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

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

Paper Tiger Warns: Don’t Do Business With Pirates

With unlicensed broadcast operations taking place with impunity in several of the nation’s largest media markets, and facing near-emasculation in the field, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a new tack to try and ameliorate the “pirate problem.”

A letter co-signed by all five Commissioners was mailed out last week to several local government and industry trade groups, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of National Advertisers, and National Association of Realtors, among several others.

This letter seeks to inform the recipients about who pirate stations are and asks that they avoid doing business with them. The letter claims that unlicensed broadcasters “can cause harmful interference to licensed radio broadcasters serving their communities, thereby starving stations of their ability to reach their listening audiences and obtain necessary advertising revenues.” It also claims that pirate stations have the potential to interfere with public-safety radio systems.

The tone is slightly admonishing: the recipients are informed that they “may be unknowingly or unintentionally providing aid to pirate stations. . .including buying advertising on such stations to housing the physical stations themselves.” The Commissioners hint that this may expose them to “potential FCC enforcement or other legal actions,” and cautions that being in business with a pirate station may also “sully the reputations of those businesses with the licensed broadcast community and other professional organizations” – sort of a “Scarlet P” approach. Read More

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More

FCC Pirate Radio Enforcement Drops to 2004 Levels

This year has been fairly unremarkable regarding the FCC’s unlicensed broadcast efforts: just 111 actions against a few dozen stations across 10 states. However, the overwhelming majority (76%) of enforcement efforts this year have been have been focused on the FM dials of New York and New Jersey. This is a clear sign of the broadcast industry’s active involvement in the enforcement process, acting as a conduit for complaints on which the FCC follows up.

That said, enforcement tactics remain almost wholly administrative. Only five Notices of Apparent Liability totalling $70,000 have been issued this year, while just one fine of $20,000 has been levied against a pirate radio operator. In every case, the FCC built up at least six months’ of evidence; in some instances (particularly involving pirates facing threats of fines in New Jersey), the unlicensed broadcasters have been on the agency’s radar since 2012. Read More