The Federal Communications Commission is making new moves to demonstrate the seriousness with which it takes the “problem” of unlicensed broadcasting. This is being reflected in several ways, including the deployment of more tools in field enforcement, legislative activity, and staff changes.

First, enforcement: on Monday, March 26 the agency, in conjunction with Federal Marshals and the Boston Police Department, conducted two station-raids and equipment seizures. Both stations were effectively co-located on the same block of Blue Hill Avenue in the Dorchester neighborhood, which is populated by two-story structures with businesses on the ground floor and apartments above, as well as an old theater which now houses a Baptist church.

In reality, this was an easy two-fer for the FCC: minimum effort expended for maximum impact. The court complaints make for interesting reading. (All publicly available documents involving previous enforcement actions against these stations can be found in our Enforcement Action Database.)

BIG CITY FM: Much like the high-profile bust of a pirate in Florida last year, this station’s been on the FCC’s radar for more than a decade. The agency first heard about Big City FM in 2007, when an unnamed licensed station in Boston complained about interference from a pirate on 101.3 FM. That July, field agents located the station in Dorchester; simple questioning of folks on the block led agents to one man: Richard Clouden. Agents contacted both Clouden and the church building’s landlord, going so far as to visit Clouden at his workplace.

Clouden admitted to running the station and the agents sent him a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to confirm the case. They followed up with another visit and initially that seemed to be the end of their efforts…until March of 2008, when agents re-checked the FM dial and found 101.3 FM still on the air. The first thing they did was go back to Clouden’s workplace to confront him, and he fessed up. That was enough for the FCC to issue Clouden a $10,000 Notice of Apparent Liability in April, which was converted to a formal forfeiture in June.

The FCC notes that Clouden “never complied with, nor contested, the Forfeiture Order,” so in 2009 the agency turned the matter over to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts to sue him for compliance. They did, and the court upheld the FCC’s penalty by default. There the matter sat for four years, as Clouden never paid up, so the U.S. Attorney referred the case to the U.S. Treasury in 2013 to press for collection (which never happened).

Sometime “in early 2014,” the FCC “received an anonymous voicemail complaining of unlicensed radio stations operating in Boston” and the caller explicitly mentioned a station operating on 101.3. That June, three FCC agents scanned the FM dial and heard Big City FM again, which they tracked to the same Dorchester location. This time, agents got access to the church roof and traced the antenna-cable next door, where a hole had been drilled to let the cable through into a second-floor apartment housing the transmitter and other gear.

A check of tenants in that building turned up a lease in the name of “Arsis Media Group,” which the FCC linked to Richard Clouden. In July, agents re-confirmed that 101.3 was still on the air and left another warning letter at the apartment door. For reasons unknown, no further action was taken on this case…until May 12, 2016, when the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association complained to the FCC specifically about a pirate station named “Big City” operating in the Boston area.

It took another nine months – until Valentine’s Day 2017 – before field agents returned to Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. They noticed that the number of FM antennas on the church’s roof had multiplied, from one to four. Another warning-letter to “Landlord/Radio Operator” was left at the church.

That was it until April 28, when the FCC “received a complaint filed by a Cambridge, Massachusetts resident alleging that three separate, unauthorized FM broadcast stations were operating at or near” the known location of Big City FM. On May 4, three agents went hunting again, confirmed that 101.3 was still active from the church’s roof, and dropped another NOUO there.

In June, agents turned their search online for more clues in the case. Not only did they find two websites (bigcityfm.com and bigcity.net), but also identified another potential station operator: Talya Andrea Lantz, who went by the name “Taylor Andre” on her Big City morning show. According to the FCC complaint, “Because ww.bigcityfm.com [sic] did not identify Clouden as the station’s owner or operator, the FCC did not immediately connect the current investigation with the FCC’s prior enforcement against Clouden for operating an unlicensed station on the same frequency and at the same location in 2007.” Oops!

The following week, the FCC dropped a Notice Of Unlicensed Operation on Lantz for good measure. They sent the letter via both postal mail and UPS overnight delivery, with copies going to both the Dorchester apartment transmitter-site and to Lantz’s home address. The UPS copies were returned as refused; no signatures were required for those sent via USPS, but they were not returned.

Shortly thereafter the Dorchester Reporter wrote a small article noting that some pirate radio stations in the community had recently received visits and warnings from the FCC, and mentioned Lantz. That prompted her to e-mail the FCC directly on July 31, claiming to have never received any communications from the agency. Enforcement Bureau Region One director David Dombrowski replied directly to Lantz on August 4 and included a copy of the NOUO.

On August 14, field agents went out again and found Big City FM still broadcasting, same frequency and location. The next day they were headed back to the station when suddenly it went off the air. When they checked the church’s roof there were still four FM broadcast antennas up top – of which three were in operation – but “the coaxial cable connected to one of the antennas had been severed, thereby rendering the antenna inoperable.”

