Prepping for a Pirate Crackdown

Even though the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is in the throes of a major downsizing – newly-released documents indicate the Bureau will cut 44 jobs, or more than 40% of its workforce – it’s also committed itself to do something about the proliferation of unlicensed broadcasting. That said, a before-and-after summary of personnel cuts doesn’t really show a lot of refocused muscle on the ground: for example, New York’s field office will see a net increase of one agent (from 4 to 5), while the “tiger teams” being created to backstop the field offices consist of no more than three or four.
Since pirate radio’s become a plaything of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, and the broadcast lobby is chomping at the bit for a war on pirates, I would not be surprised if the agency, working in concert with groups like the NAB and New York State Broadcasters Association, attempt to sweep at least NYC this year in some “show of force.” Whatever the rhetoric may be, paper-tiger mode remains in full effect — and there’s a lot unlicensed broadcasters can do to prepare for whatever may come, both tactically and strategically.
1. Reassess your relative risk. Unlicensed broadcasting is an illegal act, typically prosecuted by the FCC as a civil matter resulting in a monetary fine. Licensed broadcasters would like to see more stations get raided and their equipment seized, but that requires the assistance of Federal Marshals and/or local police. In New York and New Jersey, pirate radio has been criminalized at the state level as well.
Although there are many weak points in the current enforcement protocol, such as the FCC’s inability to actually collect on the fines it issues and local authorities having better things to do than enforce boutique industry laws, increased field enforcement activity will result in increased attempts at prosecution. Having an articulable defense, even if only in the popular sense (communications of last resort, electronic civil disobedience) does at least force the FCC to acknowledge the humanity behind the operation.
2. Prepare for contact. It’s impossible to overemphasize how important it is for you to control the narrative about your station and its mission. Any “war on pirates” is going to involve attempts to manipulate the public’s perception of what pirate stations actually are. The industry and its allies would like nothing more than to paint unlicensed broadcasting as some dangerous criminal enterprise…but this propaganda falls apart when conditions on the ground illustrate a wildly different reality.
Any principals behind the station, whether they be engineers, DJs, landlords, or property owners, should school themselves on how the unlicensed broadcast enforcement process works and the expanse of FCC authority in the area. If you know the heat is coming down, the last thing to do is hide: warn your listenership and community you’re trying to serve about the potential threat of being busted and what you and they might do if/when it happens. Community support is absolutely critical in bouncing back from an enforcement action.
During the microradio movement of the 1990s, stations like Freak Radio Santa Cruz actually ran public service announcements when FCC activity was expected in the area. Free Radio Austin hardened their transmission infrastructure, making it difficult to seize the gear and allowing time for station volunteers and listeners to mobilize and protest the crackdown. The resulting media coverage was not all that favorable to the enforcers.
3. Be on the lookout for signs of enforcement activity. If you see folks in the vicinity of the station making measurements, taking notes, and inspecting buildings for “suspicious” cables or antennae, they’re probably not looking for airtime. Direct confrontation with FCC field agents and/or vigilante broadcast engineers is not typically constructive — but bearing witness to and documenting their activities can be extremely useful (see #2).
4. Keep things clean. The FCC’s enforcement protocol is primarily complaint-based and stations that generate interference receive the highest priority. Now is the time to reassess the technical configuration of your station, making sure that you’re operating on the “clearest” feequency available, minimizing interference to any nearby stations. This also means making sure that your transmitter’s output is as clean as possible: put a low-pass filter on it at the very least and make sure the transmitter and antenna are well-matched.
If the community/audience you are trying to serve is well-defined geographically, consider re-siting the antenna on the highest point in the neighborhood and/or using a directional antenna to concentrate your signal (and minimize interference to others).
5. Separate studio from transmitter. The FCC is most concerned about removing offending radio devices from the air than it is about throwing the book at people, and the way all enforcement cases start is with agents triangulating the location of the unlicensed transmitter. If the people are separated from the gear, that adds another step to the enforcement process.
Stations in the U.K. have pioneered the use of point-to-point wireless links to separate people from gear, though streaming a signal over the Internet from one location to another is also an effective method of creating separation (some NYC-based pirates already do this). The FCC will attempt to track down IP addresses of computers engaged in or affiliated with unlicensed broadcasting, which includes doing social-media reconnaissance, so consider anonymization techniques or proxy-servers to provide an additional layer of protection between people and gear.
6. Consider portability. I’m not necessarily talking about Pump Up the Volume-style mobile operation, but being flexible about where to broadcst from does add complexity to the enforcement process. Oftentimes, agents and other anti-pirate ne’er-do-wells will make more than one visit to a station-location before the hammer comes down; what is the point of being a sitting duck after first contact?
Being “locationally flexible” not only complicates the enforcement process but also has the potential to expose more folks to the power of pirate radio as electronic civil disobedience. Stations like Free Radio Berkeley regularly broadcast from places like farmer’s markets and other public gatherings, a great outreach tool.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of preparations one might take for any coming crackdown; if you’ve got any other suggestions, please consider adding a comment to this post.