Andre? Like 300 bucks for that . . .”

All the while he takes long drags off a cigarette and crouches down periodically to mark boxes PICTURES or DISHES with a thick black marker.

At one point, Roberts tells me, he had $5,000 worth of equipment — four computers, two CD players, a tape deck, two record players, and a CD jukebox — in the bedroom. But now, only the transmitter, mixing board and mic remain, alongside a lone PC that basically runs 87.9 by itself, with pre-recorded station identification breaks. “I’m hardly ever around,” he says. “I work full time.”

Originally from the Bay Area, Roberts came south for a Web-design job at Disney (“literally a Mickey Mouse company,” he says, “so disorganized!”) and got Pirate Cat Radio going immediately. “When I first moved to L.A., I expected to see the best in television and hear the best in radio. But it’s all pointless crap. We don’t get to see anything real. No one’s willing to take a risk. I do my show to add more diversity — so it’s not just Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit.” It caught on fast, capturing as many as 600 to 1,000 listeners per hour. (Arbitron, he says, calculates that each caller equals approximately 100 listeners.) “I was surprised by how many people started listening. People â call in all the time and say, ‘L.A. radio sucks, there’s nothing like this out there, it’s the only thing worth listening to . . . ,’ and I totally agree.”

“Tell her about the girl,” Wally chimes in from the kitchen. “The one who wanted to hear the Smiths all the time.”

“Oh, a week ago, some girl called in and said she was gonna commit suicide since I was going off the air.”

The Stubborn All-Stars are playing when another friend arrives to help move the heavier furniture. Jason, ruddy-complexioned with bright orange hair, discovered Pirate Cat Radio while valet parking at the Standard. “I’d mess with the radio, and I heard him. It was the best!” he says. “I’d program it into everyone’s dial — 87.9 . . . 87.9 . . . 87.9 — especially the rental cars.”

 

In April, the FCC caught up with Roberts and served him with a “notice of unlicensed operations.” He wasn’t completely surprised: “They were the same two people from up north I’d met before,” he says. “They were like, ‘You again?!’” But Pirate Cat Radio stayed on the air. “I moved my transmitter to this guy’s mansion up in the Hollywood Hills — he was a listener, he’d called in. And I didn’t sign the papers. My lawyers gave them the runaround. And then this war happened.” Roberts claims that technically, his pirate radio station has been legal since September 11 due to a clause in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations: “title 47, section 73.3542. If the President says we’re at war, if you’re in the process of applying for a license, it’s legal to broadcast. The FCC would like to say I’m illegal, but if you talk to any lawyer, I’m legal.”

Whether that is in fact true or not — the FCC disputes his interpretation — Roberts estimates that he will have Pirate Cat Radio up and running again in Santa Cruz within two months. And, he says, L.A.’s Troma Entertainment wants to pick up his feed through the Internet and rebroadcast it in L.A. But today, February 15, the station will nonchalantly slip off the air sometime between 4 and 6 p.m. Roberts says he has no specific plans for a grand finale. “I’ll probably play “Goodbye, Goodbye” by Oingo Boingo and “We’ll Meet Again,” the last song on the Dr. Strangelove soundtrack. I’m sure I’ll say something live, too, but it’ll be completely random — just like everything else.”

The phones start ringing again, all of them at once, but for the moment Roberts has had enough; instead, he leads me up onto the roof, to see the 20-foot antenna (held up by the handle of a swimming pool net) and a panoramic view of Hollywood. On a clear day, he tells me, you can see as far south as Long Beach. I wonder if he’s really going to simply shut the station down and drive off. “Yup,” he says, kicking aside a tangle of cable wires. “I’m gonna flip the power supply, the computer goes off, and then into my car . . .”

Before he leaves, however, he’s going to first have to deal with — or more likely ignore — one last legal problem. Under the wiper on his U-Haul truck is a parking ticket.

—Deborah Vankin

APPRECIATION: Songs of the Monkey Man

“Crapulence!” That was Monkey Man’s favorite interjection if he cued the wrong record or otherwise messed up on the air. But it was also his succinct way of describing the kind of predictably bland corporate music you could tune into just about everywhere except Pirate Cat Radio. The Monkey Man, who I’ve been listening to almost constantly until he went off the air last week, preferred to keep things simple and instinctive, spinning only what he and his fleeting moods liked. That included everything from the Velvet Underground, Dead Kennedys and the Specials to Naked Aggression, Nerf Herder and Sparks.

Since Pirate Cat’s very existence was a deliberate fuck-you to the FCC — a perfect test of whether or not there really is free expression, and genuine access to the airwaves, in this country — the Monkey Man insisted on heavy-rotating the Diesel Queens’ probably offensive “Man Boy Love,” Killer Pussy’s “Teenage Enema Nurse” and anti-redneck rants from comedian Bill Hicks, stuff you don’t often hear even on college radio. And since no one else dared, the Monkey Man took great delight in gratuitously and cathartically swearing at every opportunity, just like some folks do in real life.

