FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish

At the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas last month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai highlighted the agency’s extensive efforts to combat unlicensed broadcasting. In addition to announcing that, in 2017, the agency issued “210 Notices of Unlicensed Operation” (I can only confirm 171), Pai said the agency “fined illegal broadcasters $143,800” (it’s actually $158,800) and “proposed fines totaling $323,688” (it’s actually $204,344). He also mentioned the recent raid of pirate stations in Boston, and reported “that we recently took similar action against a pirate operator in Miami and another operator in Queens, New York.”

Considering that station-raids tend to generate a lot of publicity, both among local media in affected markets and in the radio industry trade-press, I was surprised that the Queens and Miami raids have not been reported on at all. This may be because they didn’t actually happen – or happened on dates and at times that don’t fit Chairman Pai’s narrative. In addition, further information has come to light that casts doubt on just how effective the FCC’s recent activity in Boston really was.

First, let’s break down the Queens case. This involves a guy by the name of Jose Luis Gerez and a station he used to run (and actually may still be running) called “Mambo FM.” According to an unsealed complaint dated last November, this station first appeared on the FCC’s radar in July 2013, when agents in the New York field office observed “what appeared to be an unlicensed broadcast station operating at 95.1 MHz in Queens, New York.” They tracked the signal to an apartment building on Gleane Street, less than a three-mile drive from LaGuardia Airport. After interviewing the superintendent of the apartment building, agents found an FM antenna on the roof with a coaxial cable running into the basement, where a transmitter and desktop computer providing the station’s programming was found. Agents sent a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to the property-owner, who subsequently reported that the station had been removed from the premises. Read More

HD Radio Still in Stasis, But Has New Friend at FCC

2017 came and went with no great movement in the HD Radio space. According to FCC records, fewer than 2,000 FM stations have received authorization to broadcast in HD, which represents an adoption rate of 15% – a number that has not changed significantly during this decade.

On the AM side, although some 240 stations (5%) are authorized to broadcast in HD, this curated list shows that about half of them have abandoned the protocol. Penetration of HD receivers into the automotive space remains at just under half of all new cars sold in the United States and there’s still no meaningful market for non-automative portable receivers.

Yet the broadcast industry would rather you believe that HD is thriving. A new “e-book” from the folks at Radio World, New Directions for HD Radio, contains useful information about ways to optimize the system, including making sure that the analog and digital signals are properly time-aligned, the necessity of seamless audio processing across the airchain, and National Association of Broadcasters effort to standardize the broadcast of metadata on HD signals. One would think those core operational principles would’ve been hammered out nearly twenty years ago when the technology was first authorized for deployment, but it was more important to the industry to make a digital beachhead on the airwaves than it was to deploy something that worked out of the box. Read More

Paper Tiger Apes Big Bad Wolf

The FCC’s taking a cue from the Three Little Pigs, huffing and puffing about the work it’s doing to combat the “problem” of pirate radio. Just in time for the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Radio Show in Austin, the FCC’s gone on an enforcement spree of sorts over the last month or two.

With 158 enforcement actions on the books at the end of August, the agency is now on pace to meet or exceed the number of actions it took against unlicensed stations in 2016. For the eight years we’ve experienced of this decade so far, 2017’s enforcement-trajectory seems on target to rank as third or fourth-busiest.

States visited by the FCC hunting radio pirates, 2017Field agents have traveled far beyond the most popularly-recognized East Coast “hotspots” this summer. Arkansas gets on the board for the first time in the history of our Enforcement Action Database, while the closure of the Seattle FCC field office made it San Francisco and Los Angeles-based agents’ responsibility to visit Alaska in pursuit of a Baptist church – the first time since 2013 that the FCC’s made waves there. (Alaska is the 36th most active U.S. state/territory for pirate radio, just behind FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s home state of Kansas.) Read More

Digital Radio: Norway and U.S. Pursue Different Paths, Yet Share Uncertainties

There’ve been some interesting developments in the digital radio realm over the last couple of months. The one that’s gotten the most press is Norway’s decision to begin shutting down its FM radio stations in favor of its DAB/DAB+ digital radio network. This has been a long time in coming, first proposed in 2015 by the Norwegian government and with buy-in from the country’s national broadcasters. That’s an important point, because the FM-shutdown, as reported in various press outlets, insinuates that all FM broadcasting in Norway is being silenced immediately.

Not true: the shutdown of stations that began this month, and continues incrementally throughout this year, only affects the country’s national broadcasters; local FM stations have at least another five years on the air before they, too, may be asked to cede the analog airwaves. A lot can happen in those years…at present, the popular sentiment in Norway about the FM shutdown is running 2-to-1 against it, especially as the analog stations disappear, their coverage areas are not served by DAB/DAB+ to the same extent as they were with plain ol’ FM, and Norwegians find themselves forced to buy digital receivers to stay engaged with radio.

It comes as no surprise that American journalists, seeing themselves at the center of the universe, would pose the question: could such an analog/digital shutdown happen here? If they were more knowledgeable about the digital radio technologies that exist they’d know the answer is no, as the U.S. has elected to use its own homegrown and proprietary digital radio technology, whose adoption is entirely voluntary. There’s also the fact that Norway only has a population of five million people — equivalent to the state of Wisconsin – and navigating a shutdown in a nation with 64 times the residents means an entirely different transition-mechanmism, which hasn’t even been seriously consered by any constituency here. Read More

Fiscal “Threat” Posed By NY Pirates Belied By Broadcasters’ Own Data

As a part of the campaign now underway to bring the (nonexistent) hammer down on unlicensed broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, licensed broadcasters are alleging a variety of “harms” caused by pirate stations. Many of them are vastly overblown, such as the threat of interference they pose to a variety of communications networks, dangers from uncontrolled radiation — and, in the newest charge, economic hardships they cause to licensed stations.

The contention that pirate radio stations infringe on the radio industry’s right to make mad profits was first floated in an April 2015 blog post by Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly; he claimed unlicensed broadcasting “causes unacceptable economic harm to legitimate and licensed American broadcasters by stealing listeners.” Read More