Signifying what the industry trades call a “crackdown” and added “pressure” on unlicensed broadcasters, the FCC’s Enforcment Bureau has stepped up its issuance of warning-letters, primarily to pirate stations in New York and New Jersey. Of the 94 enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this year, 52 of them have taken place in these two states. Enforcement activity also includes two Notices of Apparent Liability and seven Forfeiture Orders, for cases that originated in 2015-16. Overall, however, the pace of enforcement actions is running behind the totals of a year ago.
This is not necessarily an expansion of enforcement duties. NYC-based field agents especially are now doing what they call “follow-up investigations” – in a nutshell, agents now re-visit unlicensed stations they’ve already contacted. If they are still on the air, they issue yet another warning letter to the operator (or, in the case of one New Jersey-based pirate, to the owner of the property where the station is housed, who was not in on the first-round contact). “Follow-up investigations” typically occur within 1-3 months of initial contact with the offending station. But if stations aren’t fazed by the first FCC nastygram they get, what are the odds the second one will change their ways? Continue reading “FCC and Pirates: Going Through the Motions Faster”
The rhetoric’s heated up, for sure. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who’s made cracking down on unlicensed stations one of his signature issues, calls them infectious squatters, casting the phenomenon as a cancer preparing to metastisize. And he’s gotten much more critical about his own agency’s handling of the problem: when the FCC proposed to fine a Kentucky couple more than $144,000 last month for operating a low-power TV station for nearly twenty years after its original license had expired, he likened FCC enforcement to “a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses.”
That makes “paper tiger” sound almost tame.
Industry trade-press has taken the cue and upped their coverage of the FCC’s anti-pirate broadcast enforcement. Radio World trumpets warning lettters, fines, and threats of fines issued by the Enforcement Bureau as if they’re landing knockout blows. It even got Chairman Ajit Pai to concede in a March interview that pirates are a “serious concern.” Continue reading “FCC and Pirates: A War of Words”
The governing paradigm in contemporary U.S. communications policy is genuflection to principles that invoke the “free market,” especially post-1980 when economics captured the policymaking process. As such, all Federal Communications Commissioners, regardless of party, will couch their positions and rationales in this language, though nearly all also make the effort to connect their rationales to something akin to “the public interest,” which has been the principal ideal as mandated by the agency’s own authorizing statute.
But the FCC’s also been a safe space for the occasional ideologue who worships capitalism as the human condition most worthy of emulation. It is not a radical notion to believe that an economic theory may not be an appropriate paradigm by which to organize all of the workings of an entire society. Folks who do believe that are market-fundamentalists; and whether it comes in economic, political, or religious flavors, fundamentalism is an extreme that the act of being civilized tends to temper. Continue reading “The FCC's Trumpian Shift is On”
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”
Radio World revealed earlier this month that the acting chief of the Enforcement Bureau, Michael Carowitz, held a videoconference with members of the Bureau’s field-agent staff. The call revealed that the FCC’s downsizing of its enforcement resources has begun, with 11 field offices closed over the last several months (Anchorage, AK; Buffalo, NY; Detroit, MI; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Norfolk, VA; Philadelphia, PA; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Tampa, FL; and San Juan, PR) and 14 remaining open.
At present, that leaves just 34 field agents covering the entire country – this includes one of two roving “Tiger Teams” of agents organized to backstop the decimated staff in-residence. That’s almost a cut of half from the prior force of 60 that spanned the nation. It’s also important to keep in mind that these agents are responsible for enforcing all FCC regulations, not just the broadcast license requirement. Continue reading “Now They Tell Us: FCC, Congress Rethinking Enforcement Drawdown?”
A surprising uptick in the Enforcement Action Database for 2016: 201 total actions were logged last year, which is up from the prior two years. Furthermore, the frequency of threats of fines and actual fines against unlicensed broadcasters also rose: 9 NALs issued for a total of $155,000, and 5 forfeitures handed out for a total of $65,000. We haven’t seen numbers this large since 2014.
It gives some statistical credence to recently-former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s assertion that, despite the agency’s admittance that its license-enforcement protocol is effectively broken, it hasn’t ceded the field entirely. Unfortunately, statistics can be fudged, and the FCC’s done that well in the last year. Continue reading “FCC Anti-Pirate Enforcement in 2016: Symbolic Inflationism Ahoy”
17 years ago(!), I left a budding career in radio journalism out of disgust with the trajectory the industry was taking. The break-point came when the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio teamed up in Congress to conduct a disinformation campaign designed to eviscerate the FCC’s then-newly proposed LPFM radio service.
