In May, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) introduced the “Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act,” otherwise known by the acronym PIRATE Act. The bill makes several changes to existing FCC regulations regarding unlicensed broadcasting:
1. The maximum monetary penalty that can be assessed for unlicensed broadcasting on the AM and FM bands is increased from an aggregate maximum of $100,000 to $2 million, and can be doled out in increments of $100,000 per day. These fines can be issued against the pirate broadcaster directly, or against any entity that “knowingly and intentionally facilitates pirate radio broadcasting.”
“Facilitates” is defined as “providing access to property (and improvements thereon) or providing physical goods or services, including providing housing, facilities, or financing, that directly aid pirate radio broadcasting.” This hearkens back to a historical precedent set by European laws in the 1960s that attempted to outlaw offshore pirate radio by making it illegal to supply and advertise on the station-ships and platforms operating in international waters. Continue reading “PIRATE Act Sets Sail in House”
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. Continue reading “FCC on Pirate Radio: From Paper Tiger to Puffer Fish”
FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly doesn’t seem to be getting the kind of publicity he hoped for after taking a hyperlocal news outlet in a suburb of Boulder, Colorado to task for reporting on the existence of a pirate radio station there. The Longmont Observer ran a short piece back in December noting the existence of Green Light Radio, the FCC’s protocol for shutting such stations down, and ending with the statement, “In the meantime, enjoy Longmont’s pirate station while it lasts.”
This stuck in O’Rielly’s craw so badly that he penned a letter to the editor of the Observer admonishing it for providing “tacit support” to an unlicensed broadcaster. In O’Rielly’s mind, the Observer’s journalists should have acted as freelance FCC agents and not only reported the station to the agency’s field office in Denver, but encouraged readers to not listen to “KGLR,” due to the supposed “harm” it would cause.
A follow-up article in the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper (and its Longmont affiliate, the Times-Call) seems to suggest that Coloradans don’t appreciate O’Rielly’s scolding. According to Brooke Ericson, O’Rielly’s chief of staff (who, incidentally, has been in the job for less than four months and most likely ghost-wrote the letter to the Observer to score points with her new boss), this was “the first article (he) has come across that appeared to actively promote this illegal activity,” and thus justified a response. Continue reading “Coloradans Push Back Against Anti-Pirate Bullying”
There are still a few pirate radio enforcement-cases from 2017 that the FCC has yet to release, but by and large the numbers from last year are in and they most definitely show an uptick in the number of enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters. As of today, there were 383 enforcement-actions across 18 states, compared to 207 actions in 2016 covering just nine states. For the second year running, Florida tops the list of states with the most anti-pirate enforcement, followed by Massachusetts and New York.
2017 ranks as the fifth-busiest year for enforcement activity in the 20-year history of the Enforcement Action Database, eclipsed only by a tear the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau went on during the end of President Bush II’s second term and Obama’s first term, when a proposed expansion of LPFM was being debated. Of the activity logged last year, the vast majority were station-visits (201, or 52%) or Notices of Unlicensed Operation (aka warning letters, 168, or 44%). The remaining 4% of enforcement actions included Notices of Apparent Liability (aka pre-fines, of which there were four) and Forfeiture Orders (nine).
In 2016, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued nine NALs and five Forfeiture Orders, so on balance there’s no real movement or improvement in the agency’s escalation-protocol beyond initial contact(s). Continue reading “Paper Tiger Roars in 2017 – To What End?”
The descent into authoritarianism continues apace in the United States, where Donald Trump went on a tirade against NBC News last week for publishing stories about him that he doesn’t like. Repeatedly, Trump suggested that NBC have its broadcast licenses revoked for all the “fake news” that it publishes.
Leaving aside the fact that television networks are not licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (broadcast licenses are awarded to individual radio and TV stations) and thus Trump (again) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, such vitriol from the nation’s chief executive should alarm any American who has actually read the U.S. Constitution. No surprise, then, that several members of Congress and many others have called out Trump for his attack on the First Amendment, and there’s even a case to be made that Trump’s ignorant threats already run afoul of it.
Over at the FCC, both Democratic Commissioners haven’t remained silent in the face of this bluster. Mignon Clyburn low-key responded in tweet-form, commenting that the only way TV stations might see their licenses revoked at Trump’s behest is if “we fail to abide by the First Amendment.” It bears noting that Clyburn may be mulling a run for elected office, so she’s obviously playing this close to the vest.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was just reappointed to the FCC for another term after a short hiatus, has been much more forceful. Not only has she castigated Trump on social media, but she’s also gone on CNN and told media reporter Brian Stelter that “History won’t be kind to silence. I think it’s important for all the Commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment, and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee’s coverage.” Continue reading “Ajit Pai: Silence is Consent to the Trump Agenda”
The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is regularly making waves in the agency’s Daily Digest now, issuing slews of warning-letters to unlicensed broadcasters nearly every week. Interestingly, these letters are typically grouped by location: one week it’s a passel of pirates “caught” broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, the next a bunch of folks in South Florida, etc.
