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FCC Proposes Record-breaking Forfeitures to Pirate Radio Operators

Commission hands down fines totaling more than $600,000 to two alleged operators

All four commissioners and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission stand behind the decision to propose hefty fines against two Boston-area individuals accused of allegedly operating radio stations without a license.

At its December meeting, the FCC proposed two forfeitures — one of $151,005 and the second of more than $450,000 — an action that marks the largest fine ever proposed by the FCC against a pirate radio operation.

[Read: Failing to Notify FCC of Primary Station Change Proves Costly]

The commission proposed a forfeiture of $453,015 against Gerlens Cesar, the operator of Radio TeleBoston, for allegedly broadcasting three unauthorized transmitters on two different frequencies. According to the FCC, Cesar allegedly simulcast Radio TeleBoston on three unauthorized transmitters on two different frequencies, which had the potential to cause interference in various locations in and around Boston and at different channels on the FM dial. As a result, the commission proposed the maximum penalty amount for all three transmitters.

Cesar had been notified that his broadcasts were illegal, but the FCC said he continued to broadcast Radio TeleBoston from multiple transmitters and frequencies.

In a second action, the commission proposed a fine of $151,005 against Acerome Jean Charles who the FCC accused of being the long-time operator of an unlicensed radio station in Boston called Radio Concorde. Despite several FCC warnings, Jean Charles apparently continued to broadcast radio signals without authority at power levels that require an FCC license.

In the case of Radio Concorde, the FCC received a complaint from a local Boston-area broadcaster who said that Radio Concorde’s broadcast on 106.3. MHz from the Mattapan neighborhood in Boston was interfering with the station’s new FM transmitter station at 106.1 MHz. The complaint was investigated by field agents from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau who repeatedly warned Jean Charles that his alleged broadcast were in violation of FCC rules.

According to the FCC, Jean Charles ignored repeated warning from FCC field agents. He has been given an opportunity to respond to the commission’s Notice of Apparent Liability before further action is taken.

According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the two Notices of Apparent Liability send a strong signal that the FCC will not tolerate unlicensed radio broadcasting. In each case, he said, the pirate radio operator in question was given multiple warnings that he was violating the law. In each case, therefore, the commission moved to proposing the maximum forfeiture amount permitted under the Communications Act.

“The harms of unlicensed radio broadcasting are serious: pirate stations interfere with licensed stations — whose owners have invested time and money in providing lawful service to the public — and can also cause interference to critical public safety systems,” he said.

Pai pointed out the other “legal alternatives” to unlicensed broadcasting including former windows for low-power FM construction permits, permits for vacant FM allotments as well as internet streaming.

Both Chairman Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly praised the efforts of the Enforcement Bureau, saying that field staff members “relentlessly pursue these rogue, illegal actors” even as the plague of pirate radio operations continues to persist for the FCC.

“[P]irates not only harm legitimate broadcasters and their listeners in multiple ways, but also put their own audiences at risk by failing to broadcast any emergency alerts or abide by consumer protection regulations,” O’Rielly said.

Although O’Rielly admitted that the FCC may never see a single dollar from these illegal operators, “our goal must be to use our enforcement authority to help shut down the perpetrators, those aiding and abetting, and any landlord willing to house such activities.”

[Read a 2020 update to this story.]