FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish

At the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas last month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai highlighted the agency’s extensive efforts to combat unlicensed broadcasting. In addition to announcing that, in 2017, the agency issued “210 Notices of Unlicensed Operation” (I can only confirm 171), Pai said the agency “fined illegal broadcasters $143,800” (it’s actually $158,800) and “proposed fines totaling $323,688” (it’s actually $204,344). He also mentioned the recent raid of pirate stations in Boston, and reported “that we recently took similar action against a pirate operator in Miami and another operator in Queens, New York.”
Considering that station-raids tend to generate a lot of publicity, both among local media in affected markets and in the radio industry trade-press, I was surprised that the Queens and Miami raids have not been reported on at all. This may be because they didn’t actually happen – or happened on dates and at times that don’t fit Chairman Pai’s narrative. In addition, further information has come to light that casts doubt on just how effective the FCC’s recent activity in Boston really was.
First, let’s break down the Queens case. This involves a guy by the name of Jose Luis Gerez and a station he used to run (and actually may still be running) called “Mambo FM.” According to an unsealed complaint dated last November, this station first appeared on the FCC’s radar in July 2013, when agents in the New York field office observed “what appeared to be an unlicensed broadcast station operating at 95.1 MHz in Queens, New York.” They tracked the signal to an apartment building on Gleane Street, less than a three-mile drive from LaGuardia Airport. After interviewing the superintendent of the apartment building, agents found an FM antenna on the roof with a coaxial cable running into the basement, where a transmitter and desktop computer providing the station’s programming was found. Agents sent a Notice of Unlicensed Operation to the property-owner, who subsequently reported that the station had been removed from the premises.
Not until January of 2015 was Mambo FM rediscovered on the air, thanks to a complaint from the New York State Broadcasters’ Association. It took seven months – until August 11 – for agents to hunt the signal again, this time tracing it to another apartment building on Lamont Avenue, about three blocks from the station’s initial perch and just a couple of blocks from the NYPD’s 110th Precinct headquarters. A couple of weeks later agents returned and spoke with that building’s superintendent, who showed the agents the station’s antenna on the roof and coax running down to the building’s elevator room. In early September, the super told the FCC that Mambo FM had pulled up stakes and left, but agents sent another NOUO to the property owner for good measure.
In February of 2016, the FCC’s New York field office received another complaint, origin unknown, alleging that Mambo FM was back on the air at 95.1 and that Gerez was its principal. On February 10, agents traced the station to a new apartment building on Britton Avenue – less than six blocks from the station’s second location. Again they spoke with the super, who showed them the antenna on the roof and coax running to the elevator room, and again they sent a NOUO to the building’s owners. A couple of months later, in late April, agents revisited the area and still heard Mambo FM on the air, but it wasn’t where it used to be. This time its signal was coming from a “mixed-use building” (a business on the ground floor and apartments/offices up top) on Northern Boulevard, about a mile north and slightly east of the station’s third confirmed location, and about a mile from LGA itself.
Here they spoke with the building’s owner, who showed them the antenna on the roof and “a mixer, computer, and various cables” in a basement room. According to the complaint, the owner said he allowed Mambo FM to broadcast from there “in exchange for cost-free advertising.” That generated two more NOUOs, one to the building owner and one to Gerez. Within days, the FCC was notified that the station had packed up and left. Two weeks later, FCC agents found the station back on the air, this time from another apartment building on 94th Street, about a half-mile from its prior (fourth) location. This time they weren’t able to access the building, but saw an FM antenna on the roof and coax running into a basement window. There the case sat for another two months, until August 26, 2016, when the FCC issued a $10,000 Notice of Apparent Liability to Gerez for operating Mambo FM. It got no response from the NAL, so on October 6 the agency upgraded it to a formal Forfeiture Order. Again, no response.
