FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, the pinch-headed ideologue who’s tried to make a name for himself by attempting to launch a war on unlicensed broadcasting in America, actually went out into the mean streets of New York City earlier this summer along with field agents to hunt pirate stations.
Speaking to a very receptive audience at the annual conference of the New Jersey Broadcasters’ Association last month, O’Rielly called unlicensed broadcasting “a key area needing significant attention. . .as it represents a very real problem that is growing.”
Claiming that pirate stations “have no legal or moral right to operate,” O’Rielly asserted (again, without evidence) that pirate radio stations are “stealing listeners” from licensed broadcasters, “weakening [their] financial situation and undermining the health of licensed radio stations” supposedly devoted to serving their communities of license. The threat of interference from unlicensed stations also got a shout-out, but that’s apparently become a secondary issue to O’Rielly’s perferred agency mandate to maximize the profits of the radio industry.
It’s nice to know O’Rielly reads this blog, even if it sticks in his craw something fierce:
There are some that have tried and failed to justify pirate radio’s existence. They argue that these stations wouldn’t exist if real stations were meeting the needs of listeners. . . .Still others argue that trying to close pirate radio stations is somehow an attack on niche markets, including minority or immigrant populations. . . .Our society is not one is which citizens are permitted to pick and choose which laws they want to follow and ignore the others. We are not a candy shop. Equally important, if the needs of local listeners are not being met, then there are proper and legal ways to address this. Moreover, there is no provision in the Commission rules to permit violators on the excuse that the function serves as a job apprentice program or if a pirate station targets a particular segment of the population.
To that end, in order to get a better feel for just how pervasive pirate radio really is, Mikey “tagged along on one of [FCC field agents’] recent investigations. We drove through parts of New York City and starring [sic] right before our eyes was a pirate radio tower in operation.” The horror!
(FYI, the “tower” is just the structure on which a station’s antenna is mounted; it does not “operate” in and of itself but I totally understand that O’Rielly’s not really interested in the subtleties of the situation — just enough to use it as a political cudgel.)
How to handle this? Mikey pimped his ongoing “conversations” with members of Congress, trying mightily to get some to undertake a legislative effort to give the FCC “new tools” with which to hunt pirate broadcasters. As I’ve mentioned before, these tools would presumably allow the agency to go after entities who “aid and abet” unlicensed broadcasting in a variety of ways.
Interestingly, a passel of political fodder involving the FCC was attached to an appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives just last week — including such things as preventing the agency from enforcing its network neutrality provisions and stalling headway on a rulemaking that seeks to allow people to buy their own set-top cable television boxes (as opposed to renting them at exorbitant rates from incumbent TV providers). You’d think this would have been a perfect opportunity to attach an anti-pirate rider, but it seems that Congress lacks the political will to launch the radio-war that O’Rielly would so desperately like to see.
That’s because a blunt prohibitive approach to unlicensed broadcasting is perhaps the most wrong-headed way of trying to tackle this “problem.” No matter how much Mikey says otherwise, unlicensed broadcasting is like many other intractable issues in our society, such as drug abuse and teen pregnancy: there is absolutely no hope of outlawing what are effectively elements of the human condition, and the desire to communicate — via radio or otherwise — fits that bill.
The fact of the matter is that the sorry state of what passes for “public service” by the vast majority of licensed broadasters only exacerbates this problem and inspires radio piracy. As an added bonus, if the federales rolled into immigrant communities such as those found throughout NYC and silenced the only media outlet they can call their own, there would be constituent-hell to pay: this is why members of Congress who represent such communities will stay far away from such efforts (or support them provided they can be afforded enough plausible deniability).
These notions are apparently so far outside of O’Rielly’s acceptable worldview as to make no sense to him. Then again, perhaps it’s really all about the junkets to give loaded speeches in front of audiences who consider you to be some “player” worthy of deference — even if the best you’ve been able to accomplish in three years is emit oodles of contrarian hot air. Alternately, O’Rielly’s doing a masterful job auditioning for a revolving-door industry position following a changeover in the White House: perhaps the National Association of Broadcasters will put him on the payroll as their very own anti-pirate czar. Dare to dream!
Meanwhile, back in the real world of the NYC airwaves in particular, there is little sign of FCC presence worthy of note. David Goren, who runs the remarkable Flatbush Pirate Decoder Facebook page and Shortwaveology SoundCloud archive, is working on a documentary about the vibrant unlicensed broadcast scene in the city. According to his diligent monitoring of the airwaves, there are still more than 30 pirates on the air in Brooklyn alone these days at peak times — and he agrees there’s little sign of the FCC making a dent in this communicative cornucopia.
As someone who’s trying to cover the scene and get perspectives from both the licensed and unlicensed broadcast community, Goren emphasizes his neutrality on the issue of unlicensed broadasting. “As a lover of some of the licensed programmers and programming [in NYC], I did find [the rise of pirate stations] a little disconcerting and annoying, but at the same time I was fascinated to hear something live from a Haitian club,” he said. “I do have a personal love of stations that serve a local community well.”
As for O’Rielly’s “ban ’em all” bombast? Not helpful: “I think he’s trying to score his own political points. . .it’s just his horse to ride on, I think.”