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

Paper Tiger Warns: Don’t Do Business With Pirates

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. Read More

Future Enforcement: Questions of Money and Will

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology had members of the FCC in for three hours of grilling a couple of weeks ago under the rubric of “continued oversight,” which is a fancy way of saying “giving members a chance to grandstand on pet issues.”

Subjects like the FCC’s plans to repurpose DTV spectrum for wireless broadband, reform communications subsidy programs, and the protection of net neutrality got the most attention, but questions of the FCC’s enforcement capabilities and how pirate radio fits into the mix did arise. Read More

FCC Radically Revises Enforcement Drawdown

Three months ago, the FCC announced it was preparing to decimate its Enforcement Bureau by removing half its existing staff from the field and closing two-thirds of its field offices. The proposal, based on a $700,000 study prepared by outside consultants, did not sit well with anybody, and was popularly seen as the FCC effectively abdicating its role as police on the public airwaves.

That is, until last Tuesday, when the FCC announced it was abandoning that plan. There will still be enforcement cuts, but nearly not as draconian. Nine field offices are slated to close (instead of 16) and the agency has pledged to concentrate its field staff in markets where maintaining spectrum integrity is of primary importance. To make up for the offices that will be closed, the FCC will have not one, but two “Tiger Teams” ready for deployment on a short fuse. Even though it was brief, Chairman Tom Wheeler’s statement on the revised plan sounds contrite: “This updated plan represents the best of both worlds: rigorous management analysis combined with extensive stakeholder and Congressional input.”

In simple terms, the broadcast industry lit a fire under Congress about the importance of having something akin to recognizable (if not robust) enforcement activity by the FCC. This is the fruit of a carefully-coordinated lobbying campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters, New York State Broadcasters Association, and New Jersey Broadcasters Association, and the hook they used to make their counterattack on the FCC’s downsizing plan was pirate radio. The subject was mentioned repeatedly in Congressional hearings during which the reduction-in-force came up. And on the day that the FCC announced it was stepping back from eviscerating enforcement, a letter co-signed by more than 30 members of Congress to the FCC was released highlighting “Unauthorized FM Radio Operations in New York City.” Read More