The "War on Pirates" in 2008: Paper Beats Rock, Scissors

I’ve just finished updating the Enforcement Action Database. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has reported its field actions through mid-December, and as you can see, given any activity over the balance of the month, it is on target to meet and/or (most likely) beat the record enforcement year of 2007.
eadbyyearWhat does this mean? It depends on how you look at the data. Sure, the FCC’s busting more pirates than ever, but does that really mean it’s making a dent in station proliferation? A couple of major conclusions from the year-in-review are striking:
1. Most FCC enforcement is concentrated around geographic “hot spots” around the country. The top two are south Florida (most notably the Miami-Dade metroplex) and New York. If you add New Jersey in with NYC, the density of enforcement actions is about tied. It’s not that far of a stretch to equate that with the density of existing pirate radio stations (i.e., they’re not going away).
2. Although most of the enforcement occurs in these hot spots, the fact that enforcement takes place essentially nationwide makes the phenomenon of pirate radio a national one. I think it’s just much less of a priority for some field offices than others.
3. There’s a compelling trend this year in the timing of enforcement actions. Multiple field offices tend to go pirate-hunting around the same time of the month (often on the exact same days). If I had to guess, the FCC’s mandate from D.C. is, “spend some time hunting pirates to show that we care,” and the agents in the field mark a day or two on their monthly calendars to handle any pending complaints. (For what it’s worth, there’s no indication that the FCC’s 15 month-old online pirate station reporting form is doing much good).
4. Finally, the primary tools of FCC enforcement remain, by and large, quite administrative. Station-visits and threatening-sounding certified letters are the field agents’ ammunition of choice. It’s worth noting that although the amount of monetary forfeitures has risen to 2006 levels, the FCC’s expected recoupment for each enforcement action it takes is paltry; going pirate-hunting is a big money-loser for the agency. Note that the number of arrests and convictions have remained stable – and less than a handful at that. It would seem that those state laws criminalizing pirate radio are doing a whole lot of nothing.
In fact, looking at the raw data from which I compile the majority of my statistics, the Enforcement Bureau’s been going after more serious unlicensed broadcasters, like those who potentially jam public-safety, maritime, and land-mobile two-way radio networks. This is a phenomenon that also appears to be on the rise. The FCC’s much more quicker to bring the fiscal hammer down on those sorts of people, but they’re the ones doing real harm.
The bottom line? 2009 will be a year of opportunity for unlicensed broadcasters. Without some sort of massive infusion of human resources, capital, and political will, the FCC simply doesn’t have the strength to shut much of anything down. It’s reached its enforcement capacity, and it’s being overwhelmed. In that sense, we’re winning.