Curious, agents staked out the joint and “followed two people entering the building” next door. They interviewed the ground-floor business-owner, who confirmed there was a radio station upstairs. They also found out who owned the building and spoke with him; he confirmed that Big City FM was run by Richard Clouden but refused the agents’ request to inspect the rental unit because “he had a poor relationship with Mr. Clouden.”

The following week, the FCC received yet another complaint “from a private citizen” that Big City FM had changed its dial position, from 101.3 to 100.3. A bit more digging in early September uncovered communications to the FCC from four “Boston-area residents, each of whom complained that a station operating on 101.3 MHz was causing harmful interference to a licensed FM translator station” that had recently gone on the air using that frequency.

That translator simulcasts WJIB-AM, a station that broadcasts ultra-oldies music with 250 watts during the day and just 5 watts at night. The translator itself operates at the FCC-designated maximum power of 250 watts with an antenna 280 feet off the ground.

This spurred the FCC to re-issue warning-letters to both Clouden and Lantz on September 11, 2017, again via UPS and the USPS. This time, UPS reported that the letters were delivered successfully but neither party responded to them. The following day, field agents confirmed that Big City had indeed changed its frequency from 101.3 to 100.3.

In October, a field agent again took to the internet and re-checked Lantz’s personal website where, “notwithstanding her representations to an FCC agent [via e-mail], Ms. Lantz still promoted her affiliation with Big City Radio,” though Lantz’s LinkedIn page, under the name of “Tayla Andre,” notes that she did a morning show on Big City from October 2013 until July 2017. Her personal website, which the FCC says it found at www.taylaandre.com, no longer exists, redirecting to a GoDaddy placeholder-page.

There was no further action on the Big City case until January 30 of this year, when a lone field agent returned to Dorchester and confirmed that not only was Big City FM still live on 101.3, but it also had started simulcasting on 105.3, all from the same location it had occupied since 2007. Two days later, “counsel to the licensee of a radio station operating in Boston reported to the FCC that the ‘Big City’ radio station had ceased operating on 100.3 MHz and was only operating at 105.3 Mhz.”

It took the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston a just month to draft the in rem seizure complaint, which was filed on March 5. But it took eleven years, three frequencies, some oversharing of information online, multiple complaints from a variety of parties, and a large amount of complacency on the part of Big City FM’s operator(s) before the agency found the impetus to raid the station and confiscate its gear.

B87.7 FM: In simple terms, this station was collateral damage in the Big City investigation. Prompted by an April 2017 complaint from a “Cambridge, Massachusetts resident” about three pirates operating from the same location in Dorchester, in May field agents found 87.7 FM’s antenna on the same church roof as Big City’s. They left a warning letter addressed to “Landlord/Radio Operator” at the location and called it a day; no response.

The next month, a field agent revisited the location and recorded B87’s air signal. An online search turned up both B87’s website and Twitter feed. From there they got a name: “Diva Mendes,” an afternoon show host.

After searching other, unidentified “public records,” the agent discovered that “Diva” was the on-air name of one Davina Elena Mendes. Knowing that allowed the FCC to find out where she lived, which led to Mendes’ first Notice of Unlicensed Operation on July 13, also sent via UPS and the USPS (the UPS copy was returned as refused, while the USPS copy was not). Again, no response.

On August 14, two field agents returned to that block on Blue Hill Avenue, took signal measurements, and recorded some more of B87’s programming. The following day they inspected the roof of the church again: of the four FM antennas installed, B87’s coax snaked down the church building’s chimney, into what the FCC described as “abandoned premises.” The next month, the landlord allowed partial entry into the building. Agents traced the cable partway but were not allowed to enter the room that housed the transmitter itself because the landlord “had a conflicting appointment and asked the FCC agents to leave the premises.”

In October, the FCC sent another warning letter to Mendes via UPS and the USPS, as well as a NOUO to the church building and its landlord. Both NOUOs sent to Mendes directly were returned as unclaimed, while the others apparently made it to their destinations. There was no more investigatory activity in B87’s case until the seizure complaint was drafted and filed concurrently with Big City FM’s.

There are many questions left unanswered in both cases. For starters, if there were four FM antennas on the roof of that church in Dorchester, why has the FCC not taken action against other pirates ostensibly broadcasting from there? Or were some of those antennas part of Big City FM’s multi-frequency operations? The FCC seems to think that at least three distinct stations broadcast from there – why weren’t three raid/seizure warrants filed?

While the agency seems to have definitively proven that Richard Clouden was the primary operator behind Big City FM, is Tayla Andrea Lantz really a principal? Her online presence is robust and multifaceted, but as a personality: entrepreneur, mentor, and media maven, who next weekend will receive the President’s Award from the Young Professionals Network of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

Archives of her Big City show remind me of the work Charles Clemons did on his unlicensed Boston-area station, Touch 106.1 FM, during the 2000s and early 2010s (before it was raided in 2014). That station was a community institution, and like like Clemons, Tayla’s show featured live interviews with state and local officialdom, such as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans. But none of this is evidence that she was involved in the engineering-work that put and kept Big City FM on the air.