In early December, the FCC’s New York office received two more complaints about a pirate radio station on 95.1. On January 11, 2017, agents found the station at a new (sixth) location on Lamont Avenue, just two long avenue-blocks from its previous perch on 94th Street. The building superintendent let agents up on the roof where they found not only the antenna but “an FM transmitter, coaxial cables, and a computer” in a “locked space” on the roof itself. Agents returned in late February and heard Mambo FM still on the air, but not where they thought – now the station was broadcasting from its seventh location, an apartment building on 104th Street, a move of less than a mile. Agents again peeped the antenna on the roof, but did not get inside. On March 1 they returned to the area and found Mambo FM had moved yet again, to another apartment building on 108th Street, just a few blocks away. A week later they returned and, with access to the building, found the antenna on the roof and traced its cable down to the basement.
On April 13 agents returned to Queens and discovered Mambo FM had moved to a ninth location, an apartment building on 99th Street, about nine blocks from where they last found it. While listening to its signal they heard an announcement that the station was moving up the dial, from 95.1 to 99.7. Sure enough, when agents tuned up they found a simulcast ongoing – and it was originating from the station’s last location on 108th Street. A few days later, agents noted that the 95.1 signal was gone but 99.7 was going strong back on 108th Street. So, at this point in time, Mambo FM had been unsuccessfully visited, warned, and fined $10,000 but had temporarily expanded its footprint on the FM dial to two frequencies. (It’s worth noting that none of the complaints or agent-inspections allege interference caused by the pirate.)
This is when the agency began thinking about stronger measures. Two more visits followed in May and July, confirming that the station was still on the air at 99.7. On July 21 the FCC, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s office, applied for a seizure-warrant against the station; they got it on August 1, and executed a raid on August 8 with the help of U.S. Marshals. But Gerez and Mambo FM would not stay down for long: less than a week after the raid FCC agents found the station reoccupying 99.7 from its tenth location, six blocks down 108th Street. But it took another couple of weeks, until October 2, for agents to actually inspect the property. That’s when they found another twist: Mambo FM’s antenna was on the roof of one building, but the coax actually ran across the street, attached to a Verizon utility pole, and terminated in the basement of another building.
So, to recap: over more than four years, FCC agents tracked Mambo FM to nearly a dozen locations, all within a couple of square miles of each other in Queens, and found the station operating on two frequencies. Neither a $10,000 fine nor a station raid and seizure did the trick of taking it off the air. But Chairman Pai’s comments at the NAB Show last month suggest agents had “recently” raided the station again. Problem is, there’s no information to confirm that.
When I contacted FCC spokesman Will Wiquist to confirm a raid in Queens had “recently” taken place as per Pai’s claim, he provided me with all of the unsealed documents telling the tale of Jose Luis Gerez and Mambo FM through November 8, 2017, including the amended complaint asking for permission to raid the station a second time, but would not confirm that a second raid had actually happened. Considering that the complaint had been unsealed, the assumption is that it did take palace…but it’s highly unusual for the FCC or NYSBA to not shout about this action from the proverbial rooftops.
I placed a call to David Dombrowski, the Enforcement Bureau’s Regional Director for the northeast U.S., which includes New York. He called back and told me that the Mambo FM case is still open, but wouldn’t confirm that the second raid happened, or when it happened. A message left with the agency’s field office in New York was not returned. Since the FCC needs law enforcement assistance to execute a station-raid and equipment seizure, I reached out to the U.S. Marshals office covering the Eastern District of New York, which includes Queens. Again, left a message; no response. I even contacted the New York Police Department to see if any of their officers had been involved in a pirate-raid in Queens recently. Detective Sophia T. Mason replied via e-mail and suggested I should file an inquiry under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. I submitted a request on May 3 asking for any NYPD correspondence with the FCC and/or U.S. Marshals involving the case of Jose Luis Gerez and Mambo FM between July of 2013 and April of 2018. Not hopeful it’ll turn up anything, but in journalism it’s always good to cover all your bases.
Mambo FM has a website, but its news section hasn’t been updated since late November 2017, and a query submitted through the station’s contact-page got no response as of yet.
