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News Archive: June 2011

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6/29/11 - New York Sanctions Pirate-Hunting [link to this story]

On June 20, the New York state legislature passed a bill criminalizing unlicensed broadcasting. The measure apparently passed the state Assembly by acclimation and cleared the Senate on a unanimous vote. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the bill with little fanfare. This is the fourth time an anti-pirate bill has been considered by New York's lawmakers.

The new law makes it a class A misdemeanor to broadcast without an FCC license in the AM and FM bands, with penalties ranging from heavy fines to (very unlikely) up to a year in jail. Subsequent run-ins with the FCC or state may be prosecuted as a class D felony, which is punishable by a fine ranging between $500-$7,500 and imprisonment of up to five years.

New York will also allow law enforcement authorities to confiscate and destroy any equipment they deem to be associated with a pirate radio station, including "antenna, transmitter, master control, [and] servers and computers."

New York joins Florida and New Jersey as states with anti-pirate radio laws on its books. These three states represent hot spots for unlicensed broadcasting relative to the rest of the country; therefore, it is no surprise that the states' broadcast lobby worked long and hard to implement this extra-punitive measure.

That said, this development is not likely to result in a major diminishment of unlicensed broadcasting in New York. Local and state law enforcement officials have much bigger concerns to worry about than busting radio stations.

In the seven years since Florida criminalized unlicensed broadcasting, some pirates have been arrested, but nobody has been convicted under state law. New Jersey's anti-pirate statute has snagged a whopping zero broadcasters in five years.

Working broadcasters in New York admit this law is a "feel-good" measure that ostensibly allows for more enforcement - but in an economic environment where public safety services and the judiciary are feeling the budget crunch, and more pressing crime exists, this measure is likely to suffer a similarly under-exercised fate.

I still believe that a state's preemption of federal regulation - especially in the case of the Federal Communications Commission, which has historically been very protective of its jurisdiction - is a murky legal proposition. This even goes for the state of Oklahoma, which has considered legalizing microradio on its own.

FCC field agents may see these developments as welcome assistance toward the thankless and superficial enforcement efforts they already engage in, but as more states assent to laws like these, the more potential there is for substantive challenge to whomever claims inherent jurisdiction over the airwaves.

6/22/11 - Clear Channel Pulls McKenna Podcasts [link to this story]

Last week, Madison's reactionary radio harpy, Vicki McKenna, sent out a curious communique to her listeners.

Due to "harassment" she and her employer, Clear Channel Communications, have allegedly suffered at the hands of "enemies," WIBA-AM has "temporarily removed" McKenna's podcasts from the station web site.

McKenna explicitly noted that WIBA's decision to pull the podcasts was directly related to an FCC complaint that was filed regarding her program.

That complaint informed the FCC about McKenna's illegal playback of a voicemail obtained third-hand from a Madison teacher. Her subsequent attack on the woman was so vitriolic that the teacher received threats from some of McKenna's listeners.

WIBA would not have removed the entire archive of Vicki McKenna's podcasts were Clear Channel not taking the FCC inquiry seriously.

In cases of broadcast complaints tendered to the FCC, the complainant is supposed to receive correspondence regarding the agency's activity on the issue. Obviously, the FCC has been in contact with Clear Channel - though I am still waiting to receive my copy of the Letter of Inquiry which precipitated the formal investigation.

Cases like these typically take months to play themselves out, but the fact that WIBA's taken preemptive steps to mitigate a potential sanction less than eight weeks since the complaint was filed seems to suggest that someone's feeling some heat.

Your move, FCC....

6/15/11 - Wave Manual to Take Free Radio Into the Classroom [link to this story]

Interesting project in the works: Wave Manual: An Educator's Micro FM Handbook proposes to "bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical advantages of Free Radio."

The publication will document the use of community radio to affect sociopolitical change, drawing from the experiences of the U.S. microradio movement and the popular appropriation of radio stations in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Wave Manual plans to take these perspectives and contextualize them so that educators and students alike receive "the tools to construct and maintain a Micro FM a radically democratic space that calls for and develops community participation."

The project is ambitious as hell: Wave Manual's authors would like to raise $8,000 to fund their travel around the U.S. and Mexico for the purposes of ethnographic research and to cover the costs of production and publication. They're using Kickstarter to collect pledges of support, and at that site there's a rough introductory video about the project.

If you're interested in chipping in, you won't actually have to put up any cash until the funding goal is met, and they offer several creative thank-you gifts for supporters. These include things like hosting a Tetsuo Kogawa-style radio party and/or a "day of personal radio transmission in Los Angeles."

As of now, there's about $1,000 of pledged support. However, this hasn't stopped Wave Manual's authors from commencing work, which already includes at least one trip to Mexico this summer.

6/8/11 - State-level C-SPAN: WisconsinEye Develops Fanbase [link to this story]

The anti-corporate uprising in Wisconsin continues. Much credit is due to WisconsinEye for showing the inner workings of a corrupt state government with such depth and clarity.

