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News Archive: December 2008

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12/31/08 - The "War on Pirates" in 2008: Paper Beats Rock, Scissors [link to this story]

I've just finished updating the Enforcement Action Database. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has reported its field actions through mid-December, and as you can see, given any activity over the balance of the month, it is on target to meet and/or (most likely) beat the record enforcement year of 2007.

What does this mean? It depends on how you look at the data. Sure, the FCC's busting more pirates than ever, but does that really mean it's making a dent in station proliferation? A couple of major conclusions from the year-in-review are striking:

1. Most FCC enforcement is concentrated around geographic "hot spots" around the country. The top two are south Florida (most notably the Miami-Dade metroplex) and New York. If you add New Jersey in with NYC, the density of enforcement actions is about tied. It's not that far of a stretch to equate that with the density of existing pirate radio stations (i.e., they're not going away).

2. Although most of the enforcement occurs in these hot spots, the fact that enforcement takes place essentially nationwide makes the phenomenon of pirate radio a national one. I think it's just much less of a priority for some field offices than others.

3. There's a compelling trend this year in the timing of enforcement actions. Multiple field offices tend to go pirate-hunting around the same time of the month (often on the exact same days). If I had to guess, the FCC's mandate from D.C. is, "spend some time hunting pirates to show that we care," and the agents in the field mark a day or two on their monthly calendars to handle any pending complaints. (For what it's worth, there's no indication that the FCC's 15 month-old online pirate station reporting form is doing much good).

4. Finally, the primary tools of FCC enforcement remain, by and large, quite administrative. Station-visits and threatening-sounding certified letters are the field agents' ammunition of choice. It's worth noting that although the amount of monetary forfeitures has risen to 2006 levels, the FCC's expected recoupment for each enforcement action it takes is paltry; going pirate-hunting is a big money-loser for the agency. Note that the number of arrests and convictions have remained stable - and less than a handful at that. It would seem that those state laws criminalizing pirate radio are doing a whole lot of nothing.

In fact, looking at the raw data from which I compile the majority of my statistics, the Enforcement Bureau's been going after more serious unlicensed broadcasters, like those who potentially jam public-safety, maritime, and land-mobile two-way radio networks. This is a phenomenon that also appears to be on the rise. The FCC's much more quicker to bring the fiscal hammer down on those sorts of people, but they're the ones doing real harm.

The bottom line? 2009 will be a year of opportunity for unlicensed broadcasters. Without some sort of massive infusion of human resources, capital, and political will, the FCC simply doesn't have the strength to shut much of anything down. It's reached its enforcement capacity, and it's being overwhelmed. In that sense, we're winning.

12/24/08 - FCC Allows Stealth HD Power Boosts [link to this story]

Although the Federal Communications Commission has deferred (for now) any formal action on its inquiry into whether or not to allow broadcast radio stations to increase the power of their digital ("HD") sidebands by a factor of ten, the agency's employing the tried and true method of "creating facts on the ground" by allowing individual stations (or station clusters) to individually apply for special temporary authority to hike their HD power levels.

This is taking place even though radio's engineering community is deeply divided on the issue of an HD sideband power increase. Comments filed by the Prometheus Radio Project and Media Access Project (disclaimer: on which I informally consulted) succinctly summarize the dispute. The main question is: is it realistically possible use HD Radio as a tool to improve the existing medium, or will HD intentionally degrade it so that the spectrum's repurposement becomes inevitable - or, at the very least, make its ownership more consolidated?

While not taking any formal stand on the issue, the FCC's standing aside (as usual) and letting industry initiative take its course. This is not something endemic to the Commissioner-level: this is a problem of FCC staff not being independent-minded enough of the industry interests they purport to regulate not paying f*cking attention. By the time Obama gets settled in, this particular cat may already be out of the bag.

This is the primary issue I'll be focusing on over the next year, as I consolidate my dissertation research (which just so happens to be on this very topic). There's much more to come.

12/22/08 - Cooking By The Book? Not Quite [link to this story]

I am never short of amazement at the heights to which collage artists, especially in their most popular form - the mashup - are taking this expressive outlet. I really have to learn more about video collage, especially, as many innovative DJs whom I respect - and some of my own students - are taking a shine to the mix-medium.

This one, for example, features two subjects I've never had much love for - Strawberry Shortcake and Lil' Jon - and transforms them, on multiple levels, into something I can't get out of my head (in a good way). By the way, the preceding clip is neither safe for work nor lil' children.

Props to one of my most-recent COMM 264 students for tipping me off to this gem. It's always fulfilling when the learning process works both ways.

12/19/08 - U.S. Military Resorts to Radio Piracy to Win Hearts and Minds [link to this story]

Well, isn't this something. While the Wired reporter is all agog about an iPod being used in a battle zone, I like the spectral appropriation motif better:

Radio geeks would be familiar with the tools: a 100 Watt Harris AM/FM "radio in a box" transmitter coupled with a Marantz rack-mountable portable CD/cassette player. The PsyOps team loaded up a laptop with contemporary Iraqi and Arabic pop music and started broadcasting on a local frequency, 93.9 FM.

The transmitter is designed for use by emergency responders. It has a small range -- [Maj. Byron] Sarchet estimated it had a reach of only a few kilometers -- but in a densely populated area like Sadr City, it can reach a large audience.

According to Sarchet, the whole thing was a "quick fix." He wanted to broadcast a pro-coalition message during heavy fighting in the city. So he liberated the radio transmitter from a State Department embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (e-PRT), put the radio on the roof of a building, and started broadcasting.

"I stole that radio from e-PRT," he said. "It was in their office and they weren't using it, and I said, 'I gotta have it – I'm taking it.' We're going to broadcast into Sadr City on it."

Over here, the government will ding you $10K and possibly haul you into court if you try that sort of thing. It's another one of those moments when you can't help but think to yourself, "why aren't we doing here what we're doing there?" Without the military's assistance, of course. At least, in this case, they're "liberating" transmitters, instead of destroying them and imposing psychological operations by force.

12/09/08 - Scene Report: California [link to this story]

While I may still be on partial hiatus, as the fall semester ends in its typical whirlwind of student-meetings, evaluations, and grading, life moves on. And I am pleased to report that the microradio movement is alive and well. I will be most interested to see just how the FCC wraps up this year's "war on pirates" - when I finally find the time to digest the data.

Some heartening news comes from the old guard in California. Berkeley Liberation Radio, after suffering a government raid on its studio premises (not related to the station itself), has safely relocated and is kicking as usual. Across the Bay, San Francisco Liberation Radio has also been revived - the correspondence I received does not explicitly state that this return will include a frequency-modulated signal, but it leaves room for speculation: "Since our court case was resolutely rejected by the Ninth Circuit, SFLR dropped the legal proceedings but continued to stream internet radio. Now [a new crew] will continue in the long and storied tradition of SFLR in the South of Market area." You can't keep a good idea down.

Meanwhile, down the coast, my pal Skidmark Bob has been busy. He's produced a mega-special on the eight-year rain of "King George," and he says he's not done with the man just yet. As far as Freak Radio Santa Cruz itself is concerned, there is both good and bad news. The good news is the crew is now beginning the process of digitizing the station's decade-and-a-half history, beginning with a short station video of the corporate media's interest in FRSC circa 1995 now on YouTube. George, Uncle D, and Bob promise more is forthcoming.

On the downside, FRSC has finally ran through its massive outpouring financial support which helped it bounce back, stronger and more technically-sophisticated, after the FCC's disastrous raid on the station four years ago. It could use a little money-love; if not, it might be back to broadcasting from the bicycle cart.