Love/Hate on Pirate-Hunting

Some interesting — albeit contradictory — rhetoric out of the radio industry regarding the “problem” of pirate radio and how to deal with it. First up is FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, the self-designated point-man for the unlicensed broadcasting issue. He’s spent the last year blogging up a storm about pirates and convening meetings with broadcast executives and lobbyists to scheme strategies to bust them.

His latest comments came at the NAB’s annual Radio Show, held this year in Atlanta. On a panel not ironically entitled, “FCC Experts Talk Radio,” O’Rielly touted the increased level of political heat pirate broacasters now face thanks to his tirades, but he’s lamenting the fact that “enhanced enforcement efforts” seem to be “in a holding pattern for a long time to come.” He’s asking the Commmission to begin a serious pirate crackdown “before Halloween, or at the latest, Thanksgiving. It’s time to put together a game plan and start executing.” Read More

FCC to Congress on Pirate Radio: We Got Nothin’

With little fanfare, the FCC has replied to the Congressional delegations of New York and New Jersey, who are demanding that the agency do something about the proliferation of unlicenesed broadcasters in the New York metropolitan area. At last count, at least three dozen stations are operating in the borough of Brooklyn alone; if you extrapolate that across the five boroughs and add in cities on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, it’s not inconceivable to estimate that as many as 100 pirate stations may be on the air here.

The rising tide of unlicensed broadcast activity in the NYC area — a trend that is several years old now — is exacerbated by the FCC’s utter lack of resources to deal with the issue. Just last month the agency announced a major restructuring of its field enforcement resources, which will result in a net diminution of boots on the ground across the country. In the NYC metroplex, the number of field agents is being increased by one, from four to five people. Although they will be ostensibly be backed up by one of two flying squads of roving agents who will travel the country to enforcement hot-spots (this includes dealing with many issues other than unlicensed broadcasting), it remains to be seen whether this will meaningfully improve the FCC’s overall enforcement abilities. Read More

Prepping for a Pirate Crackdown

Even though the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is in the throes of a major downsizing – newly-released documents indicate the Bureau will cut 44 jobs, or more than 40% of its workforce – it’s also committed itself to do something about the proliferation of unlicensed broadcasting. That said, a before-and-after summary of personnel cuts doesn’t really show a lot of refocused muscle on the ground: for example, New York’s field office will see a net increase of one agent (from 4 to 5), while the “tiger teams” being created to backstop the field offices consist of no more than three or four.

Since pirate radio’s become a plaything of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, and the broadcast lobby is chomping at the bit for a war on pirates, I would not be surprised if the agency, working in concert with groups like the NAB and New York State Broadcasters Association, attempt to sweep at least NYC this year in some “show of force.” Whatever the rhetoric may be, paper-tiger mode remains in full effect — and there’s a lot unlicensed broadcasters can do to prepare for whatever may come, both tactically and strategically. Read More

O’Rielly Encourages War on Pirates

When FCC Commisioner Mike O’Rielly spoke last week to the summer conference of the New York State Broadcasters Assocaiation, he made pirate radio the lead-off topic, sending a clear signal that the Commission is responding to recent Congressional pressure and industry lobbying on the issue. How that response will manifest itself is yet to be determined, but any viable effort will have to involve thinking outside the box about how to be better spectrum-cops.

“Far from being cute, insignificant, or even somehow useful in the broadcasting ecosystem,” said O’Rielly, “pirate radio represents a criminal attack on the integrity of our airwaves, at a time when spectrum has become more scarce and precious than ever before.” He compared unlicensed broadcasters to “poison ivy in a neglected garden” and estimated that nearly one-quarter of all pirates in the country reside in the New York area (data, please!). 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