"Unfortunately People Go to Jail Now" – Not

It’s always a little sad when a pirate radio station throws in the towel, either from implosion, disorganization or, more likely, a little fear placed into the stations’ operators by the Federal Communications Commission.
Unfortunately, FCCFREE RADIO in San Francisco is now on the list of casualties, after field agents paid the station’s proprietor, John Miller, a visit. According to reaction from Radio Survivor, Miller opines “that times really have changed for pirate radio, saying, ‘Unfortunately people go to jail now.'”
Okay, just stop right there, and read this. (If you’re interested in the full legal history of pirate radio in the U.S., read this).
Mythbusting time: The FCC cannot arrest people and send them to jail. FCC field agents are government inspectors, not licensed law enforcement officials. In fact, when they do have to call in “the law,” it’s typically either Federal Marshals (see Freak Radio Santa Cruz) or the local po-po (see San Francisco Liberation Radio).
In both cases, the “arrest warrant” was for the equipment conducting the unlicensed broadcasting, not for actual people. And when the FCC does go after individual people, it does so typically by seeking a monetary forfeiture; sending folks to prison for pirate radio is messy, arduous, and not typically worth the effort. Even then, such fines are a bitch to collect.
If the Federales really have it out for you (see Stephen Dunifer/Free Radio Berkeley, Free Radio Austin, and Human Rights Radio – Springfield), they might have a federal prosecutor take you to court for an injunction to prohibit you from broadcasting again.
And even then, the feds have to catch you in the act (people break their injunctions regularly – Mbanna Kantako‘s still on the air nearly 25 years after being threatened with all kinds of state-sponsored terror). Boulder Free Radio’s original founder parted ways with the station after an FCC grilling, but he’s avoided any crime and the station’s gear lives on under new management.
In summary, in the entire history of unlicensed broadcasting in the United States, only a handful people have been ever criminally charged, and fewer still have actually served any time – less people than it takes to count on a single hand.
The issue, as always, boils down to acceptable relative risk – if you understand and know the boundaries of the law, you can discern that risk better. Publicity is one thing that can sink a station, and in the case of FCCFREE Radio, I think that’s all that’s happened here.