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?”
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?”
There are still a few pirate radio enforcement-cases from 2017 that the FCC has yet to release, but by and large the numbers from last year are in and they most definitely show an uptick in the number of enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters. As of today, there were 383 enforcement-actions across 18 states, compared to 207 actions in 2016 covering just nine states. For the second year running, Florida tops the list of states with the most anti-pirate enforcement, followed by Massachusetts and New York.
2017 ranks as the fifth-busiest year for enforcement activity in the 20-year history of the Enforcement Action Database, eclipsed only by a tear the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau went on during the end of President Bush II’s second term and Obama’s first term, when a proposed expansion of LPFM was being debated. Of the activity logged last year, the vast majority were station-visits (201, or 52%) or Notices of Unlicensed Operation (aka warning letters, 168, or 44%). The remaining 4% of enforcement actions included Notices of Apparent Liability (aka pre-fines, of which there were four) and Forfeiture Orders (nine).
In 2016, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued nine NALs and five Forfeiture Orders, so on balance there’s no real movement or improvement in the agency’s escalation-protocol beyond initial contact(s). Continue reading “Paper Tiger Roars in 2017 – To What End?”
The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is regularly making waves in the agency’s Daily Digest now, issuing slews of warning-letters to unlicensed broadcasters nearly every week. Interestingly, these letters are typically grouped by location: one week it’s a passel of pirates “caught” broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, the next a bunch of folks in South Florida, etc.
The agency, and radio industry, have long described the enforcement process as “whack-a-mole” in reference to the carny game where you score points bashing plastic rodents with a mallet, who pop up and disappear often before you can bring the hammer down. It’s an apt description…but the agency’s most recent enforcement-activites vividly demonstrate just how devoid the process is of deterrent value.
In an update to the Enforcement Action Database earlier this month, I highlighted the case of Kacy Rankine. He’s a New Jersey-based unlicensed broadcaster who first appeared on the FCC’s radar way back in 2005. That year he received a slew of station-visits and warning-letters from the federales, but to no avail, so the FCC ended up fining him $10,000 in 2007.
It’s highly unlikely that fine was ever paid, because Rankine was noticed again this year (a full decade later) running another station in another New Jersey community. The FCC, which apparently doesn’t keep a logically comprehensive record of its own regarding prior enforcement actions and lacks a semblance of institutional memory on this issue, simply restarted the enforcement process with Rankine, issuing him a warning letter last month. Continue reading “FCC Whacks Zombie-Moles”
Keeping in line with the Trump administration’s penchant for dehumanization, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly used some of his time testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee last week to hype his signature issue: going to war on unlicensed broadcasting.
Calling them “squatters” who “are infecting the radio band,” O’Rielly whipped out all the now-familiar canards: that pirate radio “stations” (his quotes, not mine) somehow harm “consumer services” (whatever those might be), “emergency communications” (lacking any meaningful evidence that this is a tangible problem), and “the financial stability of licensed radio stations” (nah, that’s Wall Street’s fault). He references a claim from the Massachusetts Broadcasting Association that it’s identified some two dozen pirate stations “operating in one of their markets” (most likely the Boston metro area) and the numbers are growing. Continue reading “O'Rielly Talks Tough on Pirates to Senate”
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.
Tactically, even the agency’s penchant for paperwork seems to have slackened. Continue reading “FCC Steps Down Anti-Pirate Enforcement”
When the FCC raided TOUCH FM in Boston this spring, many lamented its demise. But its frequency didn’t stay silent for long: less than two months after the FCC’s sweep of the city, a pop-up station temporarily reoccupied 106.1 FM.
Noises Over Norwell broadcast from a two-story home in Dorchester currently under the receivership of Fannie Mae. Its former owners moved back in with the assistance of City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting economic injustice in Boston. The station was a cornucopia of information, discussion, and creativity about the state of the economy and the surrounding neighborhood; when "dormant," you simply heard the ambient sounds of a lived-in home. Continue reading “Pop-Up Station Pays Homage to TOUCH FM”
On those rare occasions when the FCC and Federal Marshals sweep a city for pirates, the media coverage follows a predictable narrative: law-and-order cleaning up the airwaves, in the protection of "public safety" and licensed-station profitability. The only outliers to this have been reactions to pirate-busts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz—two California communities with a long history of radical radio activism.
But Boston-area media outlets also broke the traditional mold in their coverage of an April sweep that netted three pirate stations. Continue reading “Boston Media Lament Loss of Pirates”
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. Continue reading “Pirate Raids Offer Glimpse Into FCC Fieldwork”