FCC and Pirates: A War of Words

The rhetoric’s heated up, for sure. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who’s made cracking down on unlicensed stations one of his signature issues, calls them infectious squatters, casting the phenomenon as a cancer preparing to metastisize. And he’s gotten much more critical about his own agency’s handling of the problem: when the FCC proposed to fine a Kentucky couple more than $144,000 last month for operating a low-power TV station for nearly twenty years after its original license had expired, he likened FCC enforcement to “a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses.”

That makes “paper tiger” sound almost tame.

Industry trade-press has taken the cue and upped their coverage of the FCC’s anti-pirate broadcast enforcement. Radio World trumpets warning lettters, fines, and threats of fines issued by the Enforcement Bureau as if they’re landing knockout blows. It even got Chairman Ajit Pai to concede in a March interview that pirates are a “serious concern.” Read More

The FCC’s Trumpian Shift is On

The governing paradigm in contemporary U.S. communications policy is genuflection to principles that invoke the “free market,” especially post-1980 when economics captured the policymaking process. As such, all Federal Communications Commissioners, regardless of party, will couch their positions and rationales in this language, though nearly all also make the effort to connect their rationales to something akin to “the public interest,” which has been the principal ideal as mandated by the agency’s own authorizing statute.

But the FCC’s also been a safe space for the occasional ideologue who worships capitalism as the human condition most worthy of emulation. It is not a radical notion to believe that an economic theory may not be an appropriate paradigm by which to organize all of the workings of an entire society. Folks who do believe that are market-fundamentalists; and whether it comes in economic, political, or religious flavors, fundamentalism is an extreme that the act of being civilized tends to temper. Read More

Ajit Pai’s Forked Tongue on Media Freedom

His boss has repeatedly asserted that journalists are the “enemy of the people,” but when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was asked directly at a Senate hearing earlier this month whether he agreed, he skillfully talked around it. Claiming reluctance to “wade into the larger political debates,” Pai commented that he believed “that every American enjoys the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution.”

After the hearing, 13 Senate Democrats sent Pai a letter asking for more detail on his commitment to press freedom, and his response was perfunctory – though he did assert that he thought Trump was talking about “fake news” being the enemy, not legitimate journalism.

Unfortuantely, Pai’s past actions as a lowly Commissioner completely contradict these claims. There are two cases that make this plain. Read More

FCC Anti-Pirate Enforcement in 2016: Symbolic Inflationism Ahoy


A surprising uptick in the Enforcement Action Database for 2016: 201 total actions were logged last year, which is up from the prior two years. Furthermore, the frequency of threats of fines and actual fines against unlicensed broadcasters also rose: 9 NALs issued for a total of $155,000, and 5 forfeitures handed out for a total of $65,000. We haven’t seen numbers this large since 2014.

It gives some statistical credence to recently-former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s assertion that, despite the agency’s admittance that its license-enforcement protocol is effectively broken, it hasn’t ceded the field entirely. Unfortunately, statistics can be fudged, and the FCC’s done that well in the last year. Read More

A Trump FCC and Pirate Radio: Prepare for Struggle

The United States is still trying to come to grips that it has elected a proto-fascist as its next chief executive. With the Republican Party in firm control of the legislature and the ability to shape the judiciary for the next several decades, lobbyists of all stripes are drooling at the prospects of a bona-fide kleptocracy.

Of all the things expected to be decimated in the Trump era, media and communications policy are among them. Others have already written about the potential for a GOP-run Trump FCC to undo several years’ worth of media reform efforts, such as network neutrality, media ownership limits, and many other things. We still don’t know who Trump may nominate to chair the Commission, though there’s talk that one of the two sitting GOP Commissioners may get the nod.

Neither will be good: Ajit Pai is a trenchant disciple of neoliberal economic theory, and pretty much sees all regulation as bad regulation; Mike O’Rielly, who helped write the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (though tellingly does not crow about it), is pretty much the same. But O’Rielly’s crusade to eliminate unlicensed broadcasting from the nation’s airwaves has gotten a significant boost with this election. Read More