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Feature: After the Bust

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11/1/99

As the number of pirate stations in the U.S. has risen, the level of work for the FCC's enforcement folks has also risen dramatically. This comes in the face of a waning cycle of FCC budget cuts, which forced the agency's "police" apparatus to consolidate into regional offices.

Now, the FCC has announced the creation of a new "enforcement bureau" dedicated to policing the American airwaves. Under the previous system, the friendly field agents pirates occasionally encounter drew their pay from the Compliance and Information Bureau (CIB).

The move is part of what's called "A New FCC for the 21st Century," but it's actually growth for the agency. Amoeba-like, the CIB has split and multiplied - now the "radio cops" have their own whole bureau to play with!

At the same time, the FCC is trying to pre-empt the growing workload its Enforcement Bureau agents will have to deal with if a legal low power radio service becomes reality.

In the current proposed rulemaking, anyone who's been caught operating an unlicensed station (or is currently running one) could be ineligible for an LPFM license. The FCC's always had a "standard of character" on the books for licensees, but it's rarely invoked against licensees who've played the shady side in other legal matters.

In fact, this is mostly an idle threat. A small bit of research shows that past "pirates" have gone on to own their own legal stations.

The most notable is Allan Weiner, who was the driving force between several unlicensed stations throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, including WKOV and Radio Newyork International - one of a handful of offshore radio stations the United States has ever seen off its own coasts.

After buying out and trying his hand at managing various legal AM and FM stations in the Northeast, Weiner applied for and was granted a license for WBCQ, his own relatively free-form 50,000 watt shortwave station he now runs from his farm in Maine.

In another case, Glacier City Radio originally began as a small collective in Alaska who could never be adequately served by stations in larger communities, located on the other side of a mountain range.

Glacier City Radio received a visit from the FCC less than a year after signing on, but was able to convince the agency that their service was needed - and are back on the air today with a license as KEUL.

In the first case, a man repeatedly violated FCC regulations, endured multiple raids, and even went through an FCC hearing to determine his character - but the agency eventually licensed him. In the other, an unlicensed station goes on the air, and its creators are able to justify it into legality.  They're on opposite ends of the spectrum, literally and figuratively, and yet they're there.

It's decent fodder for a defense in court, but the odds are still in the FCC's favor - they have their own administrative judges. However, it does go to show that in some cases, the law really doesn't seem to matter.