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

O’Rielly Talks Tough on Pirates to Senate

Keeping in line with the Trump administration’s penchant for dehumanization, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly used some of his time testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee last week to hype his signature issue: going to war on unlicensed broadcasting.

Calling them “squatters” who “are infecting the radio band,” O’Rielly whipped out all the now-familiar canards: that pirate radio “stations” (his quotes, not mine) somehow harm “consumer services” (whatever those might be), “emergency communications” (lacking any meaningful evidence that this is a tangible problem), and “the financial stability of licensed radio stations” (nah, that’s Wall Street’s fault). He references a claim from the Massachusetts Broadcasting Association that it’s identified some two dozen pirate stations “operating in one of their markets” (most likely the Boston metro area) and the numbers are growing. Read More

Now They Tell Us: FCC, Congress Rethinking Enforcement Drawdown?

Radio World revealed earlier this month that the acting chief of the Enforcement Bureau, Michael Carowitz, held a videoconference with members of the Bureau’s field-agent staff. The call revealed that the FCC’s downsizing of its enforcement resources has begun, with 11 field offices closed over the last several months (Anchorage, AK; Buffalo, NY; Detroit, MI; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Norfolk, VA; Philadelphia, PA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Tampa, FL; and San Juan, PR) and 14 remaining open.

At present, that leaves just 34 field agents covering the entire country – this includes one of two roving “Tiger Teams” of agents organized to backstop the decimated staff in-residence. That’s almost a cut of half from the prior force of 60 that spanned the nation. It’s also important to keep in mind that these agents are responsible for enforcing all FCC regulations, not just the broadcast license requirement. Read More

Paper Tiger Teams MIA…So Far

Our mid-year update to the Enforcment Action Database shows absolutely no change in the FCC’s enforcement protocol regarding unlicensed broadcasting. Although the agency is running ahead of its enforcement action pace last year (70 to date, compared to 125 for all of 2015), it’s well off the highs seen late last decade. Fewer than three dozen unlicensed radio stations in just six states have had some form of contact with the FCC in 2016.

DIYmedia: FCC Unlicensed Broadcast Enforcement Map, 2016So far, Florida is the hottest spot for FCC activity with 25 actions to date; New Jersey and New York respectively round out the top three. That’s a surprising drop for the Empire State, which has not only topped the list for the last four years but whose Congressfolk and licensed broadcast constituency (along with their colleagues in New Jersey) have been clamoring for more anti-pirate policing.

Some of this political pressure may have been a factor in three monetary forfeitures issued to New Jersey pirates last month. Industry trades made great hay out of the $40,000 in total penalties — but all of these stem from cases that originated last year. That said, the FCC handed out just a single forfeiture in 2015, but perennial collection difficulties remain. Read More

Congress to Target Pirate Advertisers (and Others?)

All five FCC Commissioners spent more than three hours on Capitol Hill last week being questioned by the House Energy and Commerce Committee during an “oversight hearing,” which is a fancy way of saying “let members of Congress score political points by grandstanding on the FCC-related issues they care about the most.” While the hearing itself was mostly dominated by subjects such as the agency’s upcoming spectrum auctions and proposals to detach set-top TV boxes from the grip of cable service providers, two Congressfolk raised the issue of pirate radio with the Commissioners.

First was Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who’s been a very vocal supporter of increased enforcement efforts against pirate stations in the New York City metropolitan area. He announced that he plans to draft legislation to asssist in these efforts and lobbed Commissioner Michael O’Rielly a softball question on the state of pirate radio enforcement: in effect, “what should this bill include?”

O’Rielly said that “getting at the money part” of pirate radio was paramount. Many entities advertise on pirate stations; he mentioned concert and club promoters and political campaigns (?) in particular. However, O’Rielly also noted that he did not want such legislation to penalize those who may “inadvertently” assist unlicensed broadcast operations, such as landlords who may not know they’re renting space to a pirate station. Read More