Just two months ago it seemed like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was taking a break in its enforcement efforts against unlicensed broadcasting.
That break is now over.
Since July, agents with the FCC's Enforcement Bureau (EB) have definitely been busy in the field, doubling their number of station busts for the year in the course of a scant 60 days.
The trend, so far, has been more station visits than actual raids. Most stations have experienced strained and superficially cordial contact with the cops of America's airwaves, but there are three specific instances where FCC contact has not fit the "norm."
The first instance occurred on August 27, 2001, when FCC Enforcement Agent Will Grey of the EB's Regional Office in Chicago paid a visit to Human Rights Radio in Decatur, IL.
HRR-Decatur is run by Lavelle Yohnson, a protege of microradio godfather Mbanna Kantako. Having traveled to Springfield to learn tactics in late 1999, Yohnson has run his own "human rights station" for more than a year and a half; this was not his first visit from Agent Grey.
Like Mbanna did just one year ago, Lavelle Yohnson was armed with a running tape recorder when Agent Grey arrived on the scene. The recording captures a strange exchange between the two men.
After having the riot act read to him (again), Yohnson walks Grey out to the street and repeatedly cajoles him phrases like, "What side you gonna be on...you still got a chance to join the right team...don't wait too long to switch sides."
It sounds like Agent Grey has heard all this before. But on this visit, he turns around to Yohnson - and just above the din of traffic, you can hear him say:
"Even if I have to protest an unjust law...I have to be righteous in the protest...I can't break the law in order to...."
Yohnson cuts him off: "Nah, the law has to be moral first or it's not a law. That's the tricky part." Agent Grey then departs, telling Lavelle to expect another warning letter in the near future.
This encounter showed the side of an FCC Enforcement agent that we don't often get to see. Unfortunately, not all broadcasters are so lucky.On September 6, 2001, after five years of repeat raids and legal wrangling, the FCC got a rare criminal conviction on one Khalid Kubweza. Kubweza had operated a microradio station unrepentantly from his home in Richmond, Virginia since 1995.
Kubweza was convicted in United States District Court on four counts of unlicensed broadcasting. When he's sentenced in December, Kubweza faces more than $100,000 in fines and more than a year in prison. If prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Kubweza's conviction could be the most severe in U.S. pirate radio history.
This event, in and of itself, is notable - but even more recent activity has raised additional cause for alarm.
Everyone knows what happened on September 11. Three days after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., FCC Enforcement Agent James Bridgewater paid a visit to a dormant pirate near Detroit, MI.
After staying dark for months following receipt of a warning letter from the Feds last year, "87X" recently conducted a one-night broadcast over Labor Day weekend and was promptly visited the following week.
A second visit then occurred - even though the station had not been on the air since the one-off broadcast. The station operator reports that Bridgewater began quizzing him on his vocation and employer, presumably as part of a process to determine whether or not he'd be slapped with a significant fine. The transmitter was not confiscated and Bridgewater left after making a comment to the effect that "you never know when we'll be listening."
Such a follow-up visit may demonstrate a firmer resolve on the FCC's part to follow through on all of the unlicensed broadcasting investigations it opens.
Adding fuel to this theory is a September 10, 2001 news release from the Enforcement Bureau, announcing an expansion to its legal team. Three of the five attorneys could be tasked to handle an increased caseload from a crackdown on pirates, although FCC Chairman Michael Powell says they'll be primarily concerned with "competition enforcement." All five are expected to be actively working cases by November.
There are several pieces to the enforcement puzzle, and many of them are still missing. But the recent flurry of activity definitely indicates something is afoot among America's radio police. The tragic events of last week have the federal government jumpy and on the verge of suspending or curtailing Constitutional rights in the name of self-preservation. It is definitely a dangerous time to be a pirate.
With the state of the world in such flux right now, opening alternative channels of communication and dialogue between Americans could play a critical role in shaping the future. Many long time microbroadcasters, like Freak Radio Santa Cruz, are rising to the challenge.
The stakes may have just risen in this fight, but it has never been more worth it.