For all his infantile and admittedly silly rebellion, the Monkey Man came across as a sincere fan of radical, populist rock & roll, in all of its ongoing mutations. He was certainly on a more adventurous and open-minded musical quest than condescending classic-rock DJs stuck in a narrow, all-white ’70s-rock time warp. And the Monkey Man wasn’t narcoleptically dull like so many monotone-mumbling, aw-shucks-humble anti-pro college-radio slackers. With his canned sound effects and pseudo-grave between-song admonishments (“If you like a lot of commercials, then you’ve tuned to the wrong radio station!”), the Monkey Man was as charismatic and exuberantly over-the-top as the old KHJ DJs, only hornier and more impatient.

 

The Monkey Man had his quirks and strict rules. He’d crank out a lot of early Black Flag, but absolutely nothing from the period after the narcissistic Henry Rollins joined the band. He spun Vice Squad and X-Ray Spex, not once in a while like other punk DJs, but constantly, as if they were Britney Spears or the Rolling Stones — restoring some balance in the musical universe. He lavished airplay on two versions of “I Wanna Destroy You” — both the Soft Boys’ original, with its delirious harmonies and anti-war lyrics, one of the best pop songs of the past 20 years (where were you, KRTH?), and the Circle Jerks’ viciously indignant punk take.

Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” was the final tune the Monkey Man cast out onto the airwaves before shutting down Pirate Cat Radio last week. There was no special significance to the song selection, Monkey Man says. It just worked out that way, and besides he’s always liked Billy Idol, even the uncool solo-period ballads.

—Falling James

WATERS WORLD: The Opposite of Cool

The crowd looks suspiciously normal as ticket holders form a line outside El Rey Theater to “Meet and Greet” filmmaker John Waters. Only two drag queens are spotted. Two fake leopard coats. Maybe three green or purple dye jobs. Otherwise, this group seems quite tame. There’s no pushing, no shoving, not a single whiff of cannabis in the air — and, most startling for these parts of Los Angeles, no designer labels or even fine leather. The absence of black attire is blinding.

Isn’t Waters the king of camp? The inventor of kitsch? The sickest Catholic alive? Everyone appears so placid. Am I in Kansas or something? And who likes John Waters still? Isn’t he just a tired old queen living in Baltimore? Geez, half his original cast members are already dead. But tired he is not. Maybe getting older, but tonight Waters is about to perform before several hundred young fans — they may be fashion conservatives, but they’re mostly in their 20s.

After the initial shock of finding few outrageous souls in the crowd, I begin to study these seemingly bland characters. They all look like squares. Kinda nerdy and creepy. Three pimply teenage girls wander around in awe. A bloated Doris Day/Beverly Hills/retired nurse/art collector sips white wine. A fleshy couple in the middle of the floor French kiss like it’s a job. There’s a guy who looks like a Jerry Springer mannequin. Patricia Hearst–style fashion is everywhere. Bland is not so boring after all.

And that’s precisely the point. Being into John Waters is not about being hip or cool. It’s having the instinct to be different. And in this part of Los Angeles, that means the opposite of cool. Waters has always embraced the outsider, the fattest kid on the block, the most unpopular student in class. And maybe that’s what brought together L.A.’s finest collection of misfits at El Rey. Many are devoted to the point of piousness toward Waters, with few expectations for tonight’s performance. All simply waiting for that message from John Waters. Looking for that affirmation that they’re not alone.

Then suddenly he’s on. Walking onto the stage like a professor in an auditorium, he lectures to his hungry, impressionable audience that “there aren’t enough negative influences for young people today.” Is he onstage to fill that gap? Fifteen minutes into his act, it’s clear that his idea of vaudeville performance is simply standup comedy. For an instant there is a pang of disappointment, a desire to see that 300-pound transvestite come out onstage puking and screeching. But Waters keeps his fans rapt, regaling them with one sick tale after another. Telling stories about Divine, Edie the Egg Lady, the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos. Listing his favorite porno film titles, Schindler’s Fist being number one. Giving tips on the best places for cruising — try the voting booth because voting is so boring anyway. Waters’ warped sensibility glows like a blue ribbon on a jar of peaches in the state fair.

There’s always been that side to Waters. That dichotomy of sickness and sweetness. John Waters means no harm. He’s just out there having fun. Giving to his fans what they want. He even closes with a Q&A session. When someone asks whom he’d pick to play him in a biopic, he doesn’t hesitate. That could only be Don Knotts or Steve Buscemi. But he’s really a “carny at heart.” He’s already looked into it. A Tilt-A-Whirl costs only $100,000, and with the steady income from the tickets, he’d probably make out just fine.

—Tulsa Kinney


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