However, A few months before I actually quit my job, I acquired all the components necessary to start an unlicensed microbroadcast station. “System P” was a 40-watt frequency-agile FM rig that used a portable military surplus antenna mast to conduct tactical broadcasts from a wide variety of locations. You could often hear the station in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily on evenings and weekends; but since the station was mobile much fun was had taking it to peoples’ homes and public events around the country to give the public a more substantive appreciation of the ease by which it could make “the public airwaves” very real.
Another key element of System P was to provide a last-mile node for what was then quite an experiemental webcast-activism scene (today commonly known as “livestreaming”). These often manifested in Independent Media Centers during times of protest, most notably against corporate global trade deals. Activists would converge on a city to fill the streets in order to disrupt the negotiation of these agreements, and the media coverage would invariably skew toward painting the activists as violent thugs and police/other security forces as the guardians of order. But when activists gained the ability to counteract this narrative – oftentimes by live reports from the streets directly – the discursive dynamic around these events changed. Continue reading “Nodes of Resistance: Sampling the Haitian Diaspora via FM+Internet”
The United States is still trying to come to grips that it has elected a proto-fascist as its next chief executive. With the Republican Party in firm control of the legislature and the ability to shape the judiciary for the next several decades, lobbyists of all stripes are drooling at the prospects of a bona-fide kleptocracy.
Of all the things expected to be decimated in the Trump era, media and communications policy are among them. Others have already written about the potential for a GOP-run Trump FCC to undo several years’ worth of media reform efforts, such as network neutrality, media ownership limits, and many other things. We still don’t know who Trump may nominate to chair the Commission, though there’s talk that one of the two sitting GOP Commissioners may get the nod.
Neither will be good: Ajit Pai is a trenchant disciple of neoliberal economic theory, and pretty much sees all regulation as bad regulation; Mike O’Rielly, who helped write the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (though tellingly does not crow about it), is pretty much the same. But O’Rielly’s crusade to eliminate unlicensed broadcasting from the nation’s airwaves has gotten a significant boost with this election. Continue reading “A Trump FCC and Pirate Radio: Prepare for Struggle”
Sad but true: last Friday, the FCC finally responded to my appeal of its denial of my Freedom of Information Act request involving a case in which the agency declared Workers Independent News to not be news.
The dismissal was fairly perfunctory. What I was primarily asking for was the other 5,600+ pages of documentation the agency collected regarding correspondence (both internal and external) and deliberations on the WLS/WIN case (it only released 88 heavily-redacted pages). My primary objective was to discover the identity of the complainant who kicked off this sordid saga, as well as the identities of FCC staff who took the complaint and turned it into libel by official writ. Never before in the history of U.S. broadcast regulation has the FCC made a content determination on the legitimacy of a news organization. Continue reading “FCC to WIN: You're Not News, Get Over It”
Though not by much, and certainly not along the lines of what we saw at the beginning of this decade. August was a busy month for FCC field agents, who conducted nearly three dozen enforcement actions against fewer than half as many stations. The state-leader this year so far is Florida – while New York still leads the all-time pack enforcement action-wise – and the FCC’s flexed its muscle in only seven states, compared to 10 in 2015.
Some of the cases are fairly curious, such as a $15,000 Notice of Apparent Liability issued against a Florida man who first started broadcasting without a license way back in 2013. One visit that year, followed by four visits last year (and a change in frequency), finally compelled the FCC to bring the threat of a fiscal penalty to bear.
Then there’s the case of an Alabama man who first hit the FCC’s radar in 2015; after being warned he voluntarily surrendered his transmitter via mail, only to get a new one and move to a new channel. When contacted again by the federales, he expressed the wish that he could be legal but no application windows for LPFMs are in the works, so his “hands were tied.” Not a good enough excuse to avoid a $15,000 NAL…but then again, it remains to be seen whether the FCC will formalize these as actual forfeitures, much less be able to collect on them. Continue reading “Anti-Pirate Activity Rebounds from 2015 Nadir”