FCC Field Plan Redux; Anti-Pirate Policy Discussion Underway

A three-page order issued July 16 lays out the scope of the cuts and next steps. Operating under the assumption that field enforcement “should be concentrated in urban areas where the need for them is greatest,” the order closes 11 of 24 offices outright and will initially result in a net reduction of six employees. These regional offices will be supplemented by two “tiger teams” stationed in Maryland and Colorado.
Going forward, field agents will also need to be certified electrical engineers, and the Enforcement Bureau wants to invest money in “remotely-operated” and portable spectrum-monitoring systems to serve its new primary mission: “the enforcement of the Commission’s radiofrequency interference requirements and other key rules.”
Pirates are now an explicit priority for the Bureau. In addition to promising the development of a protocol for escalating interference complaints, the Commission “will continue to work with outside stakeholders to develop a comprehensive policy and enforcement approach to the issue of unlicensed radio broadcasting.”
All five Commissioners voted to approve the reorganization, though Republicans Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly issued separate statements criticizing it. Pai focused on what he sees as a continued imbalance between “front office” and field personnel, and pointed to frayed relationships between the two camps.
Meanwhile, O’Rielly seemed impatient to get on with a pirate crackdown. It was apparently his idea to make sure unlicensed broadcasting got top billing in the order, but “it does not go nearly far enough to give me any confidence that the Commission will actually do something anytime soon about the ongoing, escalating assault on the integrity of our airwaves. We already have a ‘comprehensive policy’ on pirate radio. The policy is that it is illegal! The only acceptable ‘enforcement approach’ is that we go after illegal broadcasting operations and shut them down, full stop.”
If O’Rielly wants to make pirate broadcasting his policy hobbyhorse, it would behoove him to learn more about how the agency’s enforcement processes actually work. Then again, why do that when he can just follow the lead of the National Association of Broadcasters? In a letter to Chairman Wheeler sent the day after the reorganization order, NAB chief lobbyist Rick Kaplan outlined what should be done about a phenomenon that, in NAB’s view, attacks “the very fabric” of the licensing regime. The recommendations stem from a meeting Commissioner O’Rielly convened in late June involving various FCC staff, the NAB, member broadcasters, and state broadcast organizations.
Not only are pirates accused of eroding “the advertising and membership base of legitimate broadcast stations,” but now they “threaten the health and safety of radio listeners and local residents.” Say what? Pirates “often transmit from residential buildings where unchecked RF radiation can cause health problems.”
Bullsh*t alert: the FCC’s own extremely detailed guidelines on RF exposure clearly show that any health concerns about “general population/uncontrolled exposure” in the AM and FM bands kick in at station power levels hundreds of thousands of times greater than what the average radio pirate uses. I’m more concerned about the forest of cell-network nodes multiplying on the roof of the apartment building across the street than I am about a Haitian minister proselytizing on an FM channel from the storefront next door.
No surprise that the NAB’s position on pirate radio is all stick and no carrot. It urges an immediate sweep of pirate hot-spots, “as the number of pirate radio stations often increases during the summer months,” and wants enforcement activity escalated to include more station-raids and monetary forfeitures. Despite the downsizing, the NAB would like to see a “permanent liaison” established between the FCC and all of the agencies it needs to flex its muscle (such as it is) properly. It also recommends amending the Communications Act to expand the FCC’s “authority to prosecute pirate radio operators.” A recurring theme throughout is an increased role for the NAB and its members in hunting pirates themselves.
As the anti-pirate lobbying effort continues, keep your eyes peeled for slanted stories from NAB-member stations that work to shape the NAB’s narrative. Case in point: a story from Local 12 in Cincinnati earlier this month featuring some middle-aged white guy horribly troubled by the uncensored rap lyrics found on 87.9 FM. “RADIO FREQUENCY HIJACKED,” blared Local 12. “Not so fast,” I replied. How can you “hijack” a frequency that nobody else is using?
The dialogue went nowhere: Local 12 was more concerned about the accuracy of a single word in its story than providing an accurate context to the story itself.
Similar journalistic tomfoolery is afoot next door in Indiana. Last week an LPFM station in Terre Haute claimed to be the victim of a “hijacking” by Anonymous. The three-minute message is pretty standard survivalist conspiracy-fare: a grand plan is afoot to cull the population of undesirables and the mass-graves have already been dug. According to WXXR-LP’s Facebook page, the message looped for half an hour.
Media coverage of the incident was predictable: “the FM signal was intercepted,” reported WIVB and WTHI-TV. According to Matthew Keys, the FCC and FBI are investigating this incident as a possible case of “broadcast signal intrusion,” which is punishable as a felony.
But it is important to differentiate that this did not involve unlicensed broadcasting in any form: in the very worst-case scenario, it means someone hacked into WXXR-LP’s program computer and inserted an audio file into the playlist. This vulnerability is common to any station that allows a connection between its internal networks and the Internet. More likely is that this is some sort of a publicity stunt to celebrate the 37-watt station’s first year on the air.
Depending on just how serious Commissioner O’Rielly, the NAB, and its members are in their war-on-pirates plan, we can expect all sorts of questionable danger-mongering as it develops. Unlicensed broadcasters in nationally-recognized hot-spots would be well advised to begin working on tactics and strategies now to avoid the coming crackdown to the best of their ability, and to mobilize support in response to any bust that takes place. (More on that next week.)