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

Now They Tell Us: FCC, Congress Rethinking Enforcement Drawdown?

Radio World revealed earlier this month that the acting chief of the Enforcement Bureau, Michael Carowitz, held a videoconference with members of the Bureau’s field-agent staff. The call revealed that the FCC’s downsizing of its enforcement resources has begun, with 11 field offices closed over the last several months (Anchorage, AK; Buffalo, NY; Detroit, MI; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Norfolk, VA; Philadelphia, PA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Tampa, FL; and San Juan, PR) and 14 remaining open.

At present, that leaves just 34 field agents covering the entire country – this includes one of two roving “Tiger Teams” of agents organized to backstop the decimated staff in-residence. That’s almost a cut of half from the prior force of 60 that spanned the nation. It’s also important to keep in mind that these agents are responsible for enforcing all FCC regulations, not just the broadcast license requirement. Read More

FCC Anti-Pirate Enforcement in 2016: Symbolic Inflationism Ahoy


A surprising uptick in the Enforcement Action Database for 2016: 201 total actions were logged last year, which is up from the prior two years. Furthermore, the frequency of threats of fines and actual fines against unlicensed broadcasters also rose: 9 NALs issued for a total of $155,000, and 5 forfeitures handed out for a total of $65,000. We haven’t seen numbers this large since 2014.

It gives some statistical credence to recently-former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s assertion that, despite the agency’s admittance that its license-enforcement protocol is effectively broken, it hasn’t ceded the field entirely. Unfortunately, statistics can be fudged, and the FCC’s done that well in the last year. Read More

iHeartMedia, Cumulus Go Debt-Offensive

How many ways can you keep debt at bay? Does non-payment sound like a viable option? Perhaps not if you’re just a mere flesh-and-blood human, but the corporate beast’s a special class.

Over at iHeartMedia, $250 million of the company’s $20+ billion debt came due last Thursday (December 15). In a surprise move, the company announced two days before that it would only be paying back just $192.9 million of these notes and foregoing the rest.

The reason? This debt constitutes money that various subsidiaries of iHeartMedia owe to each other. In addition, these particular debt instruments contain a provision that, should the total debt held between these entities fall below $500 million, it would trigger a “springing lien.” This is a fancy term for extra payments owed to debtors as an incentive for giving the conglomerate a nice line of credit.

By witholding $57.1 million of these payments, iHeartMedia’s total debt in this instance doesn’t fall below the threshold, and thus the company can avoid making the bonus-payments to creditors. To stymie any objection to this ploy, iHeart went to the friendly Bexar County, Texas courts and filed a flurry of paperwork last Monday (to give you an idea of how complex its debt structure is, there 11 petitions in all, involving six Clear Channel iHeart subsidiaries), asking a judge to declare this practice kosher. Read More

Anti-Pirate Activity Rebounds from 2015 Nadir

FCC Anti-pirate Enforcement Actions in 2016 by stateThough not by much, and certainly not along the lines of what we saw at the beginning of this decade. August was a busy month for FCC field agents, who conducted nearly three dozen enforcement actions against fewer than half as many stations. The state-leader this year so far is Florida – while New York still leads the all-time pack enforcement action-wise – and the FCC’s flexed its muscle in only seven states, compared to 10 in 2015.

Some of the cases are fairly curious, such as a $15,000 Notice of Apparent Liability issued against a Florida man who first started broadcasting without a license way back in 2013. One visit that year, followed by four visits last year (and a change in frequency), finally compelled the FCC to bring the threat of a fiscal penalty to bear.

Then there’s the case of an Alabama man who first hit the FCC’s radar in 2015; after being warned he voluntarily surrendered his transmitter via mail, only to get a new one and move to a new channel. When contacted again by the federales, he expressed the wish that he could be legal but no application windows for LPFMs are in the works, so his “hands were tied.” Not a good enough excuse to avoid a $15,000 NAL…but then again, it remains to be seen whether the FCC will formalize these as actual forfeitures, much less be able to collect on them. Read More