April 21, 2003

Angley Pirates the Airwaves

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Most Ithaca residents have, at least once, turned on the television at night, flipped through the channels, and unwittingly come across Pirate TV.

It might happen like this: You’re browsing through the local news channels looking for an update on the war or just the headlines. It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday, and you come across PEGASYS, Ithaca’s cable access station on channel 13. But instead of a generic news anchor or footage from the front lines, the screen is blank except for gothic “Pirate TV” text in the middle. In the background, classic rock is playing.

Slowly, an image starts to focus: A typical studio room appears — controls, monitors and all — and dominating the screen is a large, intimidating man wearing sunglasses, dressed in black. Draped over the back wall in that cramped space is a pirate flag.

Late-night shock jock? Howard Stern with an eyepatch? Self-pronounced freedom fighter on an upstate crusade? Jerry Springer’s bodyguard with his own show?

Meet Michael Angley, whose onscreen presence has made him a familiar face among local viewers and a well-known personality around Ithaca.

“You get a lot of people just going nuts,” Angley says. “Like to them it’s no difference of me being on TV and like Tom Brokaw being on TV, ’cause it’s all the same television set, you know.”

Many Ithacans have similar stories of coming across Angley’s show. On the air since 1996, Pirate TV has gained a cult following and been through more than its share of problems — most notably, an obscenity trial in 1997 that gained the attention of national media and thrust Angley into the local limelight.

His show continues, however, as he works on other projects on the side, most recently a bid for Ithaca sheriff last year.

Pirate TV consists of Angley, 36, sitting in front of the camera at the PEGASYS studio and talking, as he did in last week’s show, for an entire hour, without interruption, about subjects ranging from the Ithaca Journal to potholes in the city to allowing mentally challenged people into the Army.

Yet this is no ordinary commentary show; Angley’s routine varies from the deadly serious to borderline slapstick. Unlike any other one-man talking-head program, Pirate TV manages to stay interesting through its pure unpredictability. Angley’s goateed face, cartoonish in closeup, goes through a different cycle of expressions in every show: he’s cool now, comfortable behind his sunglasses; now he’s heaving in laughter; now he’s yelling into a megaphone; the next instant, he’s turned around to adjust the controls.

“It’s like a rollercoaster ride, that’s how I look at it,” he says. “When I start the show I’m on, you know; when I stop I’m off.”

And when he’s on, what comes out of his mouth might surprise even him. Fifteen-minute diatribes against the mainstream media, unexpected asides about President George W. Bush and a jab or two at Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 are common examples.

“I think people know when I’m joking around and when I’m serious,” he adds.

Pirate TV began in 1996 as After Dark, an hour-long show named after Angley’s pen name Michael Dark. He remembers that he was then offered a three-hour timeslot on Friday, Dec. 13 of that year.

“So I took a whole bunch of movies and videotapes of different things, clips off of TV, whatever, and threw it all together to music, took phone calls and called it Pirate TV,” he said. “And that’s kinda how it started. So then as time went on, people called in and said, ‘Hey, you got nude girls?’ I looked at the guidelines, man, see nudity’s okay. Recorded some stuff off Time-Warner Playboy channel — just strippers, initially I wasn’t even showing nudity. Just everybody’s laughing, joking, having a good time. People calling in, going crazy. Showing girls stripping, whatever.

“But then because of that, like 14 people called in complaining. Like, ‘Oh, nudity’s so upsetting,’ you know. And violence in our world is really upsetting. But you don’t hear the same kind of complaints about the violence. So I was like all right, that’s upsetting, so it became a foundation for a great statement. So I went back on TV, played nudity … just models on beaches; there was really no porn porn, not that I can think of. … What the Playboy Channel was six years ago [is] what was on. It was really mild actually.”

On Jan. 15, 1997, Angley was arrested on two counts of obscenity in the third degree while on the air for another of his three-hour Playboy Channel shows.

“My friend was like, ‘The cops are here, something happened to your mom,’ or whatever … so I go outside trying to find out what’s going on, and they’re like, ‘You’re under arrest for doing your television show.’ I’m like, ‘What’s the charge?’ … uh, ‘We don’t know.’ I said ‘What do you mean “We don’t know?”‘ Angley recounts.

“So they put me in cuffs, put me in the car, I was sitting right there, [Cohen] came driving up with one of his friends, then he looked at me and goes, ‘Ahhh good, hahaha!’ [and] started laughing at me, you know?”

When asked about the incident, Cohen said that he had found out that Angley was still on the air despite the charges. He then drove to the PEGASYS station, he said, “to find out why he was on.”

“When I showed up at the station, he was being arrested,” Cohen said. “It was an unfortunate coincidence. I don’t recall laughing.”

All this time, however, the show was still on the air, its host sitting in a police car in the parking lot.