The case of the alleged raid in Miami is even stranger. When I asked the FCC’s Wiquist for information on that action, he deferred to Sarah Schall, a special counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami. I first contacted Schall via e-mail on April 13 and she asked for my phone number. Late in the day, she called back and told me she was trying to clear a bunch of things off her desk in order to get out of the office – a typical Friday afternoon blowoff-move. I asked if she could provide me with the unsealed complaints regarding the FCC activity to which Pai alluded in his NAB Show speech, and first she asked if I had checked PACER, an online database of federal court filings. I told her that in order to do that I needed a name, either of the station or its operator. She replied that she “had to talk the case over with the U.S. Attorney” and would get back to me.
That never happened, so I re-contacted Schall via e-mail on April 23 asking for an update; no response. I called again yesterday and she told me that she hadn’t been able to find any publicly-available documents for a recent station-raid in the area, though she asked me to follow up with another e-mail request. We’ll see if that turns up anything (I’m guessing no).
Next step: contacting the FCC’s regional enforcement headquarters in Georgia. There I spoke with Regional Director Ronald Ramage, who would only confirm that a station-raid did take place in Miami, but he would not provide me with any information on the principals involved, nor when the raid actually took place: “That you’ll have to get from Will [Wiquist],” he said. When I explained that Will had handed me off to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, and that they can’t find any information about this action, all Ramage would say is that I needed to speak with Wiquist – a strangely circuitous dead-end. Surprisingly, there’s no publicly-available contact information for the agency’s field office in Miami, but if their boss won’t talk to me I doubt those agents will.
Like in the Queens case, I reached out to the U.S. Marshal’s office for the Southern District of Florida, where I spoke with Assistant Chief Manny Puri. He told me that he knew of “no warrants executed on behalf of the FCC” recently, and said he’d also check with Sarah Schall in the U.S. Attorney’s Miami office. For good measure, I also called the Miami-Dade Police Department, where Detective Argemis Colome told me they’d heard nothing – which is strange because, in Colome’s experience, FCC activity like this is covered heavily by Miami’s local media. He suggested I contact the City of Miami Gardens’ Police Department, where I duly left a message; no response.
In summary: only one FCC employee will confirm that a pirate station-raid happened in the Miami area, but not who it targeted or when it went down. All other FCC folks I’ve asked refer me to a U.S. Attorney’s office who can’t find any information to backstop Ramage’s claim, and both federal and local law enforcement say there’s been no activity. In more than twenty years of covering FCC efforts to bust unlicensed broadcasters, I’ve never had such a hard time acquiring information related to enforcement actions, especially when those actions are explicitly referenced by an FCC Chairman in a public speech. This runs counter to every other enforcement action the agency’s ever taken, which they seek to publicize far and wide.
Given that the Florida Association of Broadcasters and Miami’s local media are also mum on this case, I’m left with no other conclusion than perhaps Chairman Pai significantly stretched the truth at the NAB Show. I guess it all comes down to how you define “recent” – the Queens action took place six months before the Boston raids, and the last publicly-documented raid in the Miami area took place more than a year ago.
As I ruminated about all of this on Twitter last week, I received a message from someone related to B87.7, one of the two stations in Boston that were raided in late March of this year. This person told me that, contrary to trade-press and other news coverage, B87’s equipment was not seized in the event that took a co-located pirate off the air. “To the best of my knowledge they took a few antennas off the roof but left three that was hard to get too [sic],” they wrote. “One is actually hanging off the side of the building…looks like its about to fall off and the [sic] left it. Didnt seem like they showed up to do much heavy lifting that day.” Does this mean that B87 is also back on the air – or had it never left the air? Nobody will say, but it also raises doubt that this well-publicized action may not have been as robust as claimed.
Taking these “recent” alleged raids out of the equation, there’s been little change in the FCC’s administrative stance regarding unlicensed broadcast enforcement activity. The Enforcement Bureau is certainly generating a lot of warning-letters to both suspected station-ops and the owners of the properties from which they broadcast, but many of them are duplicative and released on different dates so as to perhaps make it seem that the agency’s doing more work on more pirates than it really is. Take the case of a station located on 93.3 FM in Irvington, New Jersey: on February 18 of this year agents visited the station, which may be located in a church, and followed up with a warning-letter dated April 11 to a Bishop Kingsford A. Bloomfield. A week earlier (April 4), agents revisited this location…but issued a separate NOUO to Pastor Ragive Dulcio on April 24.
