FCC Enforcement: Initial Follow-Through Improves

The trend in Enforcement Bureau statistics over the last year suggests the agency is doing a better job of following up on pirate radio complaints, but still lacks the ability to actively shut stations down.
This year field agents have become much more consistent about following through with the first few steps of the enforcement protocol. Whereas it used to be months (if not years) between, say, a station visit and a warning letter (or two), field agents are pretty uniformly following up on initial visits with a warning letter within a month or two of first contact.
But that’s where the tenacity seems to stop. By and large, the FCC’s next step in most unlicensed broadcasting enforcement cases is to threaten a monetary forfeiture against a station operator. These come in the form of a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) – letters that pre-judge the addressee guilty of unlicensed broadcasting and demand they respond either with a $10,000 check or a good argument/excuse.
The FCC somewhat sporadically issues actual Forfeiture Notices as administrative law judgments. These, if the agency so chooses, can be taken to civil court for collection. (This is just one of the escalation options the Enforcement Bureau has at its disposal: it can always organize a station raid or ask a court for an injunction. However, because the forfeiture route is the least resource-intensive, it is the most popular option.)
Given that the initial visit and warning letter are but the first two steps in an enforcement protocol, the fact that the FCC is hopping to them quickly does not necessarily mean it will escalate cases with the same zeal. In practice, it can’t. It hasn’t the staff to process mass forfeitures, or to follow through on their collection.
Having field agents spend more time on the road and issuing flurries of letters is meant to intimidate. Intimidation has long been the FCC’s primary weapon against microradio.
A lot of enforcement activity also means a lot of stations on the air. The new school seems to shun the 24/7 stance – they seem to be smaller, with fewer principals and limited schedules. This makes them much more likely to spawn. Even the occasional AM microbroadcaster gets snagged by the feds, which (to me) represents healthy proliferation beyond the FM dial.
Florida, of course, continues to play by its own rules. Federal and state agents are working together to make the occasional bust; the first two felony charges were filed just this year but they don’t seem to be on the fast track.