NY Broadcasters Try Quantifying Pirates

Tell us something we don’t know: they are pervasive and may outnumber licensed broadcasters in the number one radio market in America.
Meintel, Sgrignoli, & Wallace's magic pirate listening vanThat’s the most notable takeaway from a 103-page report (also embedded at the end of this post) prepared for the New York State Broadcasters’ Association by Maryland-based consulting engineers Meintel, Sgrignoli, & Wallace, who camped out at four locales in the NYC metropolitan area — two in NYC proper and two in New Jersey — earlier this year with a cleverly-camouflaged monitoring van (at right) and basically did FM bandscans.
They picked up 76 pirates on the dial…though they estimate that “there may be more than 100 unauthorized stations” on the air in total. According to the report, this is not the first pirate-survey MS&W has been commissioned for — similar bandscans were conducted in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Compared to last year’s findings, the number of unlicensed broadcasters in Brooklyn alone has increased some 58%, though there’s no way to compare figures since the earlier reports have not been made publicly available.
Many caveats abound, such as the fact that static monitoring locations can’t provide a comprehensive tally of pirates (considering that they operate in a variety of configurations) and the number of unlicensed stations on the air change by time of day and even time of year (the report claims the summer months see the most activity).
Interestingly, that’s about the only definitive information to come out of the consultants’ findings. The rest is full of conjecture, including such specious assertions that pirate stations interfere with Emergency Alert System broadcasts (they provide no substantive evidence of this); expose unsuspecting citizens to “significant public health and safety issues” from antenna-radiation (again, no evidence beyond best-guesses); and have the potential to interfere with aviation-related frequencies (yet “Importantly, our survey did not find that these unauthorized pirate stations were directly causing interference to FAA systems”). The consultants did attempt to quantify the power levels of some pirate stations and estimate that they range from the dozens of watts up to 3,000 or more.
They also claim that since many pirates operate on frequencies adjacent to licensed broadcasters, some of whom are running FM-HD Radio signals, pirates present the potential to interfere with the digital sidebands of these HD signals. Of course, gone unsaid here is the fact that the HD Radio system itself splatters onto adjacent channels by design, which in and of themselves represent an increase in the interference-potential between stations (licensed or otherwise) in any market. Furthermore, since there are two redundant FM-HD sidebands for every station, interference to one does not preclude solid reception of the HD signal itself — but of course, the consultants’ report doesn’t acknowledge this.
Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 12.49.25 PMOf the 76 pirates heard, the consultants actually did mosey along in their magic van to pinpoint the locations of 14 of them, a task they observe was “not terribly difficult.” Location data, including external pictures of these stations’ antennae, are appended to the report.
To their credit, the MS&W team does admit that interference from unlicensed broadcasters is a contextual affair, resulting in the interplay of any listeners’ given radio receivers with competing signals (licensed or otherwise). Of course, the report attempts to skew this assumption to suggest that such interference is “pervasive” — but if it were the FCC and licensed broadcasters would be deluged by listener-complaints, which they are not. The consultants claim that their “experience” leads them to suggest “that when confronted with interference, consumers are more likely to switch channels than to report interference to the FCC.” The fact that listeners still have such choice to tune around would seem to belie the notion of “pervasive” interference, would it not?
Were this report not littered with key words and phrases such as “potential,” “may be,” “likely,” “not certain,” and “certainly possible,” you would think the RF sky is falling in New York and New Jersey. Yet this is obviously not happening, and the consulting engineers at MS&W presumably know their rightful place: “While it is beyond the scope of this analysis to make policy recommendations, it appears more resources and a new enforcement strategy is necessary to address this growing problem since current efforts do not appear to be effective.”
That said, here’s the problem: a legitimate and objective consultancy goes into a project without presumptions about what the conclusions will be. Hundreds (if not more) of such studies are conducted every year: for example, Broadcaster X wants to make a change to their facility and needs to know whether or not this will have an effect on the nearby stations of Broadcasters Y and Z. It’s a simple and straightforward exercise. But this is not the case with the work of Meintel, Sgrignoli, & Wallace here — in this instance, the NYSBA provided the consultants with the outcomes they wanted to see, and MS&W did their best to meet the objectives of their clients, damning caveats and all.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen engineers sell out objective truths for a paycheck, especially when the policy-stakes are so high, and it’s not likely to be the last. Will the FCC, armed with this data, make a move?
According to testimony at a Congressional hearing earlier this week, Chairman Tom Wheeler would certainly like to. He told lawmakers that the FCC has conducted some 91 enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this year (an assertion not borne out by actual FCC data) and the agency’s focusing on the most egregious violators of the broadcast license requirement. He even pimped fellow Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s recent foray into the field to see pirate stations up close and personal.
In policy circles, documents such as the MS&W consulting report — coupled with similar filings making similar assertions — constitutes the practice of “creating facts on the ground” in order to justify changes in policies and procedures. When such documents contain innacurate or skewed conclusions, one can expect that the resultant policy will reflect these inaccuracies and biases.
Nobody denies that pirate radio is massive (and sometimes messy) in many radio markets around the country, but the solution to solving this “problem” is not building up a justification to launch a war on the airwaves. To its credit, the FCC is savvy enough to recognize this, but their political overlords obviously have other ideas.
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