Raids, Bills, Staff Moves: FCC Enforcement Changes Afoot?

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.) Read More

FCC Getting Shady With Anti-Pirate Enforcement?

When it comes to pirate-hunting, the FCC’s off to a relatively sedate start in 2018. The total number of enforcement actions reported so far for January stands at 15, which is six more than were reported in 2017, but equal to the number reported in 2016, the final full year of previous (Democratic) chairman Tom Wheeler’s tenure. So far this month there have been eight actions, as opposed to 11 in February 2017 and 12 in February 2016.

Many of these cases originated last year. The most notable at present is the case of “Gerlens Cesar,” who was sent a Notice of Unlicensed Operation earlier this month for operating four pirate stations on two FM frequencies in Boston and its surrounding suburbs. Interestingly, a principal by the name of “Cesar Gerlens” has already run afoul of the FCC – having received multiple visits and warning-letters in the latter half of last year – some of which named additional collaborators – for operating unlicensed stations in the Boston area.

I e-mailed the chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, Rosemary Harold, to ask about this apparent discrepancy: had the agency mistakenly transposed the first and last names of the principal in this case, or are there two distinct individuals who just happen to share identical name-elements working in Boston? So far, no response, but also no correction from the agency. In any case, Cesar Gerlens/Gerlens Cesar seems a likely candiate for a negotiated forfeiture-settlement similar to the one worked out with a prolific pirate in Florida last moth, if/when the agency consolidates the information gleaned in this case. Read More

Paper Tiger Roars in 2017 – To What End?

There are still a few pirate radio enforcement-cases from 2017 that the FCC has yet to release, but by and large the numbers from last year are in and they most definitely show an uptick in the number of enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters. As of today, there were 383 enforcement-actions across 18 states, compared to 207 actions in 2016 covering just nine states. For the second year running, Florida tops the list of states with the most anti-pirate enforcement, followed by Massachusetts and New York.

FCC Anti-Pirate Enforcement Actions Enforcement Actions by Year, 1997-20182017 ranks as the fifth-busiest year for enforcement activity in the 20-year history of the Enforcement Action Database, eclipsed only by a tear the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau went on during the end of President Bush II’s second term and Obama’s first term, when a proposed expansion of LPFM was being debated. Of the activity logged last year, the vast majority were station-visits (201, or 52%) or Notices of Unlicensed Operation (aka warning letters, 168, or 44%). The remaining 4% of enforcement actions included Notices of Apparent Liability (aka pre-fines, of which there were four) and Forfeiture Orders (nine).

In 2016, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued nine NALs and five Forfeiture Orders, so on balance there’s no real movement or improvement in the agency’s escalation-protocol beyond initial contact(s). Read More

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