A Trump FCC and Pirate Radio: Prepare for Struggle

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.
In the short-term, it’s unlikely that current FCC leadership will take any significant actions against pirate stations, and might even further deprioritize broadcast license-enforcement efforts during this lame-duck period. When the Trump administration takes over, it’ll inherit an agency bereft of meaningful operational revenue and adequate staff, demoralized and generally seeking to preserve their own rice-bowls. Many at or near retirement-age may see this as a good time to leave, further decimcating the agency’s institutional knowledge.
But what we can’t know is what the influx of Trumpsters into staff and management positions at the agency will do to the interpretation and execution of media policy. On the unlicensed broadcast front, here are some possible things to watch out for.
The first is the unabashed criminalization of unlicensed broadcasting. O’Rielly and his ilk have already laid the groundwork with members of Congress to strengthen the FCC’s current enforcement efforts, with special attention paid toward those who “aid and abet” acts of pirate transmissions. Depending on just how much policy is on the legislature’s plate (including another potential re-write of the Telecom Act), there’s a better-than-even chance that an overarching “law and order” theme of the Trump administration will make going after pipsqueak pirates a no-brainer, tantamount to fumigating for flies. Just how draconian new punishments for unlicensed broadcasting may end up being remains to be seen.
Secondly, if anti-pirate enforcement is prioritized and new laws approved to stiffen penalties for unlicensed broadcasting, expect enforcement with a vengeance. Perhaps the FCC will cultivate stronger ties with federal law enforcement officials, to the point where simple visits become intelligence-gathering missions, followed shortly by no-knock raids and arrests for those who run stations. Considering that the vast majority of unlicensed broadcasting takes place in underprivileged, urban communities, and that Trump is calling for many of these communities to be declared disaster areas in order to open them up to intensive policing and even demolition/rebuilding, silencing the voices of these communities will be paramount to keep knowledge of this 21st century ethnic cleansing to a minimum.
These are actually near-best-case scenarios. There’s always the chance that a federal government, hamstrung by austerity and run by sheer incompetence and greed, could self-destruct from all the grubby little hands clawing for their own pieces of what pie is left. But if Trump follows through on the most bombastic of his rhetoric — to make dissident/oppositional media pay for speaking out against him and his policies — then the very act of dissent itself may become more dangerous. Here is where the tactical nature of pirate radio may become more valuable than ever.
If a Trump-based FCC curtails Internet freedoms, to the point of making it ineffective or unusable for dissenting speech, and threatens or litigates “mainstream” or “respectable” outlets into submission and compliance with his regime, the only media left standing will be those who operate outside the bounds of law. I’ve long said that radio is a medium of last resort, and in many respects pirate radio stations could become nodes of media resistance. This will involve getting a lot more smart and agile with operational tactics and strategies, such as being more mobile, keeping reserve gear in the mix, and mobilizing community support for stations as a form of local democratic defense.
All of this could be moot, though, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, which is full-on fascism. Think about it: after 9/11/01, the United States willingly reconfigured its national values to promote security over liberty. The results of the last 15 years aren’t pretty: mass warrentless surveillance of the entire populace; rendition of “enemies of the state” without charge to sites around the world for indefinite detention and torture; drone kill-lists and undeclared wars; and increasing suspicion of anyone not considered fully “American.”
In many respects, this country stands just one spectacular and telegenic terrorist attack from the end of democracy: have it happen in 2017-18, and a Quisling Congress may gladly suspend the Bill of Rights and other key elements of our Constitution, turning over absolute authority to the executive branch in a tragically flawed attempt to “save us.” Throw in a complicit judiciary packed with Trumpsters, and there’ll be no legal means of appeal or resistance. Were this to come to pass, the least of our worries will be media policymaking — and the context of pirate broadcasting more broadly will take on an entirely new meaning. Stay vigilant and resist the normalization of this dangerous turn in our times.