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?”
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”
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 second fiscal quarter’s come and gone, so it’s worth reviewing how the first half of the year’s played out for radio’s big-fish investment-games:
Clear Channel iHeartMedia: The #1 radio conglomerate in the country just extended its long-term debt refinancing offer to reluctant bondholders for the twelfth time. While going through those motions a key coalition of creditors — who hold more than 10% of iHeart’s $20+ billion debt – have been mulling over the implications of tipping the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Apparently, they’ve devised a plan by which if they’re given 49% of the company’s equity and more favorable debt-repayment terms, they’ll keep the debt-refinance shuffle going. After missing a full payment in 2016 the company ponied up on schedule this summer toward debt due in 2021. More than $8 billion comes due in 2019. Continue reading “Big-Fish Radio Capital Shaky in 2017”
The FCC’s taking a cue from the Three Little Pigs, huffing and puffing about the work it’s doing to combat the “problem” of pirate radio. Just in time for the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Radio Show in Austin, the FCC’s gone on an enforcement spree of sorts over the last month or two.
With 158 enforcement actions on the books at the end of August, the agency is now on pace to meet or exceed the number of actions it took against unlicensed stations in 2016. For the eight years we’ve experienced of this decade so far, 2017’s enforcement-trajectory seems on target to rank as third or fourth-busiest.
Field agents have traveled far beyond the most popularly-recognized East Coast “hotspots” this summer. Arkansas gets on the board for the first time in the history of our Enforcement Action Database, while the closure of the Seattle FCC field office made it San Francisco and Los Angeles-based agents’ responsibility to visit Alaska in pursuit of a Baptist church – the first time since 2013 that the FCC’s made waves there. (Alaska is the 36th most active U.S. state/territory for pirate radio, just behind FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s home state of Kansas.) Continue reading “Paper Tiger Apes Big Bad Wolf”
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”