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News Archive: May 2007

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5/22/07 - Pirate Radio USA Available Online [link to this story]

Notes Mediageek, via the documentary's distributor, B-Side Films. B-Side's website is currently undergoing a major overhaul/redesign which may impact access, which will not be free. Back when Pirate Radio USA was in post-production Paul did an excellent extended interview with its producers that gives the film some extra context.

If the online version is truly DRM-free there's no good reason why Torrents and other p2p technology couldn't encourage further viewership. It would be cool if somehow Making Waves could get similar distributorship. Producer Michael Lahey has relocated from Minneapolis to Chicago, and while he's no longer doing the festival circuit Pirate Radio USA's excellent predecessor is worthy of a much wider screening, too.

If you need further distraction, a simple search for "pirate radio" on YouTube produces more than 600 hits, including several gems about the offshore and contemporary European scenes and modern U.S. microradio.

5/14/07 - FCC Enforcement On Record Pace, Again [link to this story]

A long-overdue update to the Enforcement Action Database reveals that the FCC's conducted more than 130 enforcement actions against pirate stations this year - nearly apace for all of 2005, when the FCC first began taking an administratively tougher stance on unlicensed broadcasting in a post-LPFM world. If this rate of activity stays constant the year could very well end on the north side of 400 enforcement actions.

I call the FCC's posture on pirate radio "administratively tougher" because, as the raw data shows, the agency has a hard time escalating its enforcement protocol. The duration between initial site-visit and follow-up warning letter is now in the 10-day range. Sometimes the period between a warning letter and fine can be as short as a month.

But the FCC continues a relatively recent practice of sending multiple warning letters to parties involved in the same station, which somewhat inflates the appearance of action. This includes, for example, warning letters sent out to three separate people as part of an investigation into a single station in California, as well as three warning letters sent to the same person in conjunction with the operation of three microstations in two states (including the first-ever documented report of action in Wyoming).

So far, the FCC has threatened three people with fines of $10,000 each, and has actually followed through with forfeitures against eight folks for a total of $41,950. However, some of these are actually settlements of cases in which the busted broadcaster demonstrated an inability to pay, which subsequently (and statutorily) forced the FCC to revise the fine downward, in one case to as low as $250. Orders such as these account for at least half of all forfeitures issued this year, some of which involve cases first opened in 2003. Even the most recent fines stem from investigations carried over from last year. There is no current data on whether the FCC's abysmal forfeiture collection rate has improved.

There have been two raids and three arrests so far in 2007 for running pirate stations in Florida, where the state's considered unlicensed broadcasting a felony since 2004, and sporadic busts are relatively common. The local cops try to do the FCC's job, but with jackboots on. Still, nobody's yet been directly convicted under Florida's anti-pirate law, and there's no shortage of stations on the air in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and elsewhere.

Overall, if one considers increased enforcement as an indicator of station proliferation, unlicensed broadcast activity may be nearing levels not seen since the modern microradio movement's first heyday in the mid-1990s. The Enforcement Action Database only tracks FCC activity against those stations it both knows about and has the time and resources to bother. Even then, the radio cops have a hard time escalating cases beyond a knock, warning letter, and shakedown request. If you factor in the nebulous number of stations that continue to operate both above and below the FCC's radar, coupled with the spread of activity on the AM and Shortwave bands and into new states, it's quite the vibrant scene.

5/6/07 - XM Repeater Network Entirely Pirate [link to this story]

Last October it was first disclosed that many of the terrestrial repeater stations used to boost the coverage footprint of the XM satellite radio network were operating without FCC approval. Recently XM filed a document with the Securities and Exchange Commission which seems to suggest the pirate nature of the network is more egregious than first confessed. Up to one-third of the company's 800 repeater-stations are either placed in locations not approved by the FCC, operating at power levels well above those approved by the FCC, and several are on the air without FCC approval for their placement at all. The scope of such flaunting of the rules is unheard of: some of these illicit repeaters are operating with more than 40 kilowatts of power.

What's more, it's clear that XM had an economic incentive to break the law: the majority of its illicit repeaters serve the largest markets. More than half of those placed in the Los Angeles market, for example, are operating "at variance" from what they were authorized for. As a whole, according to XM's own estimation, the 200+ rogue repeaters serve approximately 42 percent of its network's total coverage footprint.

According to other FCC documents, the Special Temporary Authority (STA) issued by the FCC that allows XM to run its terrestrial repeater-network has also expired, and has been expired for several months. Thus the entire XM terrestrial network currently operates without any formal federal approval. There is a long history of dialogue between the FCC, XM, and other interested parties over this issue, but as far as the rules are concerned XM's entire network is for all intents and purposes unlicensed.

XM is not alone in running a partially pirate radio network: Sirius satellite radio chief Mel Karmazin reportedly told Congress earlier this year that 11 of his 138 terrestrial repeater stations were also operating outside the law, but they've since been shut down. It is unclear whether the Special Temporary Authority to operate the remaining Sirius repeaters has expired as well.

XM CEO Hugh Panero told a conference call of institutional investors on February 26 that he doesn't think any of this will be big deal:

Understand neither the Company nor any regulator wants to do things that hurt consumers or consumers listening experiences or other things like that....It is also important to remember on the repeater issue that, in fact, while there clearly were mistakes or administrative problems on that, the actual repeater network itself is not causing harm or interference into any other party, and in fact, the network, which was built was actually less powerful and much smaller than the network that was authorized by the FCC.

This should not, however, have any bearing on the company being held liable for its network-wide violations. Just imagine Clear Channel moving and juicing the power of 100 of its stations in the largest markets without FCC authorization, and then telling the agency, "Well, just a fraction of our stations operate 'at variance' - if you look at the other 800 stations we own and operate legally, you can see there's no problem here."

When it comes to interference potential, the case against XM is further damning: the frequencies on which XM operates its repeaters is very close to the frequencies used by cell phones to provide user-location information. Could you imagine someone having a bad accident near an illegal XM repeater outpost and emergency services not being able to pinpoint the location of the victim due to interference from the "XM Nation"?

All of these revelations come on heels of XM and Sirius announcing their intent to merge. It's hard to see how the FCC could give approval to two companies who've essentially engaged in more piracy than every unlicensed AM/FM/SW broadcaster that's ever taken to the airwaves throughout U.S. history - on both the transmission and reception side of the air chain. Unfortunately, knowing how the FCC works, chances are both companies will come out of it with slaps on their wrists and the violations may never be fully addressed. In fact, XM says it's already in consent-decree negotiations with the FCC to sweep these matters under the proverbial rug.