“My friend jumps on, this guy’s like, ‘They took him out of the studio, anybody who wants to come down, rough him up, do it!'” Angley remembers. “So it got crazy. Then when they had me down at the police station, a whole bunch of people were outside, like college students, screaming ‘Let him go, let him go,’ you know. They dispersed the crowd. I don’t think it was much of a crowd, it was probably just frat dudes man, wanting to see more porn, like ‘Bring back the porn, man! Let him go!'”

Angley was released on his own recognizance and taken to trial.

“The [district attorney] said they didn’t find the material to be obscene, they said they found me to be personally lewd, crude, obnoxious and obscene,” Angley recalls with a smirk. “He found me to be obscene, and that’s why they had me arrested, man.”

During the trial, which lasted five days — the longest in Ithaca at the time — Angley continued to broadcast his show. He won the case with a pro bono counsel. Among his supporters, surprisingly, were Time-Warner. Although the company, which shows the Playboy Channel in Ithaca, initially was against Angley for broadcasting their material, “They didn’t want me to get found guilty using their material,” Angley explains.

“It got really stupid … stupid on one hand, serious on the other, saying that the government can do all this to you like bang, you know? They had their rules, I just played by the rules. I didn’t do anything other than play by their rules. When I went against their rules, it was because they changed them, and they had no right to change them,” Angley says with the energy of one of his onscreen monologues.

“Other access shows [were] afraid to go on TV and even talk about it,” he continues. “It got really weird, you know. For a while. Then I got weirder. I upped the ante and I got weirder because I won the trial and I stuffed it in their faces.”

Angley adds: “To this day, nobody admits to having anyone arrested. Nobody admits to sending anybody here.”

After the trial and a few weeks off the air due to cable commission regulations, Angley renamed the clip show to Hemp TV among other names,
and then Pirate’s Revenge, which he still produces occasionally.

“It’s not really for anybody else but me,” Angley says. “If somebody wants to sit there and watch it … that’s cool. And they do, and that’s pretty cool.”

The hourlong After Dark became Pirate TV as it is known today, eschewing video segments for political commentary. First it ran for two hours until 1998, when Angley opted for the hour-long slot, making it easier to broadcast in other markets nationwide. Currently, Pirate TV is shown on cable access stations in Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

Although Angley’s onscreen persona is certainly captivating, his offscreen activities have generated interest in the community as well. Last year, he made a bid for Ithaca sheriff but ultimately couldn’t garner enough signatures to get on the ballot.

According to Angley, independents like him can begin collecting signatures on July 9, while party members can start on June 4. The Green Party needed 38 signatures, he added, while the Democratic Party needed about 110 and Angley needed 1,384. Citizens can only sign one candidate’s petition. Angley was able to get a little over 1,100 signatures.

Why, one might reasonably ask, did a self-proclaimed “pirate” and TV personality want to become the sheriff of Ithaca?

“Carry a gun, get to sit there, pick my nose, pull people over, you know,” he laughs. “I thought it was good, it was something I was serious about, actually.”

But behind that badmouthing face on television, Angley has experienced more than casual viewers might think — experience which, he thinks, would have made him a better candidate.

“I’m more familiar with counterterrorism tactics, I’m more familiar with sociopaths in general and what they do … not having cops brutalize people because people are afraid of cops and they shouldn’t be,” he says. “It’s like running a nightclub, you know — you run things, you run things well, you organize things. It would have been a chapter [of my life]. Definitely running for office is in my future.”

Of course, had he won, Pirate TV would continue to be on the air every week.

“[I’d do it] from the sheriff’s office probably,” Angley muses. “Why not, man?”

Angley’s eventful life includes working for the National Security Agency, managing a nightclub in New York City and becoming a Taoist priest at 23.

After attending New York University “for a short time,” he saw an ad to “See the World.” This led him to the NSA, and eventually, to assignments in China, where he studied Taoism.

Angley frequently refers to his life as being comprised of “chapters,” although his time with the foreign service is not one that he talks about much.

“I was an ingredient. I was like flour,” he says. “You got your eggs, you got your milk, I was flour. It’s really all it is. Then they use you for what they want.”

One gets the sense — from talking to him, from watching his show — that his three and a half years working for the NSA were formative ones. Whatever unnamed experiences he had working abroad eventually filtered into his worldview.

“Initially I worked for the government to help people, but then it became something else; it just transmuted into something completely different, and then when I got out of it finally, I got to see what it was all about, which motivates me to do the show today,” he explains.

In fact, some of those motivations created a resentful streak within Angley, an attitude which came through the screen.

“Lotta kids watch the show, which made me change it up [from showing pornographic clips]. Actually it made me evolve,” he says, “because it got me to the point where I had worked for the government for a long time, and then I was very hateful towards a lot of people per se.”

While he was at NYU, Angley also began working at a nearby nightclub, the Ritz — now Webster Hall — eventually becoming a manager.

