When FCC Commisioner Mike O’Rielly spoke last week to the summer conference of the New York State Broadcasters Assocaiation, he made pirate radio the lead-off topic, sending a clear signal that the Commission is responding to recent Congressional pressure and industry lobbying on the issue. How that response will manifest itself is yet to be determined, but any viable effort will have to involve thinking outside the box about how to be better spectrum-cops.
“Far from being cute, insignificant, or even somehow useful in the broadcasting ecosystem,” said O’Rielly, “pirate radio represents a criminal attack on the integrity of our airwaves, at a time when spectrum has become more scarce and precious than ever before.” He compared unlicensed broadcasters to “poison ivy in a neglected garden” and estimated that nearly one-quarter of all pirates in the country reside in the New York area (data, please!).
However, when it came to constructively addressing this state of affairs, the Commissioner only had trial balloons in his arsenal. There was barely a mention of O’Rielly’s prior proposal to somehow apply e-mail spam laws to radio pirates. This time, he suggested that the FCC might “put building owners on the hot seat for hosting pirate radio stations. Most building owners wouldn’t allow tenants to conduct an illegal gambling sites, sweatshops or drug activities [sic], why should they be allowed to be so passive with regards to illegal pirate radio stations?”
Try again: this is something the FCC already does, and has for the last several years. In fact, this year the NYC field office has issued more warning letters to property-owners than to identified individual broadcasters. But the step up from there is either a station-raid or monetary forfeiture, and the agency simply doesn’t have the capacity for a general escalation of its enforcement protocol.
Going after those who aid and abet has also been tried before. In 2005, a used-car salesman in Florida who rented office space to unlicensed broadcasters was charged under that state’s own anti-pirate radio law, though he pled guilty to a lesser charge. New York and New Jersey already have similar laws on the books but the cops around here have much better things to do.
In the heyday of the microradio movement, the FCC did try casting a wide net — so wide as to name “any and all John and Mary Does” in an injuction request against Free Radio Austin. Long gone are the days when the agency had that sort of administrative muscle and judicial coordination to bear on the issue.
The most notable piece of O’Rielly’s speech announced the creation of a public/private initiative to “start formulating a plan of attack” to “eradicate pirate radio for good.” It’ll begin with discussions between the FCC and broadcasters from New York and “other markets,” and the Commissioner hopes this initiative leads to “rapid, substantial progress on the enforcement front.”
It’s common practice for policymakers to speak hyperbolically in order to establish the outer bounds of acceptable discourse on a particular policy issue. In that regard, O’Rielly’s speech was red meat to a hungry industry audience. But he also acknowledged that a sentiment exists which views unlicensed broadcasting as an opportunity rather than a problem (even if only to smack it down).
Coincidentally, the FCC’s enforcement powers and protocol were the subject of a conversation I had with Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel and Eric Klein earlier this month on their new podcast. Despite austerity, there are several options that regulators and industry have to “attack” these radio-weeds. The problem is, most of these run counter to the tactics of demonization and legal absolutism.