Pirate Radio Is A Costly, Overlooked Problem—And It’s Thriving.

In some markets in America, pirate radio stations swarm the airwaves, delivering 150-watt stings to licensed operators. While they may not bring down a station, they do result in a rash of interference complaints from broadcasters to the Federal Communications Commission.

The Enforcement Bureau estimates 20% of its personnel’s activities are related to combating pirate radio; so far this year, field agents have issued 20 official warnings according to the FCC.

While new FCC chief Ajit Pai has already won praise from broadcasters for his efforts on AM revitalization among other moves, he may again score with the industry on the issue of unlicensed operators. “Chairman Pai has made clear that confronting pirate radio is an enforcement priority for the agency,” an FCC spokesman said in an email.

While some immediate tweaks have already been taken according to insiders, they say the agency is likely to make more meaningful shifts in the coming months. “The chairman has asked the Bureau to review its policies related to pirate radio and work to find ways to further bolster the Commission’s capabilities on this front,” the FCC spokesman said, adding, “The chairman and Bureau leadership have also worked closely with the FCC field office staff to reaffirm that essential part of the Commission’s enforcement mission.”

FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly has put combating pirates high on his priority list during the past several years. “We can no longer afford to rest,” he said two weeks ago after the FCC issued a $144,344 fine against a pirate TV station that had been on the air for 20 years. An incredulous O’Rielly said the case highlighted the agency’s “toothless” approach toward broadcast pirates of all stripes.

“No longer a fierce watchdog, the Commission had been reduced to a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses,” he said. Further boosting the signals from the Portals building that a new paradigm is in the works, O’Rielly added, “All pirate operators should be put on notice that we can and we will turn that situation around.”

O’Rielly earlier called pirates “squatters [that] are infecting the radio band” during a speech to the Hispanic Radio Conference in March. While in South Florida, O’Rielly also visited the FCC’s Miami field office “to ring the figurative fire alarm” on the issue, admitting to broadcasters that the failure to address the problem has undermined the FCC’s overall credibility. “I walked away with renewed belief that the Miami team was up to the task, but they are also on notice that I expect to see this situation addressed quickly and sufficiently,” he said.

A New Anti-Pirate Wind Blows

The head of the state associations in pirate-plagued states universally say they’ve already felt shifting enforcement winds in recent months. “We’ve seen a real significant change in attitude at the FCC. There is now a real desire to try to eradicate this problem,” New York State Broadcasters Association president David Donovan said. “What I see is a determination by the Commission to go after this issue, which we have not seen for decades.”

“They are definitely more interested in stopping pirate radio,” Florida Association of Broadcasters president Pat Roberts agreed. “It appears the hoops that the local field staff has to go through to get permission to go after pirates have been substantially modified or reduced.” He believes that helped cut the response time on shutting down a pirate station that was causing headaches for several Miami stations to less than two months—a short time line in pirate-battle terms. “I would say it’s a priority but it’s a staffing issue,” Roberts said. “The problem is they’ve cut back all the field offices, so there is fewer FCC staff available to help.” As a result there are likely as many 30 pirates operating in South Florida according to Roberts.

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