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

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

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More

In Face of Downsizing, Are FCC Agents Pulling Back?

Can’t say for sure, but the latest update to the Enforcement Action Database seems to suggest it, as the agency considers drastically cutting their already meager ranks. As of the end of April, there’ve been just 35 enforcement actions against 17 stations in four states. There has been no official report of field activity in May. In 2014, there were 52 enforcement actions in the same time-frame.

2014 saw the lowest level of FCC enforcement activity against unlicensed broadcasters in nearly a decade. Where agents are active, New York continues to lead the way, followed by New Jersey and California. A station in Colorado also got a warning letter this year, but that was a follow-up to a visit last year. Read More

FCC Enforcement: On the Wane?

Just got the Enforcement Action Database caught up for the year, and the numbers show that FCC field activity is running at the lowest level it’s been since 2005. Just 173 enforcement actions to date, as opposed to ~260 at this time last year.

There was a similar dip in the years afer the FCC first proposed the creation of LPFM, and with LPFM’s second wave in the works it’s enticing to see a correlation, but this time around I’m more inclined to believe it has to do with changing political priorities regarding enforcement policy (pirates take a back seat to cell-phone jammers, for example) coupled with the effects of austerity on federal government services more broadly. Read More