“I was young and organized, you know what I mean?” he says. “And all the other guys were old and jaded.”

Some of the experiences Angley had working at the Ritz — and the time he spent as a teenager running fireworks shows — also give him an insight into the recent nightclub fires in Rhode Island and Chicago.

“I used to go around with a lighter and hold the lighter to stuff to see if it would burn. This was pyro-packed stuff, that I used. What they were using [in Rhode Island] was fireworks. So it caught on fire,” he explains. “At the Ritz, if there had been a fire like that everybody would have been dead. There was an entrance in the front and an exit at the back, but the back you couldn’t get to because that’s where the guest rooms were for the bands or whatever … so you’re screwed.”

Angley’s reasons for attending school — and his ambitions for the future — perhaps set him apart from his peers even further.

“I was taking media classes, communications, I wasn’t really getting much out of it. I wanted to be a porno director. For tasteful porn,” he qualifies. “Porn is like lost now. … It’s like medical movies, you gotta see closeups of everything I don’t wanna see.”

Nowadays, though, Angley makes a living with his antique business, which he runs over eBay online and through the newly opened Antique Mall. He had a store in Lansing for six months, but certain events conspired against him.

“Two of my female customers were shopping, and this rat jumped out and terrorized them,” he recounts. “‘Oh isn’t this nice?’ That’s the last thing I heard before I heard screaming. And then they’re running out the store, ‘You’re a horrible man, we’re never coming back here again.’ They were right. They never came back again.”

Angley’s track record so far doesn’t seem too hot: angering the local government, scaring off customers and making enemies with the mayor. But somehow, he seems to relish his de facto role as local rabble-rouser.

“So I’m chasing the rat around with a machete which I didn’t want to do, I didn’t catch it either,” he continues. “I just wanted it to run away ’cause I didn’t want to kill a rat.”

At least he’s got the animals on his side.

Something even a first-time viewer will notice in Angley’s show is his creative labeling. Cornell University, for example, is “Cornell Corporation.” The Ithaca Journal is the “Ithaca Urinal,” while President Bush is “President Junior.”

“[“Cornell Corporation” is] part of the problem, not part of the solution, you know. I think they use their students too,” he says. “As a corporation, the whole lake-source cooling issue, I was against. I knew it didn’t need to exist. … I like to think about seven or eight moves ahead. Ground-source cooling would have been a better alternative. The whole summer was like swamp land over there [at Cayuga Lake]. Cornell Corporation? … They’re first and foremost in employment, they hire a lot of people but their pay rate’s very low, they’re not paying a living wage. … I believe in corporate responsibility, which is something you don’t even see anymore. Because colleges teach kids to cut corners, to make a little extra for yourself.”

Ask Michael Angley what he is, and he’ll tell you he’s a “thorn. A thorn in some and a feather in others I guess.”

As for Pirate TV, he believes that the show has an important role, especially in a time of war.

“The guiding light, man. You know, I try to laugh at things that aren’t funny, that’s like how I diffuse things in my own life too. But if you take comedy and put it together with serious things, people remember it more. I’d like to see people take their lives
a little bit lighter.

“I see myself as a patriot. … I supported the troops, I didn’t support the war. Honestly, we have free speech and if you believe in something you say it, that’s what makes us Americans.”

He’s lived a life with many chapters, evidently filled with experiences which have shaped his political and personal life: “I’m up to about the fifth chapter,” he says. And the next? Angley eventually plans to move back to New York City and do his show full-time there, in addition to broadcasting his show live on the Internet.

“Keep fighting for what you believe in. That’s what people should do,” he advises. “It was cool, when I won the trial here, I didn’t feel like I won it, I felt like everyone won it. And when I came out of the trial … I was going across the Commons, back to my lawyer’s office, and everyone came up to me, ‘Hey, we won, we won!’ … They said ‘we.’ … That’s cool. Because they were in it. That’s how it should be. It’s about ‘we.’ It’s not about ‘I.'”

“I first saw Pirate TV when I was 13 or so,” said Alex Reeve ’05, an Ithaca resident, on his own first encounter with the show. “My parents had heard of it and told me not to watch it. I’ve been hooked ever since. Nobody else can expose corruption in local and national government while swinging a battleaxe and singing war chants.”

Adds Leo Krusius ’05, also a local resident, “I remember when [Angley] showed porn and played Metallica. Then he got sued … he should still do what he did, I mean he did win his ‘freedom of speech’ case.”

Cohen, on the other hand, has no reason to appreciate Pirate TV.

“I watched his show once in ’96, and I decided I wasn’t going to waste my time watching it again,” he said. “I don’t know him; I don’t watch his show. I don’t know anything about the guy.”

No matter what the viewing public thinks of him, though, Angley will continue his crusade, whether on the air or off.

“I like being a pirate. Antiques you know, it’s treasure.”

Archived article by Andy Guess