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On Pirates, O’Rielly Pushes for Help From the Hill

FCC commissioner says he is talking with legislators about increased fines, an easier process to seize pirate equipment and other changes

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is continuing to keep the issue of illegal radio operators in front of the industry. Speaking last week to theNew Jersey Broadcasters Association 2016 convention and gala in Atlantic City, the FCC commissioner expressed his “hopeful” sense that legislation may soon be introduced in Congress on ways to strengthen laws to help in the fight.

O’Rielly reiterated the commission’s priority to eradicate pirate stations. New Jersey is one of the states where pirate problems have been most evident, including recent instances in Patterson, Linden and Passaic. The commissioner said such stations steal listeners and weaken the health of licensed radio stations.

Some critics have attempted to justify pirate radio’s existence, he noted, by arguing that pirates wouldn’t exist if legal stations were meeting the needs of listeners. But such arguments do not address the fundamental problem that their mere existence violates the law and commission rules, O’Rielly said.

He said he recently accompanied a field investigation through New York City, and “staring right before our eyes was a pirate radio tower in operation,” he said. “The whole experience was eye-opening.”

“Pirate radio cannot be allowed to continue,” he said emphatically.

O’Rielly announced that he has started conversations with members of Congress on ways to change current law as it pertains to pirate radio, including increasing fines and penalties for violators, easing the process to seize pirate equipment and pursuing those who support pirate stations. He is “hopeful” that resulting legislation may soon be introduced. “In the meantime, the commission must do all that it can to increase enforcement efforts and protect licensed radio stations from these insidious harmful operators.”

O’Rielly also touched on media ownership rules and his belief that current rules do not reflect a modern media marketplace. For broadcast businesses seeking to grow through acquisition, for example, the current rules create barriers that constrain permitted bidders from bidding on media properties. This can depress station valuations. “The FCC’s actions are effectively and negatively impacting your station’s worth and its cash flow,” he said.

The commissioner, who holds one of the two current Republican seats of the five-member commission, supports the elimination of cross-ownership bans that keep broadcasters and newspapers from forming multiplatform entities, and he supports loosening the duopoly rule that restricts common ownership of two television stations in the same market. “The commission should use this opportunity to create a presumption that potential ownership of a station in an embedded market should be evaluated only in the embedded market at issue, not in the core market overall, a practice that severely curtails options in several New Jersey markets,” he said.

He noted that Chairman Tom Wheeler was about to circulate the 2010/2014 quadrennial review of media ownership rules, but O’Rielly lamented delays in that process. “The commission has been AWOL on this requirement for almost 10 years,” O’Rielly said. The previous review was completed in 2007. The Quadrennial Review is supposed to be conducted every four years to ensure rules reflect the real-time status of the media marketplace, he said.