O’Rielly Goes Pirate-Hunting, is Flabbergasted by Tower

Michael O'RrrrrrrriellyFCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, the pinch-headed ideologue who’s tried to make a name for himself by attempting to launch a war on unlicensed broadcasting in America, actually went out into the mean streets of New York City earlier this summer along with field agents to hunt pirate stations.

Speaking to a very receptive audience at the annual conference of the New Jersey Broadcasters’ Association last month, O’Rielly called unlicensed broadcasting “a key area needing significant attention. . .as it represents a very real problem that is growing.”

Claiming that pirate stations “have no legal or moral right to operate,” O’Rielly asserted (again, without evidence) that pirate radio stations are “stealing listeners” from licensed broadcasters, “weakening [their] financial situation and undermining the health of licensed radio stations” supposedly devoted to serving their communities of license. The threat of interference from unlicensed stations also got a shout-out, but that’s apparently become a secondary issue to O’Rielly’s perferred agency mandate to maximize the profits of the radio industry. Read More

Paper Tiger Teams MIA…So Far

Our mid-year update to the Enforcment Action Database shows absolutely no change in the FCC’s enforcement protocol regarding unlicensed broadcasting. Although the agency is running ahead of its enforcement action pace last year (70 to date, compared to 125 for all of 2015), it’s well off the highs seen late last decade. Fewer than three dozen unlicensed radio stations in just six states have had some form of contact with the FCC in 2016.

DIYmedia: FCC Unlicensed Broadcast Enforcement Map, 2016So far, Florida is the hottest spot for FCC activity with 25 actions to date; New Jersey and New York respectively round out the top three. That’s a surprising drop for the Empire State, which has not only topped the list for the last four years but whose Congressfolk and licensed broadcast constituency (along with their colleagues in New Jersey) have been clamoring for more anti-pirate policing.

Some of this political pressure may have been a factor in three monetary forfeitures issued to New Jersey pirates last month. Industry trades made great hay out of the $40,000 in total penalties — but all of these stem from cases that originated last year. That said, the FCC handed out just a single forfeiture in 2015, but perennial collection difficulties remain. Read More

Removing the Public From Public Files

The FCC is currently considering a proposed rulemaking to radically change the content of the public files maintained by broadcast stations. Within the last few years, the agency has deliberated and approved changes in the way public files must be kept: everything’s moving online now, which will ostensibly make both maintaining and browsing public files easier on broadcasters and the viewing/listening public.

The migration of public files online is happening gradually; television stations went first and now radio stations are following on. Radio stations in the top 50 markets must make their public files available online by no later than June 24th. Public files contain a plethora of information about any given station; for commercial broadcasters, this includes station engineering specifications, hiring practices, political/public-interest programming, and correspondence with the public directly. Read More

Congress to Target Pirate Advertisers (and Others?)

All five FCC Commissioners spent more than three hours on Capitol Hill last week being questioned by the House Energy and Commerce Committee during an “oversight hearing,” which is a fancy way of saying “let members of Congress score political points by grandstanding on the FCC-related issues they care about the most.” While the hearing itself was mostly dominated by subjects such as the agency’s upcoming spectrum auctions and proposals to detach set-top TV boxes from the grip of cable service providers, two Congressfolk raised the issue of pirate radio with the Commissioners.

First was Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who’s been a very vocal supporter of increased enforcement efforts against pirate stations in the New York City metropolitan area. He announced that he plans to draft legislation to asssist in these efforts and lobbed Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a softball question on the state of pirate radio enforcement: in effect, “what should this bill include?”

O’Rielly said that “getting at the money part” of pirate radio was paramount. Many entities advertise on pirate stations; he mentioned concert and club promoters and political campaigns (?) in particular. However, O’Rielly also noted that he did not want such legislation to penalize those who may “inadvertently” assist unlicensed broadcast operations, such as landlords who may not know they’re renting space to a pirate station. Read More

“The Documents Are Not Available”

On Thursday, February 25th — one day before the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s inaugural conference — I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet up with friend and colleague, Dr. Christopher Terry, who was also attending the conference. Like me, Dr. Terry is a media law and policy scholar who hails from Wisconsin. And also like me, Dr. Terry has been watching with interest the FCC’s foray into definining journalism on the public airwaves.

In his classes, Dr. Terry uses the Commission’s $44,000 fine against WLS-AM for airing newscasts produced by Workers Independent News as a teaching point to explore the FCC’s regulation of sponsored content. In prior posts, I’ve explained how Workers Independent News purchases airtime on selected commercial radio stations to air its newscasts and features. The FCC case stemmed from WLS-AM’s failure to run the required disclaimer that WIN had paid for its own airtime in a small fraction of broadcasts.

But when the FCC decided to sock WLS with such a stiff fine, it made WIN’s legitimacy as a news organization key to its rationale. Unprecedented in the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, the FCC effectively declared Workers Independent News to not be news, thereby justifying such a large forefiture.

Shortly after the FCC’s 2014 decision, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency for all documents related to its decisionmaking process in the WLS case. Last November, FCC attorneys reported back that they had identified several thousand pages of material…but released less than 90 redacted pages. Among them was the original complaint that kicked off the FCC’s inquiry, which defamed Workers Independent News as an activist organization masquerading as a news outlet. It was on this allegation that the FCC seemed to rest its case. Read More