The FCC’s convoluted arithmetic may indeed count both of these enforcement actions as two separate stations, when in fact they’re the same one. Similarly, based on Commissioner Mike O’Rielly‘s direct chastisement of some pirates in the Boulder, Colorado area, field agents made a whopping five separate visits to Green Light Radio between January and February of this year, and issued two NOUOs to people alleged to be involved with the station – that’s seven enforcement actions against one station, and who knows how the FCC will contextualize those efforts?
We now live in the era of Trump, where bombast and embellishment are not just practiced, but rewarded. We’ve seen many of the president’s underlings adopt this frame of mind, and it would seem that Ajit Pai’s FCC is looking to perpetuate it. Yet despite the breathless reporting of these anti-pirate enforcement activities by the trades, without concrete information to confirm that the agency’s stepping up its game it would seem that the strategy in this regard is moving from paper tiger to puffer fish.
When threatened, puffer fish can more than double their size simply by sucking in a bunch of water. That, coupled with spiky scales, give predators a reason to back off and avoid them. Considering that the information available on pirate radio enforcement-escalation seems questionable and incomplete, maybe that’s the proper metaphor by which to consider the FCC’s anti-pirate activity going forward.

One thought on “FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish”

  1. Look I enjoy Hobby Broadcasting and I did a little flirting around with a few Watts on FM (But Will Never Do so ever again) and people loved my Album Rock station. However it is not my interest to tease or taunt the FCC so I shut it down and switched to part 15 legal AM Hobby Broadcasting .
    I did find that on AM via part 15 section 219 compliance setup in an area that is not overrun by electrical interference one can legally transmit 1.5-2 miles on the upper section of AM broadcast band around 1630-1700 Khz. Now this is only to a Car Radio or HIGH END AM receiver but at least its legal. Your results may very upon location and some may not go beyond 300-600 Feet.
    If the FCC and broadcasters would go ahead and sign a truce with Hobby Broadcasters and allow for rural areas for hobby operators to have at or equal or near the signal intensity of a TIS station there is very good reason to expect that just like New Zealand and other contries the Pirate Radio issue will be nullified. In New Zealand its allowed on FM on a section of the band which has been given to Hobby or individual broadcasters who wish to start a station with a niche programming format without a licensing cost of well into the triple digit figures.
    Pirate Radio in the USA is not a new concept which can be verified via songs by well known artists like The Roaring Sixties which title is We Love The Pirate Stations asking the FCC to leave them alone. It even has someone crying in the back ground because their favorite Pirate station was shut down by the government and they can no longer listen to their favorite music. This happened sometime in 1966 when I looked up the original release of this particular song.
    Why did people like it in 1966 so much to make a protest hit single and public behavior shows they still do? Because just like in the 80s the FCC forced upon cable TV providers to have community access channels which allow individuals to schedule a show and broadcast it to the entire town.
    Hobby Broadcasting should be considered a citizen access frequency or audio channel and this should not be demonized or thought of as criminal behavior but rather a necessary outlet to share niche ideas and music not provided by other FREE to receive over the air Radio stations. Its safe to say that is what Broadcast Radio was originally intended before corporate outcry to the US government only to stifle a conflict to a growing cash flow.
    In conclusion just like the title of an album by The Kinks Give The People What They Want is really the best psychology and most humane way to handle this situation. that or make it mandatory that 1 receivable station with EVERY musical genera is receivable to every city in the USA even the most rural of cities. This also helps with emergency situations too.
    An example would be that every city better have one Album Rock (Deep Tracks, Progressive Rock), Classic Rock station and if not than the members of every broadcasting company shall be fined so much money per day until it is indeed met. They want HD Radio to tie up more space in the broadcast bands? They have no excuse why not then.
    Radio is for the people not for the cash cows and if they want to cry “No Fair” lets show them what “No Fair” is. Lovers of say Classic Country, Polka, Big Band and so on may also want to join this fight too. Maybe then these self minded folks will come down to earth and realize this is just human nature to want to put up a station that doesn’t copy what others are doing.

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