Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”
O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.”
Having worked for the last half-year on trying to articulate “policies and enforcement goals” regarding unlicensed broadcasting, O’Rielly says it’s time to take the next step. For him, this means “an outreach and education effort directed toward entities such as building owners, advertisers, political campaigns, concert promoters, and venue operators that may be unwittingly enabling pirate operators.”
It still remains to be seen just who will carry this outreach and education effort. I have a hard time believing that the handful of field agents in Manhattan will spend their valuable time flyering neighborhoods across the five boroughs and across the Hudson in New Jersey in some attempt to entice businesses not to work with pirates in the area. Perhaps this will be the role of state broadcasters’ organizations and their members — one small step closer to the public/private enforcement partnership that O’Rielly seems to desire.
Unlike the majority of licensed radio stations on the air today, many pirate stations actually provide tangible community service and are recognized as such by those whom they serve. Those who support the stations either don’t care that they are unlicensed, or inherently understand that these stations must operate outside the law because they have no other choice. It’s high hopes indeed that a nastygram with an FCC logo on it will have much of an impact.
Commissioner O’Rielly claims that this is just one part of an “overall package of improvements” he hopes the Commission unveils soon, which will also include “a beefed-up enforcement effort against pirate radio violators.”
Unless the FCC, through legislation (via Congress) or regulation are able to divine some sort of mechanism to make a community liable for the pirates in its midst, any educational or outreach effort won’t go far, because by and large the benefits of having an unlicensed station in the community outweigh the perceived risks of broadcasting outside the law. This is called an assessment of relative risk, and it’s something throughout the history of the phenomenon that all unlicensed broadcasters duly consider in some fashion.
In testimony before the House Commerce Committee last November, Chairman Tom Wheeler did call on Congress for tools that could be used to punish those that “aid and abet” unlicensed broadcasters, but offered no details on what that might mean or what potential penalties may be. For their part, Representatives seemed more interested in bashing a Democrat than mulling over policy substance.
Chris Collins (R-NY) told Wheeler that his staff called the Enforcement Bureau to ask about the status of pirate-hunting at the agency, only to be told, “We are not handling that. You will have to call Mr. Wheeler’s personal office to find out what is being done on pirate radio.” Wheeler responded by citing some “280 enforcement actions that [the FCC] ha[s] taken over the last two years under my chairmanship.”
Yet the numbers continue to bear out the fact that the agency’s still a paper tiger. 2015 saw the fewest enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters since 2004, and so far the new year doesn’t show any significant changes to the agency’s enforcement protocol or targeting efforts.
Nor does the FCC’s most recent budget request signify that more resources will be deovted to pirate-hunting. The net number of full-time equivalent employees in the Enforcement Bureau is projected to drop by nearly 30 in FY 2017 (most of those are field agents let go in the Bureau’s ongoing reorganization), though the Bureau is asking for three times more money for “other contractural services” and more than twelve times as much for “equipment.”
More than a year ago, I suggested that perhaps the agency might reconceive of its enforcement activities regarding unlicensed broadcasting more along the lines of harm reducation than outright prohibition. Still it would seem that the FCC would rather waste its time an energy on a continued campaign of whack-a-mole supplemented by new-fangled threats.