A paragraph in the FCC’s annual performance report for fiscal year 2012 suggests the agency is on the warpath against unlicensed broadcasters:

The FCC shut down hundreds of pirate broadcast operations, which threaten the integrity of the nation’s communications infrastructure and caused interference to licensed broadcasters, air traffic control frequencies, and other public safety communications. There were $289,000 in penalties and 583 warnings issued during FY 2012.

Specious claims of the pirate threat aside, these numbers were quickly parroted by the Clear Channel-owned trade publication Inside Radio as evidence of a "pirate crackdown confirmed." But there’s no data to back up these claims.

I’ve carefully collected all the FCC-released data on unlicensed broadcast enforcement over the last 15 years. Chairman Julius Genachowski claims the agency handed out 583 warnings in 2012. Trouble is, there’s only documentation for 103.

In fact, the agency’s never done 583 of anything against pirates in any given year: the Enforcement Bureau maxed out at just 447 enforcement actions of all kinds in 2009 and 2010, and activity has dropped off sharply since then.

Interestingly, the performance report understates the dollar figure of proposed fiscal penalties against pirates: the FCC says it handed out "$289,000 in penalties" during 2012 when it rightfully could’ve claimed nearly $500,000 – $205,700 in actual forfeitures and $294,000 in Notices of Apparent Liability (pre-fines). Collecting these penalties is a different matter – the FCC positively sucks at follow-through.

The actual state of FCC enforcement against pirate radio in 2012 is one of tenuousness. A thinly-distributed staff at regional and district field offices, overwhelmed with many, many other enforcement duties, only gets the chance to hunt pirates when complaints arise (with the exception of Miami and Brooklyn, where agents apparently conduct semi-regular "band scans" – appropriate for the two hottest pirate spots in the entire country). This hardly scratches the surface of unlicensed broadcasting in the United States.

This is not the first time Inside Radio has taken unsubstantiated claims from the FCC on pirate enforcement activity and run with them. Don’t believe the hype: the agency’s still a paper tiger.