It seems there's a bit of confusion over the terms "pirate" and "free" when applied to radio. Some associate piracy with breaking the law, while "free radio" seems to be thought of as some sort of quasi-legal community operation.
The two terms, in the eyes of the law, are one and the same. "Pirate" or "free" radio stations both have one thing in common - they both broadcast without an FCC license, and therefore are illegal operations.
Being a radio "pirate" used to be a compliment, until the movement toward legalization of low-power radio stations began in the United States - then, as more moderate activists joined the scene, the term "pirate" was phased out as being politically incorrect.
Leave the United States, though, and most of the unlicensed stations operating out there will still refer to themselves as "pirates," and they're proud of the moniker.
Either way you cut it, though, "illegal" still means breaking the law. And if you're thinking about starting your own station, you have to be aware of the risks you may face.
If you live in the U.S., the FCC's rules on unlicensed broadcasting may seem clear, but they've actually got a lot of leeway in the way they're enforced. And it seems the FCC doesn't even know what its maximum penalties are; while the news releases gleefully announcing the latest pirate busts warn of a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, the FCC's official policy page on low-power broadcasting calls for a maximum $75,000 fine and makes little mention of the criminal charges that could be filed.
Most of these threats are just threats, though. The typical radio "pirate" who gets caught usually doesn't get as far as getting a fine; the FCC always issues a warning letter to an "offender" before taking the next step.
That next step, if a warning doesn't work, usually involves the seizure of broadcast equipment. This always includes the transmitter, but can include everything down to your personal CD collection, if you leave it in your broadcast studio.
It's important to remember that the more your flaunt the rules, the more drastic the FCC will deal with you. If you get a "visit" and the mandatory warning letter, but keep broadcasting, expect your gear to end up in federal custody.
And if you keep broadcasting after a seizure, expect the FCC to issue a fine, although it's usually for $10,000 or less.
Remember, though, the fine is usually the third step in the enforcement process, and you can stop broadcasting before that with little risk to your financial or criminal record - unless the radio cops suddenly "get tougher" on unlicensed broadcasting, which they're not prepared to do (they lack the money and manpower).
That being said, there's still plenty of reasons to take to the airwaves. The first is the current LPFM legalization movement - making people aware of what's happening by being an example may be worth the risks of getting caught. The publicity alone will educate, and it may sway the minds of those who previously had no idea the possibility of low power radio even existed.
Sure, you've got to spend a few hundred dollars for all the necessary equipment, but find some comrades who feel the same way you do about the issue, and when one of you gets caught, pass off the gear to someone else to set up shop with (after the warning letter but before the seizure). It's a common tactic, and keeps the net amount of stations "on the air" the same, even though the FCC will tout its removal of a "pirate" from the airwaves.
Your chances of getting caught will be less if you follow a few simple, but fundamental, guidelines. The first is to run a clean technical operation. The smaller the chance you make of your station interfering with other stations, the less of a chance you'll be noticed as an unlicensed station. While building your own broadcast equipment makes the cost of going on the air much cheaper, the chances of putting out interference increases. Weigh that risk and reward carefully before doing anything else.
The way you present your station on-air will also play a large role - Do NOT give out an address or phone number, unless you're either looking to get caught or have a secure way of communicating with your listeners. A phone number with voice mail only is a good way to take requests, but it's still possible for someone to find out who pays the bill for it.
Also remember your legal rights. FCC enforcement agents are not police officers; they all carry identification, and if one shows up at your doorstep make sure to see it. The warning letter he or she gives you should be ID enough, but it doesn't hurt to make sure.
Once "the man" knocks on your door, try not to answer too many questions - if an agent asks to see your broadcast equipment, politely decline. Alone, the FCC agent on a "scouting mission" has no powers of search and seizure. Free Radio Austin (Texas) found that out the hard way, when a housemate of the broadcasters allowed an FCC agent into the studio, where the agent promptly confiscated the transmitter (and left a receipt for his work).
A "normal" seizure will always involve police - once the FCC goes to court to get the warrant, they'll enforce it with armed officers of the law. Seizures are never fun - just ask Lonnie Kobres or Doug Brewer, who both had heavily-armed SWAT teams pay a visit when their gear got taken away.
If you take the issue that far, be prepared for serious consequences. But for the most part, you'll spend a chunk of change for a stint on the air which will last as long as you're responsible about it.
Ultimately the decision to break the current law rests with the broadcaster. Civil disobedience, however, has a long and distinguished history in the U.S., and if you feel the law is incorrect, it is an option to consider if you want to make a change. The fact that more stations are on the air, and more busts are happening, means if you decide to take this path, you'll have plenty of company.