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FCC Seeks to Raise Profile on Pirates

Commission hopes education will help in this ongoing game of Whac-a-Mole

Sending letters to mayors, ad agencies, police chiefs and landlords to raise awareness about pirate radio can’t hurt, though I have to wonder how much practical help it’ll be.

The FCC this month released an enforcement advisory and associated education campaign, as we reported at Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has made pirate radio a personal cause and was enthusiastic. He called it 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, repeating a theme he has sounded in public appearances.

“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.”

A sticking point, of course, will be that part about “renewed and refocused enforcement activity in the field.” Absent in the FCC announcement was discussion of more agents knocking on doors or turning on signal-tracking gear in response to complaints from licensed broadcasters.

That’s the kind of action broadcasters tell me they want, the kind of action presumably hampered by recent reductions in the commission’s field presence.

The New York State Broadcasters Association responded to the advisory with a statement of “delight” but went on to state, “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.” Whether that’s in the offing seems doubtful.

Don’t dismiss the education effort out of hand though. Anyone who reads commission pirate enforcement reports knows that often, the people indirectly involved — landlords, local merchants, advertisers — don’t care or know that such broadcasts are illegal and could even get them into trouble of their own.

The advisory informs them that the prohibition against pirate radio “does not discriminate by size of operations, applying equally to the rebellious high school kid operating a radio station from his bedroom as it does to slick and sophisticated high-powered illegal broadcast operations.” Such activity, the FCC wrote, “threatens the livelihood and sustainability of existing radio broadcasters and the health and safety of the listening public.”

The commission wrote in its letters, “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.” Let’s hope it does just that.

The commission also has an interesting page called “FCC Enforcement Actions Against Pirate Radio by Location” with an interactive map that tracks the Enforcement Bureau’s efforts dating to 2003. You can see for instance that there have been 450 pirate actions in that time in New York state, but only one in North Dakota. It’s intriguing to click around in it; see


Here’s the text of the advisory:

WARNING: Unauthorized Radio Broadcasting is Illegal — Persons or Businesses Operating “Pirate” Broadcast Stations Are in Violation of Federal Law and Subject to Enforcement Action

Federal law prohibits operating radio broadcasting equipment in most cases without an FCC license. Thus, 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. This prohibition does not discriminate by size of operations, applying equally to the rebellious high school kid operating a radio station from his bedroom as it does to slick and sophisticated high-powered illegal broadcast operations.

What Is Prohibited?

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the “use or operat[ion of] any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio” without a license issued by the FCC.

Thus, in order to use or operate a radio station, the Communications Act requires that you first obtain a license from the FCC. [A footnote explains exceptions like CB radio and certain low-power operations under Part 15.]

If you run a pirate radio station, whether as owner or operator, you could be subject to enforcement action.

Parties found operating radio stations without FCC authorization could be subject to a variety of enforcement actions, including seizure of equipment, imposition of monetary forfeitures, ineligibility to hold any FCC license, injunctive relief, and criminal penalties

What Is the Harm?

Such illegal activity threatens the livelihood and sustainability of existing radio broadcasters and the health and safety of the listening public. Specifically, pirate radio stations can cause interference to other licensed broadcasters and non-broadcast services, not only preventing listeners from hearing the programming on those stations but also potentially preventing listeners from hearing important Emergency Alert System (EAS) warnings aired by those broadcasters.

What Should You Do if You Discover a Possible Pirate Radio Operation?

First, make sure the station is actually a pirate station. FCC rules require licensed broadcast stations to identify themselves each hour using their FCC-assigned call signs, as close to the hour as possible. If the station does not identify with a call sign, it may be a pirate operation. If it does identify with a call sign, you can look up the station using the call sign on the FCC’s Consolidated Database System. [A footnote adds that some low-power unlicensed broadcasting does not require a call sign.]

If you have reason to believe a station is a pirate station, please send as much information as you have to the FCC. To do so, you can visit Many pirates use false identities or are otherwise difficult to track down, so please provide as much information as possible. We are particularly interested in the location of the broadcast operations and transmitter, frequency, hours of operation, and any other information that would allow us to identify the person(s) behind the potential pirate operation.

Please be advised that pirate radio operators also seek support from landlords or advertisers, including nightclubs, concert promoters and local merchants. Providing support for such illegal activity could not only damage the reputation of such businesses, but could expose them to FCC enforcement or other legal actions.

The advisory ends with contact information; general information on the FCC is available at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) or