The FCC yesterday issued a News Release about an unusual action taken by the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts entering into a consent decree with a pirate radio operator, where the operator agreed to surrender all of its operating equipment to the FCC, and to stop broadcasting illegally.  If the operator is again caught operating

The PIRATE Act, imposing Federal penalties on pirate radio station operators, was passed last week by the US House of Representatives and referred to the US Senate for consideration. We wrote about versions of this bill introduced in prior Congressional sessions here and here. This bill, among other things, would impose penalties of

Yesterday, the FCC announced that it had seized the equipment of another pirate radio operator, this time one who was operating from a high-rise in Manhattan. The pirate was operating an unauthorized FM radio station from a New York apartment building. As we recently wrote in connection with another seizure of the equipment of

At this week’s NAB Convention, issues about FM translators and pirate radio dominated the radio news from the sessions that featured FCC speakers. On the translator front, FCC Chairman Pai, in his speech to the convention, announced that there is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that has been drafted and is being considered by

The FCC yesterday announced that they had seized the equipment of two Boston-area pirate radio stations that had refused to cease operations after receiving FCC notices to do so. The FCC Public Notice on the seizure thanks the US Attorney’s Office and US Marshall’s Office, and the Boston Police Department, for assisting the FCC Field Office in carrying out the seizure authorized by the Communications Act for stations operating without a license. Seizure of equipment is carried out pursuant to Section 510 of the Communications Act, and generally requires that the US Attorney receive approval of a US District Court before the equipment can be seized Thus, the cooperation of the US Attorney’s office in a local jurisdiction is vital to conducting a seizure such as that done in Boston. Commissioner O”Rielly, who has been a vocal proponent of increased actions against pirate radio (see our post here) issued a statement commending the action and calling it a complement to legislative action to enhance fines on such stations and impose clear liability on landlords who host pirate operations (see our post here about a case where the FCC has already put landlords on notice of potential liability for pirate radio operations where they had clear involvement in such operations).

Legislative action on pirate radio seems to be in the works. To combat pirate radio operations, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology last week held a hearing (video available here) on proposed bills to amend the Communications Act, including one called the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act (see discussion draft here). The draft bill would raise potential fines on pirate radio operators to $2,000,000, and fines of up to $100,000 per day for violations of the Communications Act and FCC rules related to such pirate operations. It would eliminate the need to provide pirates a Notice of Apparent Liability, with the opportunity to respond, before a fine is issued to an operator of a pirate radio station, if the operator is caught in the act of operating the illegal station. The Act would also make clear that those who facilitate pirate radio operations are also liable for up to $2,000,000 fines (“facilitates” is defined to include providing property from which the pirate operates or money for their operations). The draft bill also calls on the FCC to, twice each year, dedicate staff to “sweep” the top 5 radio markets determined to have the most pirate activity to identify pirates and seize their equipment, and authorizes states to enact their own laws making such operations illegal as long as the determination of who is a pirate radio station is made by the FCC. 
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After months of speculation, Chairman Wheeler today announced that he will step down from the FCC on Inauguration Day. Together with the Senate not confirming the renomination of Commissioner Rosenworcel (as the Senate is effectively on recess and not expected to return before the end of the term, her renomination will almost certainly not be approved in this session of Congress, meaning that she must step down when the Congress adjourns on January 3), that leaves three Commissioners on the FCC. Two are the current Republican commissioners – Pai and O’Rielly – and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. What will that mean for broadcasters?

First, it is expected that one of the two Republicans will be named as Acting Chairman to set the agenda for the first few months of the Trump administration, until a permanent Chair is announced (and confirmed by the Senate, if that Chair is not one of the two current Republicans). These commissioners have been vocal in their dissents on several big issues for broadcasters – including the repeal of the UHF discount (about which we wrote earlier this week) and on other issues dealing with the ownership of television stations – including the decision to not repeal the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, and the decision to reinstate the FCC’s ban on Joint Sales Agreements in TV unless they are done between stations that can be co-owned. We already speculated about these issues being on the Republican agenda soon after the election. What other issues are likely to be considered?
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Pirate radio is still a problem. While pirate radio was much in the news a decade ago, and was even glamorized in movies, the popular perception may be that it has disappeared. In fact, particularly in major urban areas, it is still a major issue – causing interference to licensed broadcast stations and even, at times, to non-broadcast communications facilities. The FCC yesterday upheld a previously issued $15,000 fine to an operator of an illegal station in Florida, rejecting arguments that the community service provided on the station should mitigate the fine. The FCC, from time to time, releases this sort of fine, yet these stations keep popping up. A number of Commissioners have recognized the gravity of the issue, and that recognition caused the FCC to last month issue an Enforcement Advisory, warning operators that unauthorized broadcasting is illegal, suggesting that the public turn in those who operate pirate stations, and warning those who support pirate radio (e.g. landlords and advertisers) that their support could “expose them to FCC enforcement or other legal actions.” What is the reality of this actually happening?

A few states, including New Jersey and Florida, have passed criminal statutes making pirate radio illegal, but such enforcement, in the few cases that I have dealt with in those states, has tended to be a low enforcement priority for state authorities. Most defer to the FCC, given their perceived expertise in this area. Thus, there has been a recognition that the FCC needs to do more to combat pirate radio, particularly in urban centers like New York where the problem has been particularly acute. I had the privilege of interviewing FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly at the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters convention the week before last. The Commissioner has been an outspoken advocate of more pirate radio enforcement. In addition to early support for public education on the issue, including the issuance of the Enforcement Advisory, the Commissioner suggested that additional Congressional action may be necessary to give the FCC more enforcement tools to really bring pressure to bear on pirate radio operators and those who support them. What tools are needed?
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