FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish

At the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas last month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai highlighted the agency’s extensive efforts to combat unlicensed broadcasting. In addition to announcing that, in 2017, the agency issued “210 Notices of Unlicensed Operation” (I can only confirm 171), Pai said the agency “fined illegal broadcasters $143,800” (it’s actually $158,800) and “proposed fines totaling $323,688” (it’s actually $204,344). He also mentioned the recent raid of pirate stations in Boston, and reported “that we recently took similar action against a pirate operator in Miami and another operator in Queens, New York.”

Considering that station-raids tend to generate a lot of publicity, both among local media in affected markets and in the radio industry trade-press, I was surprised that the Queens and Miami raids have not been reported on at all. This may be because they didn’t actually happen – or happened on dates and at times that don’t fit Chairman Pai’s narrative. In addition, further information has come to light that casts doubt on just how effective the FCC’s recent activity in Boston really was.

First, let’s break down the Queens case. This involves a guy by the name of Jose Luis Gerez and a station he used to run (and actually may still be running) called “Mambo FM.” According to an unsealed complaint dated last November, this station first appeared on the FCC’s radar in July 2013, when agents in the New York field office observed “what appeared to be an unlicensed broadcast station operating at 95.1 MHz in Queens, New York.” They tracked the signal to an apartment building on Gleane Street, less than a three-mile drive from LaGuardia Airport. After interviewing the superintendent of the apartment building, agents found an FM antenna on the roof with a coaxial cable running into the basement, where a transmitter and desktop computer providing the station’s programming was found. Agents sent a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to the property-owner, who subsequently reported that the station had been removed from the premises. 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

Document-Dump Details FCC Enforcement Cutbacks

All hail Michael Marcus: one of the policy-fathers of wi-fi and Bluetooth (and a man with unimpeachable FCC bona-fides) has released a compendium of documents regarding plans for the FCC’s radical shrinking of its Enforcement Bureau.

The cache has three parts: a letter from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to Greg Walden (R-OR), a member of the House’s Committee on Energy and Commerce; a memorandum to FCC field staff from Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc and FCC Managing Director Jon Wilkins; and a PowerPoint slide summary of the outside consultant’s work, conducted by Oceaneast Associates and Censeo Consulting Group.

Here’s what it tells us: Read More

Pirate-Hunting: FCC Plods While Local Scenes Bubble

Halfway through 2013, and the FCC’s pace of unlicensed broadcast enforcement shows no real change from 2012: 106 enforcement actions in all, targeting more than three dozen stations, with the majority of this activity wholly administrative in nature. Pirate stations who appear on the FCC’s radar can now expect a warning letter to arrive via certified mail 1-6 weeks after an initial visit. Ignore those, and the agency may start asking for money.

To date, the FCC has handed out $60,000 in Notices of Apparent Liability and $125,000 in actual forfeitures. However, not all of these penalties are new: in February, the FCC socked Whisler Fleurinor with a $25,000 fine for unlicensed operation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is actually Fleurinor’s second go-round – he was first busted in 2010 and given a $20,000 forfeiture in 2011, which was later reduced to $500. It’s much the same story for Gary Feldman, who was first busted in 2004 for pirate broadcasting in Miami. He was caught again last year and fined $25,000 this year. Moreno’s 2004 forfeiture ($10,000) was never paid. Read More

Crashing Propaganda: Miami Redux

The standard line, “pirate stations interfere with airplanes,” has been quickly assimilated into the TV news groupthink of Miami. Earlier this month CBS 4 ran a relatively long story on the busting of “Radio Energy,” a Haitian station in North Miami. The actual video report is pretty sick.

Although reporter Ileana Varela explicitly states more than once that the particular station serving as the hook of her story was not alleged to have interfered with anything, Varela kicks off her report with the threat unlicensed stations pose to air traffic communications, something the anchor-banter leading into the story calls “a problem police say is growing and as a result putting the community at risk.” Placement of information is a key element of reportage, especially in a medium as time-constrained and punchy as television news. Read More