Just updated the Enforcement Action Database and the signs are pretty clear: unlicensed broadcasting has slipped down the priority-list for FCC field agents. Actions against AM/FM and shortwave pirate stations last year were at their lowest level since 2005, the last time fewer than 200 were logged.
Having lived here for a couple of years now, it’s true that New York City is a melting pot of culture like few other places. Sure, there’s Manhattan, from where the most nationally-recognizable symbols of the city’s culture emanate, but each borough’s got its own flavor, with distinctive neighborhoods and narratives.
This is very true for the radio dial. And of the five boroughs, nobody’s airwaves are more active than Brooklyn. Last year, I conducted a bandscan of receivable FM stations from my location on the Midwood/Flatbush border and picked up some 30 pirates; now it’s a new year and the FM dial remains alive with them. Somebody’s even established a Twitter feed that tracks (and samples) what’s on the air here. By and large, every frequency from 87.7 to 107.9 has something on it, and where I live there’s a one-in-three chance that it’s unlicensed. You can find everything from Afro-Carribean talk and music to Orthodox Jewish teachings and Hebrew music. There’s also stations devoted to the more mundane, like dance music, gospel, and death metal. Many are commercial, in mom-and-pop fashion. The languages are multivariate, but it’s all live and local, and despite its rough edges this FM dial is vibrant like nowhere else (save London, perhaps).
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.
When HD Radio was under development and policy-discussions on the technology were in their infancy, proponents of the system bragged about all of the game-changing features it would have. This included audio quality that sounded better than CD and the ability to broadcast a plethora of digital data beyond audio itself.
They also told us that digital radio signals would be more robust and easier to receive than their analog counterparts. This was a critical assertion, because HD Radio works by shoehorning digital signals onto the existing AM and FM bands, right next to analog ones, and thus to avoid interference the HD signal can only be broadcast at just a fraction of a station’s analog power output. But proponents said that was okay: HD Radio only needed a fraction of the power to kick ass and blow minds.
It’s been a busy month for FCC field agents and Federal Marshals in the Northeast. Last week they raided and seized the equipment of three unlicensed radio stations in the Boston area, while two weeks prior they took down four pirate stations in New York City.
The Boston raids netted a long-time pirate who operated way out in the open. TOUCH FM, founded by long-time and well-respected community activist Charles Clemons, had been on the air for eight years. Clemons was also quite engaged in the movement to expand low-power FM radio and even ran for mayor of Boston last year. He’s been on the FCC’s radar since 2007, when he was first visited and warned; the agency followed up with a $17,000 fine in 2008, which was never paid.