The case against B87’s Davina Mendes is not as clear-cut: the station’s fairly slick website references lots of on-air personalities, but the page for “Diva” has no content. The FCC’s only link seems to have involved a search of an online phone directory that associated the station’s request-line with Mendes.

Neither the Department of Justice nor the FCC will comment on whether they plan to seek additional punishishment for the principals in either case.

Meanwhile in Congress, a “discussion draft” bill called the “Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act” is being teed up for introduction. The bill’s objective is to increase the severity of penalties the FCC may hand down in unlicensed broadcasting cases while expanding the potential number of enforcement-targets.

Primarily, the Act would increase the maximum allowable fine for unlicensed broadcasting to $100,000 per day, for a potential aggregate maximum forfeiture of $2 million, and would open up those who “knowingly and intentionally facilitates pirate radio broadcasting” to similar penalties. “Facilitates” is defined as “providing access to property (and improvements thereon) or providing physical goods or services, including providing housing, facilities, or financing, that directly aid pirate radio broadcasting.”

The PIRATE Act would also require the FCC to conduct enforcement-sweeps of the “top five markets identified as prevalent for [pirate] broadcasts” at least twice a year. This would be in addition to the garden-variety pirate-hunting that field agents already do – the Act explicitly notes that the biannual sweeps cannot replace this activity. It would also mandate that any equipment seized in station-raids be destroyed after 90 days and encourages state and local governments to adopt their own anti-pirate laws, which they would be free to apply once the FCC has formally confirmed the existence of an unlicensed station.

This potential bill has already been the partial subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill. On March 22, New York State Broadcasters’ Association president David Donovan testified to the House’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology that such legislation is necessary, in part, because the FCC’s current enforcement toolkit is mostly ineffective.

In addition to repeating (technically dubious) assertions about the interference-issues unlicensed stations may cause, Donovan claimed that pirate stations “threaten public health”; in his written testimony he suggests that unlicensed broadcasting might even be part of “larger criminal activity” such as that affiliated with street gangs. Though the radio industry’s trade press claims that support for the proposed legislation is growing, until the bill is formally introduced we won’t know who will cosponsor it (nor what its revised language might contain).

For now, the PIRATE Act’s primary sponsors are Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Paul Tonko (D-NY). These are not Congressfolk who represent the pirate hot-spots that would be targeted in biannual sweeps: Tonko represents upstate New York (primarily Albany and points north), while Lance’s district is anchored in western New Jersey. For what it’s worth, Lance has received $3,000 so far from the National Association of Broadcasters during the 2018 election cycle, while Tonko’s picked up $5,400 from the New York State Broadcasters Association as well as $2,500 from the NAB.

Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA $7,500 from the NAB this cycle), who helped shepherd a re-expansion of LPFM through Congress in the 2000s and early 2010s, was also at the hearing and noted that one of the reasons why unlicensed broadcasting is so prevalent in urban areas is because there are few to no opportunities available to apply for station-licenses there. “I think we need to balance the legitimate concerns of broadcast licensees with the limited opportunities for expression available to some communities,” he said.

In a follow-up question about whether the FCC has the resources and personnel available to take on twice-yearly sweeps of the top five pirate hot-spots in the country, the NYSBA’s Donovan suggested that new uses of technology could supplement the downsized field staff. “There are radios that are currently on the market that you connect to the internet. And you place them throughout New York City or northern New Jersey, and you can sit in the FCC’s office in Washington or in New York, and literally turn the dial. And you know which stations you’ve licensed, and you’ll be able to hear which station’s aren’t licensed.

“That will tell you, depending on the location where that radio is, that we know we have thirty pirates near Flatbush, or we have some in the Bronx.” I wonder where he got that particular idea?

Finally, there’s likely to be some changes at the FCC itself sometime this year. Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s term technically expired last June and she’s not expected to stay (possibly mulling a run for Congress). The trades report that consensus is forming around a potential replacement: Geoffrey Starks, currently an assistant chief in the agency’s Enforcement Bureau with direct oversight of its Investigations and Hearings Division.

That opens up the potential for bipartisan cooperation going forward on the pirate “problem,” and a tempering of agency concern for the optics of busting such stations, which often reside in communities of color that are not served well (or at all) by licensed broadcasters. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including some who represent pirate hot-spots in New York City, have already gone on record supporting Starks’ elevation to Commissioner.

For her part, Commissioner Clyburn recently appointed Michael Scurato as her new legal advisor for media issues; previously, Scurato served as a legal advisor to the Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, a position he’s held since 2016. Even with all this action, truly meaningful and tangible enforcement efforts still require coordination of resources and political will, and it remains to be seen whether either exist in an ample supply to bring the war that licensed broadcasters hunger for.