This is unusual: the Federal Communications Commission has instigated a civil lawsuit in the Western District Court of Texas against Walter Olenick and M. Rae Nadler-Olenick, the proprietors of “Texas Liberty Radio,” which until late last year occupied 90.1 FM in Austin, Texas.
The facts are fairly clear: sometime in 2013, the FCC received a complaint about Texas Liberty Radio’s existence. That August, field agents from Houston traveled to Austin and found the station, measured its power, and confirmed it did not have a license. The recently-filed court documents contain some hand-written notes from field agents about the station, including the possible apartment it was broadcasting from, license plate numbers of cars in the parking lot, and notes on the station’s programming, which field agents noted included stuff from “Alex Jones” and “infowars.” Continue reading “FCC Sues Unlicensed Station to Collect Fine”
David Goren is a radio producer and journalist with an inherent love of radio sound. I originally found him through his blog, Shortwaveology, which documents interesting finds on the shortwave radio spectrum, whether it be curious programming from a variety of international origins or ephemera like clicks, buzzes, and interval tones. Goren spent time at Wave Farm last year for a residency in which he explored the sun’s effect on shortwave radio propagation.
Goren also lives in the Ditmas Park section of the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn – which just so happens to be one of the hottest spots for unlicensed AM and FM broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area. A few years back he invited me to his house, where I drooled at the listening post he’d set up to scan the bands for pirate signals, including a plethora of antennae and receivers with computers set up to record stations. Continue reading “Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map Seeks to Expand Citywide”
On Monday, the full House of Representatives approved the PIRATE Act on a voice vote (no roll call). This comes just a week after its Energy and Commerce Committee endorsed the bill (also on a voice vote) with some amendments, and two months after the bill was initially introduced.
The amended bill ups the size of financial penalties for unlicensed broadcasting to $2 million, requires the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to conduct an annual sweep of the top five radio markets where radio piracy is most prevalent (with follow-up “monitoring sweeps”), gives field agents the option to skip the initial warning-letter in cases where the broadcasts are ongoing, and requires the FCC to establish a database of both licensed and unlicensed radio stations. It also notes that no additional funding will flow to the FCC in order to undertake these new regulatory burdens. Continue reading “PIRATE Act Passes House on Voice Vote”
On July 12, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 5709, the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act (aka PIRATE Act) on a voice vote. This comes one month after a subcommittee signed off on it. There were some notable amendments offered and accepted by the Committee, sponsored by Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Mike Doyle (D-PA), both of whom are cosponsors.
First, the number of enforcement sweeps of the top five markets identified by prevalence of unlicensed broadcast activity has been reduced from twice per year to once per year. However, six months after this annual sweep, the FCC will be required to conduct “monitoring sweeps” of target markets “to ascertain whether the pirate radio broadcasting identified by enforcement sweeps is continuing to broadcast and whether aditional pirate radio broadcasting is occurring.”
Rep. Doyle explained that this change was made so that anti-pirate enforcement would not unduly take time and resources away from “other critical missions” of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and its field staff. Continue reading “PIRATE Act Clears House Committee, With Amendments”
In May, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) introduced the “Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act,” otherwise known by the acronym PIRATE Act. The bill makes several changes to existing FCC regulations regarding unlicensed broadcasting:
1. The maximum monetary penalty that can be assessed for unlicensed broadcasting on the AM and FM bands is increased from an aggregate maximum of $100,000 to $2 million, and can be doled out in increments of $100,000 per day. These fines can be issued against the pirate broadcaster directly, or against any entity that “knowingly and intentionally facilitates pirate radio broadcasting.”
“Facilitates” is defined as “providing access to property (and improvements thereon) or providing physical goods or services, including providing housing, facilities, or financing, that directly aid pirate radio broadcasting.” This hearkens back to a historical precedent set by European laws in the 1960s that attempted to outlaw offshore pirate radio by making it illegal to supply and advertise on the station-ships and platforms operating in international waters. Continue reading “PIRATE Act Sets Sail in House”
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. Continue reading “FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish”
The Federal Communications Commission is making new moves to demonstrate the seriousness with which it takes the “problem” of unlicensed broadcasting. This is being reflected in several ways, including the deployment of more tools in field enforcement, legislative activity, and staff changes.
First, enforcement: on Monday, March 26 the agency, in conjunction with Federal Marshals and the Boston Police Department, conducted two station-raids and equipment seizures. Both stations were effectively co-located on the same block of Blue Hill Avenue in the Dorchester neighborhood, which is populated by two-story structures with businesses on the ground floor and apartments above, as well as an old theater which now houses a Baptist church.
