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?
Continue Reading Combatting Pirate Radio – What Can the FCC Do?

For an industry that some say is about to be made obsolete because of its digital competition, there are still many people who want a piece of the FM spectrum.   We’ve written much about the contest between LPFM and translator proponents seeking their piece of FM spectrum – a contest that we should see resolved by the FCC in the very near future. One topic that we have not written much about is "pirate radio," stations that operate illegally – without FCC authority.  This week, the FCC issued several orders, fining individuals up to $25,000 for operating pirate radio stations in various places around the country (see decisions here and here, and two other fines of $20,000 or more noted below).  Pirate radio has been and remains a big problem for many broadcasters and, despite the fines in cases like this, pirates seem to continue to crop up – especially in urban markets.

The pirate radio problem has always been with broadcasters.  In the past there was both the romance of the outlaw radio operator and concerns over the snake oil salesmen who were broadcasting from stations in Mexico, and there was a famous religious broadcaster who lost a battle with the FCC over the Fairness Doctrine in connection with a real radio station and then resumed operations from a boat off the coast of New Jersey.  But in the last 20 years pirates have been much more localized, low power operators, trying to reach audiences largely in urban areas. Despite a series of court decisions rejecting any First Amendment claim of pirates, and denying any claim that these low-power, local stations did not implicate the FCC’s power over interstate commerce regulation, pirates have never gone away.  In many ways, the FCC introduced the concept of Low Power FM stations in the 1990s as a way to provide an outlet for those who might otherwise be inclined to operate an unlicensed station.  In fact, one of the big arguments at the time of the initiation of LPFM was whether former pirate radio operators should be allowed to apply for LPFM stations.

Continue Reading Pirates, Pirates Everywhere – Fines Up to $25,000 for Unlicensed Radio Stations

With the final transition of television from analog to digital soon upon us, the FCC has scheduled for consideration at its November meeting two items that will address the use of the television spectrum after the transition – one designed to improve television reception, and the other viewed by television broadcasters as a threat to that reception.  The potential positive development is Distributed Transmission Service ("DTS").  The other proposal – which is far more controversial – is the proposal to authorize "white spaces devices" that operate wireless devices within the portion of the spectrum that will still be used by television stations after the transition.

DTS is the proposal that would allow television stations to use more than one transmitter to reach its service area.  Like the use of FM on-channel boosters, a DTS system would permit stations to use multiple transmitters located throughout their service area, each broadcasting on the same channel, but operating at a lower power than the traditional television station which usually operates from a single high-powered transmitter.  The idea is that, in digital, signals distributed from lower power transmitters spread throughout the service area might be less susceptible to signal impediments from terrain and building obstacles than would a single high-power transmitter.  The FCC proposed adoption of this system several years ago with little opposition, but it has languished.  Some have suggested that the experience in Wilmington, where some people who lived far from the center of the market were having over-the-air reception problems, gave new impetus to DTS as one way to provide better service to these more remote areas.

Continue Reading Issues on the Post-Transition Use of the Television Spectrum – White Spaces and Distributed Transmission Service (DTS)

At last Tuesday’s FCC meeting, the Commission adopted a controversial order, over the objection of two Commissioners, that could limit the processing of some applications for improvements by some full power FM stations, and would restrict translator applications, all in the name of encouraging Low Power FM (LPFM) stations to provide outlets for expression by groups that cannot get access to full-power radio stations (see our summary of that action here).  In recent weeks, two ideas have received some publicity providing an alternative outlet for these prospective local broadcasters – and both provide a simple solution (one more immediate and ad hoc than that other), but both leading to the same result – why not just extend the FM band by using TV channel 6?

The current FM band begins at 88.1 MHz, a channel that is actually immediately adjacent to TV Channel 6.  The FCC has for years restricted operations of noncommercial FM stations (which operate from 88.1 to 91.9 on the FM dial) in areas where there are Channel 6 TV stations in order to prevent the radio stations from creating interference to the reception of the TV stations.  That’s while you will often find fewer noncommercial stations, or ones with weaker coverage, in communities that have TV Channel 6 licensees.  TV stations use an FM transmission system for their audio.  Thus, you will also find that most FM receivers (especially ones without digital tuners) will pick up the audio from TV channel 6 if tuned all the way to the left of the dial.  The short-term solution to expanding the FM band came from one broadcaster who noted that fact.

Continue Reading Who Needs LPFM? – Why Not Just Expand the FM Dial?