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.
The FCC’s anti-pirate enforcement efforts have not been this lethargic since 2004 — not totally unsurprising, considering that field enforcement personnel have been anxiously awaiting their fates since the agency began the process of radically downsizing their presence. This malaise extends far beyond the Enforcement Bureau: overall employee satisfaction at the agency has been in clear decline for a while now.
Officials at FCC HQ are trying to put as positive of a spin on all of this as they can. The Enforcement Bureau has implemented a new “escalated” complaint procedure for cases involving interference, which seeks to provide more transparency to how a complaint is being processed — as opposed to how it might be effectively resolved.
Last month, Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc appointed a new supervisor (to be based in Los Angeles) for the FCC’s remaining field resources and blogged in detail about how the agency’s record is improving when it comes to collecting on the monetary forfeitures it issues. (Some members of Congress would like to see an audit of this particular FCC process.)
LeBlanc claims that this year, the FCC has collected nearly $100 million in forfeitures, representing more than 88% of all of them issued. The speed of forfeiture resolutions has also declined, from 19 to eight months over the last three years. You can bet that nearly all of the forfeitures against pirate radio stations fall into the 12% uncollected camp.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, who (along with fellow Republican Mike O’Rielly) has long harbored a desire to sweep the bands of pesky pirates, blasted the FCC’s apparent deprioritization of pirate-hunting in a speech earlier this month, quoting from a leaked 2014 email from a field director:
“We are scaling back on our response to pirate operations. Barring interference to a safety service, pirates should NOT be given a high priority (If there’s interference to a safety serivce, it’s not a ‘pirate case’ but instead a ‘safety case.'” Pai says the e-mail also noted that monetary forfeitures would not be employed against “the majority of pirate operators.”
Pai (and the unnamed whisteleblower) wield this disclosure this as if it is some mindblowing new development involving the agency’s dereliction of its enforcement duties, which utterly fails in the face of the historical evidence. Since 1997, just 8.5% of the FCC’s unlicensed broadcast enforcement efforts have utilized either a Notice of Apparent Liability or a Forfeiture Order, billing less than $4 million — the majority of which the agency never collected.
Everybody involved in this little corner of the media policy world is a paper tiger: the enforcement organization and agents themselves, the industry lobbyists who are trying to blow the notion of pirate radio out of all proportion to reality, and the Commissioners who’ve picked up the industry’s crusade for the purposes of making some political hay. None have suggested a meaninful or constructive path away from the status quo — which is all the better for the pirates, who will continue to flourish in spectrum-crevices long considered unserviceable by their licensed bretheren.