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Editorial: A Good Day to Be a Pirate

Late last summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, contacted the FCC seeking to allow an unlicensed broadcaster on the air.

Late last summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, contacted the FCC seeking to allow an unlicensed broadcaster on the air. Subsequently, a letter from the commission to Radio Goldfield Broadcast owner Rod Moses allowed his 100-watt station to operate, moving from 100.3 to 106.3 FM, even though the operation earlier had been raided and shut down by the FCC.

According to an account in the Pahrump Valley Times newspaper, Moses can operate with special temporary authority until he can apply for an LPFM license in a presumed future filing window. The newspaper heralded this as a victory for “a little guy in a battle against the federal bureaucracy.”

Allowing a pirate to stay on the air with only an STA and no license sets a bad precedent. It tells illegals that they might be able to gain legal standing outside the licensing process established by FCC rules. Such an operator now must merely contend that it is programming in the public interest. Oh, and it helps to obtain the backing of a few friends, ideally a key politician who can exert pressure on the right people.

We note that former pirates originally were singled out as ineligible to win licenses (indeed, a communications attorney tells us the stipulation technically still resides in FCC rules). But an appeals court tossed that provision as unconstitutional.

Anyway, Radio Goldfield was persuasive enough to win this round. The precedent could open the floodgates. Other pirates who choose this route will have to be measured by the same criteria. We could see this spawning interference complaints and enforcement activity.

Seeking a license to operate a station in an underserved and sparsely populated area like Goldfield and nearby Tonopah would have been the right way to go. But the Class A path takes time and money, and a license might never have resulted. An LPFM station might be appropriate for Goldfield, but no filing window was available; so the operator apparently opted to establish his operation outside the law.

This case spotlights a flawed process by which the commission awards LPFM CP grants and licenses. It treats the country without regard to population or proximity to population centers, with one set of rules and short filing windows. (While windows were opened on a geographical basis, we’re aware of no population-based licensing provisions relative to LPFMs.)

We feel there are thousands of small communities not served or woefully underserved with local broadcasting. In areas where LPFM operations can exist without causing interference, the rules should allow a simplified process by which operators like Radio Goldfield can gain licensing.

Beyond this case, we know of at least two others in which the FCC has been — how shall we say this — a tad flexible with its LPFM rules.

In one, an LPFM licensee asked for permission to sell even though the rules say such sales are not permitted. The commission said yes. In another, citing interest in classical music in a particular town, the FCC said it would open a special LPFM window for that town, the goal apparently being to give protesters an opportunity to apply for their own channel.

We find this kind of ad hoc approach to an entire service unwise. It could lead to a mish-mash of decisions that make no sense.

Meanwhile, it’s tempting to be sympathetic to Radio Goldfield. Moses has worked in broadcasting for many years and reportedly complied immediately with the FCC when agents showed up; the station appears to have tried to provide a real public service. But rules against unlicensed broadcasting must be applied evenly. RW does not condone pirate radio operations, even by former broadcasters who say all the right things. Enforcement agents don’t need this kind of second-guessing. The FCC should avoid the appearance of favoritism or knuckling under.

With frequencies available in areas that could benefit from operations like Radio Goldfield, the commission should consider better and easier ways to establish them. Issuing STAs under pressure by politicians is not the answer.

— RW