FCC: More Bark than Bite?

Fudging the Numbers for Victory
Pirate radio broadcasters in America have been locked in a low-intensity war with the government that shows no sign of slowing down. The Federal Communications Commission “declared war” on unlicensed radio back in 1997 after the broadcast industry urged them to do so.
What’s resulted over the last three years has been a traditional guerrilla battle involving hit-and-run attacks that result in publicity for the FCC and relatively little damage to the pirates.
There are signs, though, that the free radio has an upper hand in the war right now.
Three recently-released FCC documents support this conclusion. The first is the FCC Enforcement Bureau (EB)’s Year One Progress Report, issued last month. Last year, the FCC “streamlined” its organization, consolidating all enforcement activities under one bureau.
According to the Year One Report, you’d think that the FCC is winning the war on pirate radio. The EB summarized its pirate-busting activity like this: “Shut down over 180 pirate broadcast stations through seizure of equipment or following inspections and issuance of warnings. This number is the highest ever achieved.”
Unfortunately, that’s a lie twice over. The FCC considers issuing a warning as tantamount to shutting a station down. This is often not the case – stations will often “go dark” temporarily only to begin broadcasting later, often under a different name and on a different frequency.
The second lie lies in the number 180. Somebody in the EB needs to read up on past speeches given by their bosses: in October 1998, before a speech in front of the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual Radio Convention in Seattle, then-new chairman William Kennard gave an update in the battle against pirate radio, boasting, “In the last 10 months we have shut down over 250 illegal stations.”
Either both cases of “counting coup” are erroneous, or someone is lying. Maybe both are.
Audit Intelligence
Some lesser-publicized FCC information gives more detail behind-the-bravado. The FCC’s Inspector General informally audited some of the agency’s field offices in January and found that morale was higher among those field agents who’ve had the chance to bust pirate broadcasters.
“Employees that had the opportunity to participate on “pirate” radio enforcement teams spoke favorably of their experience,” wrote Inspector General H. Walker Feaster III. “However, such work appears to be the exception rather then the rule for field personnel.”
There’s also evidence that the “radio cops” are strapped for cash: again quoting from the report, “Generally, Field Office staff at each office visited indicated that limited travel funds restrict the ability of the Field Office to accomplish all aspects of their mission in an effective manner.”
The tools field agents are working with also appear to be marginal at best: “We were informed that much of the equipment is technology from the 1970s and that it is not adequate to support interference cases using newer technologies.
“Chicago Field Office staff noted that the equipment situation has improved somewhat with the receipt of a new direction finding vehicle but that most equipment that is being procured is not high quality as in years past. As such, they believe that the equipment will not function for an extended life period.”
The counter-suing the FCC after a bust also appears to be drawing bureaucratic blood: the report notes field agents are increasingly worried about being liable for their actions against pirates.
“Although, to date, no Field Office staff have been held personally liable in any pirate radio action or have been financially damaged as a result of these actions, staff have been affected….This issue was raised by several of the field office staff that we interviewed and is a source of some concern.”
Then, there’s the big guns: The FCC’s ability to issue and collect fines appears to be an utter mess. Another Inspector General audit completed in August notes that the agency actually collects on less than a quarter of the civil penalties it issues.
The problem is information management: “During our review, we examined the backlog of civil monetary penalty actions and concluded that, in many cases, the Commission has not processed civil monetary penalty actions in a timely fashion,” goes the prose. “We identified a significant number of unresolved actions…for which the Commission has taken no action, or has no record of action being taken, for a period exceeding the statutory limitation of five (5) years.”
It is hoped the new organizational structure of the FCC’s enforcement division will help fix this problem. However, if it continues to under-equip its troops and fudge its successes, it will lose the war on pirate radio.
Denying the reality of the battlefield is the first step to losing the fight.