Since 2007, the nonpartisan public-affairs network has live-covered the business of the Wisconsin Legislature and Supreme Court, and features a wide variety of original programs produced around the state. It's available to most cable television subscribers in Wisconsin and also streams online.

About two dozen states currently have similar networks that mimic the C-SPAN motif, but unlike the rest WisconsinEye receives no government subsidy for its production and distribution.

It's not cheap to maintain fiscal and editorial independence, but WisconsinEye runs lean; the network relies on a five cent per subscriber fee from cable companies for carriage and private donations.

Billing itself "reality TV that matters," the network's operational mission is ambitious and profound: "Citizenship-building information accessible to all in our modern society is lacking. Yet we know that public trust requires public participation. Ethical leadership requires access to leaders. Invigorating citizenship requires an invitation to all to become participants."

Amen to that. But WisconsinEye could do much more to promote its viewership and the larger mission of empowering the state's citizenry to take their government back.

A good start would be to stop filing copyright-infringement complaints against people who post video clips to sites such as YouTube. If the public's business is really the public's business, it's kind of hypocritical to put a private stamp of ownership on it.

Nobody is pirating WisconsinEye's live-feed and/or making DVDs for sale: those people are fans doing free marketing. They spread word about the network's existence and entice people to tune in. That furthers its mission.

Relatedly, WisconsinEye could use the Internet for a lot more than a streaming platform. Not like there's tons of money lying around to hire a press corps, but Twitter is super-handy for getting out real-time information on government happenings that can be otherwise difficult to follow by someone who tunes in mid-stream.

Sometimes a static caption just isn't enough, and a Twitter feed should be more than a regurgitated schedule.

Twitter has been used by avid WisconsinEye viewers over the last the few months to track, decode, and discuss the majority party's plans to privatize the state - as it happens. That's participatory as hell, which also advances the network's mission.

The fact that Wisconsin has its own version of C-SPAN is pretty remarkable; that it's a tight, lean and thoughtful network is exemplary. In the world of media convergence, though, public-affairs TV has to extend beyond the television. WisconsinEye has real potential to be a portal for the sort of civic engagement that we all wish the mass media would work harder to foster.

6/1/11 - FCC Flexing Enforcement "Muscle" [link to this story]

Radio industry trades and watchdogs have played up last month's raid and seizure of pirate station Datz Hits 99.7 FM in Boston. According to the FCC and Department of Justice, Datz Hits caused interference to a licensed commercial radio station as well as an air traffic control frequency at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Said Enforcement Bureau Chief P. Michele Elison, "This is an important issue for licensed broadcasters and for the public in general, as both groups rely on the vigilance of the FCC to keep the airwaves free of interference. This enforcement action reflects our continued commitment to that objective."

The raid was followed up with $15,000 fines for Datz Hits' primary operators, Robert Brown and Lloyd Morris.

Station-raids are highly uncommon: the FCC, in conjunction with law enforcement, conducted just one last year and two the year before.

It's important to remember that the FCC's enforcement authority has hard limits.

Field agents have four basic tools in their kit: the station visit; the warning letter (otherwise known as a Notice of Unlicensed Operation); the Notice of Apparent Liability (warning of an imminent fine); and the monetary forfeiture (a bona fide fine).

The little-known secret of FCC enforcement is that in order to make any penalty stick, the agency requires the assistance of other federal entities. For example, the FCC can issue as many fines as it wants, but does not have a mechanism to actually collect them. To do so, the agency must engage a U.S. District Attorney to file a civil suit against the pirate to force payment.

Historically, the FCC manages to collect on less than half of the unlicensed broadcasting forfeitures it issues.

Same thing with station raids: FCC field agents are not police, thus the execution of a search-and-seizure warrant requires the presence of sworn law enforcement officers. This is why Florida and New Jersey have passed their own anti-pirate state laws that deputize local police to assist the FCC in its work (not that they help much).

The number of monetary penalties issued by the FCC is definitely on an upward trend. More than $200,000 worth of NALs have been issued to unlicensed broadcasters by field agents this year - nearly double the amount issued for all of 2010.

The typical monetary penalty for unlicensed broadcasting is $10,000, but that number is rising as well. Individual NALs have gone as high as $25,000 this year and are averaging about $15,000 per incident.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the FCC is taking the "pirate problem" more seriously. The Datz Hits case languished for well more than a year - through multiple visits and monetary threats - before the FCC got assistance from the Department of Justice to close the station down.

Datz Hits got the hard treatment because its operators moved to new locations after FCC contact; ignored the agency's threats of monetary penalties and - most importantly - operated a broadcast station without proper care for spectral integrity.

Although unlicensed broadcasting is illegal, without the widespread and committed support of other federal agencies the FCC's enforcement muscle simply does not extend far enough to classify pirate broadcasting as a high-risk illicit activity.

In fact, observers of Boston's radio scene say pirates continue to flourish there, even in the wake of a rare raid. The same can be said for other hot-spots, such as New York and south Florida.

So far this year, the FCC's been active against radio pirates in 14 states, covering all broadcast bands. But the agency can't make a real dent in the phenomenon without the extra muscle necessary to make its punishments stick. There is no real evidence to suggest that that's happening.