In reality, this was an easy two-fer for the FCC: minimum effort expended for maximum impact. The court complaints make for interesting reading. (All publicly available documents involving previous enforcement actions against these stations can be found in our Enforcement Action Database.) Continue reading “Raids, Bills, Staff Moves: FCC Enforcement Changes Afoot?”
3/15 Update: Today iHeartMedia filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, after coming to a deal with a viable cross-section of its creditors to wipe some $10 billion in debt off of its balance-sheets…leaving the “restructured” company with about $10 billion left to pay down. Some creditors, who hold eight to nine figures of this debt, will be wiped out, but it’s too early in the process to tell just who will get screwed the most. Just today, iHeart tendered nearly 20 filings with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Texas’ Southern District – and those to whom the company owes money, as well as other interested players looking to intervene, have filed another 70+, suggesting this process will not be smooth nor speedy. [Original post follows below.]
What a strange way to go bust. After spending years telling the public that all was well – consolidation, automation/syndication, and cost-cutting was “good for radio” and tens of billions of dollars of debt was of little to no concern –
Clear Channel iHeartMedia is finally preparing to pay the piper.
On February 1, the nation’s largest radio broadcast conglomerate welshed on a $106 million dollar interest-payment, triggering a 30-day countdown to default. As the clock ran down, on March 1 the company also skipped an additional $138 million in interest-payments, all in the hopes of forcing its creditors to the table to hammer out a soft landing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, similar to what Cumulus Media did late last year (though Cumulus was only in one-tenth the debt that iHeart is, and Cumulus’ reorg-timetable has also hit some snags).
In between skipping these payments, iHeart tendered a restructuring offer to its lenders that seeked to reduce the company’s total debt from nearly $21 billion to $5.5 billion, all of which would be expected to be repaid over five to seven years. In exchange, “senior lenders” would receive an 89.5% equity share in the company, including 100% ownership of Clear Channel Outdoor – the most healthy division in the iHeartMedia constellation, and the one that iHeart itself’s been drawing money from over the last few years in order to juggle its crippling debt. Bain Capital – the private-equity firm which more than doubled iHeart’s debt when it took the company private in 2008, setting it up on the crash-trajectory it faces now – would walk away with less than 2% of the restructured company. Continue reading “iHeartMedia Beyond Borrowed Time”
When it comes to pirate-hunting, the FCC’s off to a relatively sedate start in 2018. The total number of enforcement actions reported so far for January stands at 15, which is six more than were reported in 2017, but equal to the number reported in 2016, the final full year of previous (Democratic) chairman Tom Wheeler’s tenure. So far this month there have been eight actions, as opposed to 11 in February 2017 and 12 in February 2016.
Many of these cases originated last year. The most notable at present is the case of “Gerlens Cesar,” who was sent a Notice of Unlicensed Operation earlier this month for operating four pirate stations on two FM frequencies in Boston and its surrounding suburbs. Interestingly, a principal by the name of “Cesar Gerlens” has already run afoul of the FCC – having received multiple visits and warning-letters in the latter half of last year – some of which named additional collaborators – for operating unlicensed stations in the Boston area.
I e-mailed the chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, Rosemary Harold, to ask about this apparent discrepancy: had the agency mistakenly transposed the first and last names of the principal in this case, or are there two distinct individuals who just happen to share identical name-elements working in Boston? So far, no response, but also no correction from the agency. In any case, Cesar Gerlens/Gerlens Cesar seems a likely candiate for a negotiated forfeiture-settlement similar to the one worked out with a prolific pirate in Florida last moth, if/when the agency consolidates the information gleaned in this case. Continue reading “FCC Getting Shady With Anti-Pirate Enforcement?”
After spending several years shuffling money between subsidiaries (including creating new ones to raise/preserve capital) and playing footsie with creditors holding more than $20 billion dollars of its debt, iHeartMedia, the nation’s largest radio conglomerate, skipped a scheduled $106 million interest payment on some of its loans earlier this month, triggering a 30-day default-clock. iHeart is portraying this move as something done to increase its leverage over creditors, who might be compelled to agree to new terms and avoid restructuring – but this is precisely what tripped Cumulus Media into Chapter 11 bankruptcy late least year.
None other than the Wall Street Journal calls what’s likely to happen between now and March 3 a “costly reckoning.” If iHeart follows the Cumulus bankruptcy model, preferred (institutional) investors will get a greater share of the restructured company, while others will lose everything. The firms who took iHeart private last decade may not be compensated at all in restructuring, but the WSJ reports that they’ve already “managed to offset virtually all of the potential loss of iHeart’s equity,” and will generally be able to walk away after more than doubling the company’s debt in the buyout process. Continue reading “iHeartMedia Bankruptcy Reorganization Imminent”