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FCC Rattles Sword Against Pirate Operations

The Federal Communications Commission is hoping to help fight pirate radio by raising awareness of the problem.

Text has been updated with reactions from NAB and New York State Broadcasters Association.

The Federal Communications Commission is hoping to help fight pirate radio by raising awareness of the problem. It announced steps a day ahead of an FCC oversight meeting of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The commission released an Enforcement Advisory notice and distributed a series of individualized letters (see list at bottom) that reiterate the illegality of operating certain radio broadcasting equipment without a license. Recipients include mayors, police chiefs, Realtors, rental property owners and other community organizations.

“Perpetrators of pirate radio stations, which by definition do not obtain FCC licenses or comply with commission rules and requirements, are in violation of federal law and FCC rules,” reads the first paragraph of the two-page Enforcement Advisory. It goes on to discuss what kinds of radio operations are illegal, details the harmful effects of pirate radio operations and offers guidance on what an individual should do if they uncover a possible pirate radio operation. The advisory asks individuals to determine the location of the broadcast operations — including transmitter, frequency and hours of operation — that would allow the FCC to identify potential pirate operators.

The advisory also noted that any individuals found supporting a pirate operation — be it a landlord, local merchant or an advertiser — could face FCC enforcement and other legal action.

The FCC also sent a series of letters about the issue to a number of non-broadcast organizations, including the National Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Association of Realtors, the American Advertising Federation and the Rental Property Owners Association.

“We seek your assistance in bringing before members of your organization the issue of unauthorized broadcast operations, also known as pirate radio operations, within the FM and AM radio broadcast bands,” reads the language of a sample letter sent to the Association of National Advertisers.

The letter reiterates the culpability that organizations or individuals may have by unknowingly supporting a pirate radio operation.

“Unfortunately, a number of unrelated businesses and non-profits may be unknowingly or unintentionally providing aid to pirate stations,” the letter said, adding that this support can come in many forms, including buying advertising on such stations. The letters were signed by all five commissioners.

“It is our sincere hope that this document starts an important dialogue on ways the commission can work with your organization, including gathering the necessary information to help identify and locate the perpetrators of pirate radio stations and educating the public to avoid participating in any efforts to facilitate pirate radio stations,” the letter said.

[What forms of unlicensed operation are legal on the AM and FM bands? Read the FCC language on that here.]

Raising awareness of pirate radio has been a goal of licensed broadcasters who complain that the problem is getting worse and who worry about interference and market confusion. Many broadcasters have said that recent reductions in FCC field office resources will seriously hamper actual enforcement activities. The National Association of Broadcasters welcomed the advisory. “NAB is pleased that this action signals an increased FCC focus on this important issue, and also looks forward to working with Congress to enhance the tools at the FCC’s disposal to crack down on this illegal activity.”

Pirates are a big concern in New York state. David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, responded with a statement of “delight” with the advisory. “We thank Commissioner O’Rielly for his efforts in bringing this issue to the forefront, and the Chairman and all Commissioners for their support. We hope the advisory will be accompanied by a commitment from the FCC to devote more Enforcement Bureau resources to combat this ever increasing problem.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has made pirate radio a public theme, had been hinting about the pending advisory. He released a statement saying, “today marks a turning point.”

“It is my hope that a thoughtful education and outreach campaign can convince those who may be unknowingly facilitating pirates to join us as partners in addressing the challenge,” he stated. “Together with renewed and refocused enforcement activity in the field, our ongoing effort to raise awareness will make a real difference in the fight to protect broadcasters and the communities they serve.”

He said past enforcement efforts have failed to keep pace with technological advancements that have made professional-grade broadcasting equipment more widely available, which has enabled pirates to multiply and expand exponentially across the radio band.

“I’m proud to join together with my colleagues on this important step toward taking back the airwaves from pirate radio operators, who steal listeners and resources from community broadcasters and endanger the public in the process,” O’Rielly said.

On Wednesday, all commissioners were scheduled to testify at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee oversight hearing on FCC operations.

A list of organizations that received the letter:

United States Conference of Mayors
National Association of Chiefs of Police
International City/County Management Association
Association of National Advertisers
Advertising Self-Regulatory Council
National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts
National Association of Residential Property Managers
American Association of Advertising Agencies
National Public Safety Telecommunications Council
National Association of Attorneys General
American Advertising Federation
National Association of Realtors
National Property Management Association
Rental Property Owners Association
The Advertising Club of NY