Enforcement Drought

2001 has been a remarkably quiet year on the American pirate radio scene. It’s not that stations aren’t broadcasting or their numbers aren’t growing; the FCC, it appears, has made microradio enforcement a lower priority.
According to our Enforcement Action Database, which attempts to keep track of the FCC’s enforcement activity, contact with pirates has been seemingly sparse. To date, only 12 enforcement actions have been reported. If this trend continues through the rest of the year, enforcement activity could be as much as 50% down from the previous two years.
In fact, for the entire year so far, the total number of enforcement actions only equals the (past) average monthly activity of the FCC.
The types of enforcement actions we’ve been seeing seem to follow the “historic” patterns (i.e. more visits than raids). However, the current sample we have to work with doesn’t seem to provide any significant insights into how the FCC handles unlicensed broadcasting cases.
Tough talk continues to emanate from Washington, D.C. but the agents out working the beat in the FCC’s regional field offices don’t seem to be following through.
There may be several reasons at play here, and not all necessarily mean that the war on pirate radio is over – not by any stretch of the imagination.
The establishment of a new legal LPFM service is probably working in favor of microradio broadcasters, at least in the short term. What this means for the long-term health of the movement is anyone’s guess.
With LPFM stations finally coming online, the Enforcement Bureau’s field agents have new charges to oversee. Attention may be shifting towards dealing with these new stations, which leaves less time to go after unlicensed broadcasters.
This still does not explain the rhetoric flowing from the top levels of the FCC, though, who continue to publicly espouse a hard-line stance against pirate radio.
It also does not explain the increasingly-inflated numbers of pirate radio stations the FCC claims to shut down; over the last two years, the agency has boasted of closing hundreds of pirates.
This brings us to the microbroadcasters’ side of the equation: perhaps active stations nowadays are just keeping a lower profile.
We’re continually getting feedback from new stations every month. Instead of the bold, in-your-face methodology used in “pre-LPFM” times, many of these new stations are operated by individuals or small cells of people who choose to take to the air for a few hours every week and sometimes move locations with each broadcast. They’re also less publicity-friendly, shying away from web pages and declining media interviews.
Such “hit-and-run” style activity is doubly hard for the FCC to track and crack down on. You can’t hit a target you can’t hear.
While the government may have succeeded in driving microradio back into the underground and co-opting part of the movement’s momentum, there’s no lack of rebels on the airwaves. The best guess is that we’re experiencing a temporary lull while both sides regroup and re-strategize.