FCC Whacks Zombie-Moles

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is regularly making waves in the agency’s Daily Digest now, issuing slews of warning-letters to unlicensed broadcasters nearly every week. Interestingly, these letters are typically grouped by location: one week it’s a passel of pirates “caught” broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, the next a bunch of folks in South Florida, etc.

The agency, and radio industry, have long described the enforcement process as “whack-a-mole” in reference to the carny game where you score points bashing plastic rodents with a mallet, who pop up and disappear often before you can bring the hammer down. It’s an apt description…but the agency’s most recent enforcement-activites vividly demonstrate just how devoid the process is of deterrent value.

In an update to the Enforcement Action Database earlier this month, I highlighted the case of Kacy Rankine. He’s a New Jersey-based unlicensed broadcaster who first appeared on the FCC’s radar way back in 2005. That year he received a slew of station-visits and warning-letters from the federales, but to no avail, so the FCC ended up fining him $10,000 in 2007.

It’s highly unlikely that fine was ever paid, because Rankine was noticed again this year (a full decade later) running another station in another New Jersey community. The FCC, which apparently doesn’t keep a logically comprehensive record of its own regarding prior enforcement actions and lacks a semblance of institutional memory on this issue, simply restarted the enforcement process with Rankine, issuing him a warning letter last month. Read More

Paper Tiger Apes Big Bad Wolf

The FCC’s taking a cue from the Three Little Pigs, huffing and puffing about the work it’s doing to combat the “problem” of pirate radio. Just in time for the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Radio Show in Austin, the FCC’s gone on an enforcement spree of sorts over the last month or two.

With 158 enforcement actions on the books at the end of August, the agency is now on pace to meet or exceed the number of actions it took against unlicensed stations in 2016. For the eight years we’ve experienced of this decade so far, 2017’s enforcement-trajectory seems on target to rank as third or fourth-busiest.

States visited by the FCC hunting radio pirates, 2017Field agents have traveled far beyond the most popularly-recognized East Coast “hotspots” this summer. Arkansas gets on the board for the first time in the history of our Enforcement Action Database, while the closure of the Seattle FCC field office made it San Francisco and Los Angeles-based agents’ responsibility to visit Alaska in pursuit of a Baptist church – the first time since 2013 that the FCC’s made waves there. (Alaska is the 36th most active U.S. state/territory for pirate radio, just behind FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s home state of Kansas.) Read More

FCC’s Trumpist Trajectory Intensifies

The rotten hubris that is the Trump administraton is in full bloom at the FCC. It began when its leadership refused to defend core communications principles like free speech and press and flourished when they swore fealty to hypercapitalism and preemptively demonized those who may oppose their policy agenda. Now the dirty tricks have arrived. It’s all so far outside the already-troublesome norm of how media policy is made as to be head-spinning.

Let’s begin with the agency’s effort to repeal network neutrality regulations. An issue that’s overly complicated in most news coverage, the nation turns to John Oliver to make sense of it. He’s done this twice now – most recently in May, and as before his coverage inspired millions to visit the FCC’s public-comment site and make their thoughts known on the issue.

The first time, the public response in favor of net neutrality was so overwhelming that it crashed the FCC’s servers. This time, the system went down again…but the FCC claims that it was due to a malicious attack of unknown origin. According to (now-gone) Chief Information Officer David Bray, as Oliver’s latest segment went to air, “the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic. . .[they] were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.” Read More

FCC and Pirates: Going Through the Motions Faster

Signifying what the industry trades call a “crackdown” and added “pressure” on unlicensed broadcasters, the FCC’s Enforcment Bureau has stepped up its issuance of warning-letters, primarily to pirate stations in New York and New Jersey. Of the 94 enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this year, 52 of them have taken place in these two states. Enforcement activity also includes two Notices of Apparent Liability and seven Forfeiture Orders, for cases that originated in 2015-16. Overall, however, the pace of enforcement actions is running behind the totals of a year ago.

This is not necessarily an expansion of enforcement duties. NYC-based field agents especially are now doing what they call “follow-up investigations” – in a nutshell, agents now re-visit unlicensed stations they’ve already contacted. If they are still on the air, they issue yet another warning letter to the operator (or, in the case of one New Jersey-based pirate, to the owner of the property where the station is housed, who was not in on the first-round contact). “Follow-up investigations” typically occur within 1-3 months of initial contact with the offending station. But if stations aren’t fazed by the first FCC nastygram they get, what are the odds the second one will change their ways? Read More

Last Bites of Translator Feast At Hand

The final element of a radio spectrum “land rush” that began more than a decade ago involving FM translator stations is upon us.

Translators exploded onto the scene as a way for broadcasters to gain new FM signals on the cheap back in 2003, when some clever religious broadcasters flooded a filing window which resulted in the tendering of thousands of translator-station construction permits. These folks inspired other spectrum-spectulators to jump in, sensing that this would be the last chance to colonize the FM dial in the United States. They all then sold the majority of these permits, for thousands to millions of dollars apiece.

These translators have been mostly utilized to give HD Radio-only programming (like that found on FM HD-2 and -3 subchannels) an analog presence, which some have likened to launching an entirely new station, and to allow AM stations a foothold on the FM dial. Since that first rush, the FCC’s opened multiple opportunities for broadcasters to purchase existing translator stations, most recently as part of FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s vaunted AM revitalization initiative. Read More