Which Commissioner Wants More Pirate Prevention?

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Speaking in front of members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (2/8), Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly made it be known that “a core function of the Commission … is not being sufficiently achieved as it pertains to pirate radio stations.”


As he sees it, the continued presence of buccaneer broadcasters littering the FM dial with unlicensed signals is a failure of the Commission’s ability to protect “the integrity of
Commission-granted spectrum rights.”

“By illegally broadcasting with makeshift equipment and a laptop, these stations are sprouting up and causing harm to consumers and the industry,” O’Rielly told the Senators. “Today, these squatters are infecting the radio band at the expense of consumer services, including emergency communications and the financial stability of licensed radio stations.”

To put this in perspective, O’Rielly recently learned from the Massachusetts Broadcasting Association that they found 24 pirates operating in one of their markets on a previous review of FM signals. “The problem has only increased since the last examination,” O’Rielly laments.

The issue of pirate broadcasters “mainly affects four to five larger East Coast radio markets” — Boston, Miami, New Jersey and New York — he says.

“Failure to properly address it highlights a deficiency in the Commission’s enforcement tools and undermines our overall credability,” O’Rielly says. “Thankfully, I believe that this situation is fixable and preventable. It will certainly take sufficient enforcement commitment and diligence, which I think exists from the personnel in our field offices and the addition of our new ‘tiger teams.'”

But, he wants more. “I humbly suggest that the Commission could use some limited and targeted statutory authority dedicated to address pirate radio,” O’Rielly says. “Specifically, I propose that the Commission be able to seize equipment found in common areas that is broadcasting illegally in the radio band. In addition, our current fines should be increased, and some ability to impose penalties on those that directly and intentionally aid pirate stations could be helpful. While I would have concern if this authority were applied across the board, in this instance, I believe it would help minimize our current ‘whack-a-mole’ approach that has proven less than effective.”

RBR + TVBR OBSERVATION: It may not be St. Patrick’s Day yet, but we’re toasting our Half and Half-filled pint glasses to you, Mr. O’Rielly.

As a Miami Herald contributing writer some 15 years ago, our Editor-in-Chief documented the spiraling problem of pirate radio operators in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Much of the problem has focused on under-served multicultural radio listeners, as the pirates have aired a variety of Haitian Creole music and informational programming — including religious-themed formats illegally emanating from a North Miami church. The problem has indeed been fines that some can simply pay from paid advertising, and move on to a new signal from a new building that they’ll lease. Meanwhile, there is a danger in that seizing equipment could put the FCC’s field agents in serious danger. They’re not police officers, but the reality of encountering gun fire in a locale like North Miami, where the narcotics trade is rumored to be tied to some pirate radio operations, is real. Joint raids that see the FCC field agents directing Sheriff’s offices and local police departments would put a stop to these FM-band bandits, along with serious penalties that include incarceration. Meanwhile, as more licensed LPFMs and translator stations take the signals of former pirate radio facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, the pirate problem is worse than ever in West Palm Beach. There are also the stories of illegal activities coming from Queens, New York, and cities on the left bank of the Hudson River. It’s now time to arm the FCC with real firepower to fully extinguish the pirate signals once and for all, and indeed protect the integrity of Commission-granted spectrum rights.