With unlicensed broadcast operations taking place with impunity in several of the nation’s largest media markets, and facing near-emasculation in the field, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a new tack to try and ameliorate the “pirate problem.”
A letter co-signed by all five Commissioners was mailed out last week to several local government and industry trade groups, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of National Advertisers, and National Association of Realtors, among several others.
This letter seeks to inform the recipients about who pirate stations are and asks that they avoid doing business with them. The letter claims that unlicensed broadcasters “can cause harmful interference to licensed radio broadcasters serving their communities, thereby starving stations of their ability to reach their listening audiences and obtain necessary advertising revenues.” It also claims that pirate stations have the potential to interfere with public-safety radio systems.
The tone is slightly admonishing: the recipients are informed that they “may be unknowingly or unintentionally providing aid to pirate stations. . .including buying advertising on such stations to housing the physical stations themselves.” The Commissioners hint that this may expose them to “potential FCC enforcement or other legal actions,” and cautions that being in business with a pirate station may also “sully the reputations of those businesses with the licensed broadcast community and other professional organizations” – sort of a “Scarlet P” approach.
Enclosed with each letter is an “Enforcement Advisory,” a two-page document from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau that reiterates the Commissioners’ talking points in slightly more detail. Citing a couple of random enforcement actions over the last year, the Bureau says that pirate stations can range from “the rebellious high school kid operating a radio station from his bedroom. . .to slick and sophisticated high-powered illegal broadcast operations.”
It repeats what seems to be the radio industry’s primary grievances: that unlicensed stations threaten “the livelihood and sustainability of existing radio broadcasters and the health and safety of the listening public.” The latter claim is bolstered by a nod to the potential for pirates to interfere with the broadcast Emergency Alert System.
The Enforcement Bureau also floats the notion that landlords, merchants, and venues that “provid[e] support for such illegal activity could not only damage the reputation of such businesses, but could expose them to FCC enforcement or other legal actions.” It says you can identify a pirate station by its lack of legal station identification at the top of the hour, and to report any you might find on the dial.
The entire exercise is heavy on insinuation but light on actual fact or authority. What has been missing from the industry’s new crusade against unlicensed broadcasting is any demonstration of actual harm. It’s patently absurd to claim that pirate stations are taking money from licensed broadasters — once upon a time a license to broadcast may have been a license to print money, but no longer. Have any broadcaster or their trade groups attempted to quantify the loss of business that they claim to suffer?
They can’t, for two primary reasons. The first is that most of the communities served especially by urban pirate stations represent audiences that licensed broadcasting abandoned long ago or never really served in the first place. The audiences served by the flourishing Caribbean pirate scene in my Flatbush neighborhood, for example, have no interest in whatever iHeartMedia, Cumulus, or NPR are doing on the airwaves, and never really have. How can one claim a loss of listeners that never really existed?
Similarly, the entities that may advertise or otherwise do business with an unlicensed broadcaster were never part of the advertising market targeted by licensed radio stations. The ads cost too much and don’t reach the desired listening audience, so why bother? (And since most are so local, they’re unlikely to be members of those industry trade groups targeted by the FCC’s new campaign.)
The only exception to this where the FCC has a legal point of note are those who rent space out for pirate stations. There’s a clear legal precedent for penalizing landlords, because the space is directly utilized in the illicit transmission process.
The second industry/FCC grievance is that pirate stations present a threat to public health and safety. On one hand, the claim that unlicensed broadcasters interfere with EAS messages is specious – where is the proof? Again, they go unheard because many communities served by pirates aren’t interested in listening to licensed stations. Furthermore, not all licensed stations are intefered with universally by all pirates, so the redundancy of the EAS system itself mitigates this problem.
Ultimately, what’s most notable is the FCC’s apparent pivot from being the guarantor of spectrum integrity to the guarantor of industry profitability. Unlicensed broadcasters aren’t just interlopers on the AM/FM dials, they’re barbarians at the gate threatening an entire industry’s livelihood! It’s true that industry revenues have been in slow decline the last couple of years, but to try and pin this on pirates is absurd.
At present it may seem like particularly eloquent hot air, but there’s work afoot to try and put some sort of heft behind these assertions, especially with regard to “aiding and abetting” unlicensed broadcasters. In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters’ State Leadership Conference last month, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly — the FCC’s own self-styled Eliot Ness — previewed the release of this letter and Enforcement Advisory.
He also expressed gratitude to congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) for his “invaluable” work “to keep pirate radio on the front burner at the FCC and elsewhere in DC. . .I very much appreciate his thoughtful and creative approach on this issue. I look forward to continuing the conversation with him and other Hill leaders. . .if I can be of assistance in any way with his commendable efforts to attack the pirate problem from other angles.”
One wonders what these “other angles” may be. In previous Congressional testimony, both O’Rielly and Chairman Tom Wheeler have explicitly identified those who “aid and abet” unlicensed broadcasting as worthy of punishment.
Perhaps working off the landlord-precedent, potential legislation could criminalize having material ties to a pirate. This is precisely what the U.K. and other European countries did to squelch the offshore pirate era of the 1950-60s. Or it might create new legal authorities for licensed broadcasters to use to pursue their own civil cases against pirates. The possibilities are only limited by the legal creativity of Pallone, his staffer tasked with drafting the bill, and the industry attorneys “advising” the process.
The newly-reconstituted Enforcement Bureau’s field presence, including its two new “tiger teams,” have also yet to make a move in the field. It’s certainly shaping up to be an interesting year for unlicensed broadcasting in the U.S., though Commissioner O’Rielly’s “game changer” it will most likely not be. I’ll be guest on tomorrow’s Radio Survivor podcast, where we talk about these developments in more detail.