The agency, and radio industry, have long described the enforcement process as “whack-a-mole” in reference to the carny game where you score points bashing plastic rodents with a mallet, who pop up and disappear often before you can bring the hammer down. It’s an apt description…but the agency’s most recent enforcement-activites vividly demonstrate just how devoid the process is of deterrent value.
In an update to the Enforcement Action Database earlier this month, I highlighted the case of Kacy Rankine. He’s a New Jersey-based unlicensed broadcaster who first appeared on the FCC’s radar way back in 2005. That year he received a slew of station-visits and warning-letters from the federales, but to no avail, so the FCC ended up fining him $10,000 in 2007.
It’s highly unlikely that fine was ever paid, because Rankine was noticed again this year (a full decade later) running another station in another New Jersey community. The FCC, which apparently doesn’t keep a logically comprehensive record of its own regarding prior enforcement actions and lacks a semblance of institutional memory on this issue, simply restarted the enforcement process with Rankine, issuing him a warning letter last month. Continue reading “FCC Whacks Zombie-Moles”
The rotten hubris that is the Trump administraton is in full bloom at the FCC. It began when its leadership refused to defend core communications principles like free speech and press and flourished when they swore fealty to hypercapitalism and preemptively demonized those who may oppose their policy agenda. Now the dirty tricks have arrived. It’s all so far outside the already-troublesome norm of how media policy is made as to be head-spinning.
Let’s begin with the agency’s effort to repeal network neutrality regulations. An issue that’s overly complicated in most news coverage, the nation turns to John Oliver to make sense of it. He’s done this twice now – most recently in May, and as before his coverage inspired millions to visit the FCC’s public-comment site and make their thoughts known on the issue.
The first time, the public response in favor of net neutrality was so overwhelming that it crashed the FCC’s servers. This time, the system went down again…but the FCC claims that it was due to a malicious attack of unknown origin. According to (now-gone) Chief Information Officer David Bray, as Oliver’s latest segment went to air, “the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic. . .[they] were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.” Continue reading “FCC's Trumpist Trajectory Intensifies”
Signifying what the industry trades call a “crackdown” and added “pressure” on unlicensed broadcasters, the FCC’s Enforcment Bureau has stepped up its issuance of warning-letters, primarily to pirate stations in New York and New Jersey. Of the 94 enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this year, 52 of them have taken place in these two states. Enforcement activity also includes two Notices of Apparent Liability and seven Forfeiture Orders, for cases that originated in 2015-16. Overall, however, the pace of enforcement actions is running behind the totals of a year ago.
This is not necessarily an expansion of enforcement duties. NYC-based field agents especially are now doing what they call “follow-up investigations” – in a nutshell, agents now re-visit unlicensed stations they’ve already contacted. If they are still on the air, they issue yet another warning letter to the operator (or, in the case of one New Jersey-based pirate, to the owner of the property where the station is housed, who was not in on the first-round contact). “Follow-up investigations” typically occur within 1-3 months of initial contact with the offending station. But if stations aren’t fazed by the first FCC nastygram they get, what are the odds the second one will change their ways? Continue reading “FCC and Pirates: Going Through the Motions Faster”
The rhetoric’s heated up, for sure. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who’s made cracking down on unlicensed stations one of his signature issues, calls them infectious squatters, casting the phenomenon as a cancer preparing to metastisize. And he’s gotten much more critical about his own agency’s handling of the problem: when the FCC proposed to fine a Kentucky couple more than $144,000 last month for operating a low-power TV station for nearly twenty years after its original license had expired, he likened FCC enforcement to “a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses.”
That makes “paper tiger” sound almost tame.
Industry trade-press has taken the cue and upped their coverage of the FCC’s anti-pirate broadcast enforcement. Radio World trumpets warning lettters, fines, and threats of fines issued by the Enforcement Bureau as if they’re landing knockout blows. It even got Chairman Ajit Pai to concede in a March interview that pirates are a “serious concern.” Continue reading “FCC and Pirates: A War of Words”
The governing paradigm in contemporary U.S. communications policy is genuflection to principles that invoke the “free market,” especially post-1980 when economics captured the policymaking process. As such, all Federal Communications Commissioners, regardless of party, will couch their positions and rationales in this language, though nearly all also make the effort to connect their rationales to something akin to “the public interest,” which has been the principal ideal as mandated by the agency’s own authorizing statute.
But the FCC’s also been a safe space for the occasional ideologue who worships capitalism as the human condition most worthy of emulation. It is not a radical notion to believe that an economic theory may not be an appropriate paradigm by which to organize all of the workings of an entire society. Folks who do believe that are market-fundamentalists; and whether it comes in economic, political, or religious flavors, fundamentalism is an extreme that the act of being civilized tends to temper. Continue reading “The FCC's Trumpian Shift is On”