O’Rielly: Pirates ‘Spreading Like Poison Ivy’


pirateskullFCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly is crediting the commission with expending more effort on busting radio pirate radio operators and says his office has a plan to do that nationwide.

While New York, New Jersey, Miami and Boston are targets now, pirate operators “are spreading like poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum,” he told attendees of the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville.

“Pirate radio represents an attack on the integrity of our airwaves — an attack that must be confronted and defeated.”

The GOP commissioner says his office has been working on an outreach plan to educated building owners, advertisers, political campaigns, concert promoters and venue operators “they may be unwittingly enabling pirate operators. The vast majority of legitimate companies and associations want absolutely n0thing to do with facilitating illegal activities,” he said.

O’Rielly, who shared that he’s a country radio fan and listens to WMZQ(FM), Washington, DC, said he hopes to have more news about the effort soon.

RBR+TVBR observation: This seems practical. I’m glad he’s off an earlier idea from last year when he suggested broadcasters be given permission to go after pirates themselves. No operator I spoke to was enthused about that, citing safety concerns.


  1. As a broadcast engineer for 40+ years I understand that pirates need to be dealt with to insure the integrity of the radio spectrum, but Commissioner O’Rielly along with Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Pai have yet to answer if they know the difference between blatant pirate operators and those of educational institutions and hobbyists who operate on the AM and FM broadcast band under FCC Part 15 regulations – a question I posed multiple times in both written and electronic communication directed to them.

    The unfair treatment directed at Part 15 compliant campus-limited stations as well as hobbyists rears its ugly head as some FCC inspectors go out of their way to harass these operators, regardless if they are operating within the limits of the law. This has been shown to be especially true when a commercial station “wags the dog” because they somehow feel threatened by these operators.

    If a licensed broadcaster feels threatened by a legal but unlicensed 100 milliwatt radio signal, whose building penetration is far from optimum, perhaps the commercial operator needs to re-evaluate what they’re doing.

    • Right you are Mr. DeFelice!

      I’d venture to say most commercial operators should re-evaluate. Same playlists, same talent, same jingles, no news and the barest minimum of public service lip service. No wonder they feel threatened by the micros and pirates who, though amateur, do indeed have a clue as to what broadcasting should be. Commercial licensees seem to have traded in their obligation to the public trust in favor of chasing the public’s dollar. It’s a pity. And oh, by the way … don’t the airwaves belong to the people (even despite frequency auctions)?

    • Hi Bill,

      Even with the advent of LPFM and greater coverage by 100mw AM transmitters, there needs to be a class of coordinated, but commercially viable “Hobby Radio”. The 1 watt and lower powered FM licenses issued by the enlightened folks at Industry Canada have not caused interference with commercial stations up there. Also they offer 10 watt special event licenses, a form of which needs to become a reality here in the USA.

      Part 15 AM should be adjusted to that a 10 to 20 foot antenna could be matched by a 10 to 20 foot ground plane. Hobby operators would need to coordinate frequencies by obtaining a permit from a commercial engineering firm that has studied the proposed operation and can verify non-interference. Allow these hobby operators 1 to 5 watts on AM only. No restrictions on commercial use.

      • @Ron: Canada certainly has more favorable rules for license-free FM radio but I believe we’d still need better regulatory methods to prevent its abuse here in the U.S. We already having individuals running rogue, from hiking up the power on what was once a legal Part 15 FM transmitter to buying those illegal imported junk transmitters that clutter up the spectrum due to poor engineering.

        Personally, I’d love to see a special events class of radio, especially for use with school sports and limited event areas. Many states already have frequency coordinators for when broadcasters use their mobile microwave links and something along these lines would have to be implemented at the bare minimum (and who would pay to make and keep this alive?. A license requirement with a substantial fee (perhaps with a technical exam for the operator) might prevent those lacking proper ability from launching a station but what’s preventing these same people from going rogue? Twenty miles away we have a pirate that’s been operating for 6 years with only one FCC bust. Recently a licensed broadcaster obtained a construction permit to place a translator on the same frequency where the pirate is operating. What do you suppose is going to happen to the pirate? Better yet, where is the FCC? Do they spend more time harassing legal Part 15 hobbyists than going after grossly overpowered pirates?

        The bigger problem is the majority of “hobby radio” participants are more appliance operators and either do not possess the technical background to operate a station without interfering with licensed facilities or, in the case of many who buy those grossly overpowered FM transmitters, simply don’t care. It might be a lesser problem with the AM band but what happens when a licensed broadcaster, regardless of the band, is subjected to interference from somebody who hasn’t bothered to practice both proper engineering and respect for those who are licensed spectrum users?

  2. It is about time. Nothing short of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde stealing the spectrum space and selling it at a cut throat rate. If I must ante up $50,000 to pay for a 250 watt translator for this 5K A.M. then the pirate guy can pay just like I do. Along the same line is the 100 watt non-commercial who is churning out commercials with no regard to what the regulations say. I’m sick of hearing “I’m a long way from Washington and the FCC is short handed anyway.”

    • Roy,

      Sounds like you’re more upset at licensed LPFM stations than actual pirates. If you have a 5K AM and a 250 watt FM translator and you’re letting a 100 watt LP get under your skin, you need to up your game. There are many ways that a commercial AM (or FM) can out perform, out program, out sell even the most determined LP operator.

      While they must stick to enhanced underwriting, you can hard sell spots. I mean super production spots, not the “read it on the fly” commercials. Stop clustering so many spots per break. Show clients what a really top notch production director can do when allowed to be creative. What? You can’t afford one of these guys? Then send your production out to company that will deliver super campaigns. If you need help programming to win, contact me. I’ve got a lifetime of radio experience I’ll share. [email protected]

      Still upset at the little LP operator? Record his broadcasts and send them into the enforcement division…better still and for faster results…take the transcripts to a meeting with the LPFM manager and tell him that if he doesn’t cease running “ads” instead of underwriting spots…sending it in is exactly what you will do.

  3. How about a reward system. Pay $1000 per tip that leads to arrest and conviction of the pirate radio operators. I turned in a guy who was running an excessively powerful CB radio station. After I had turned him in, I drove by his place a couple weeks later and his tower was down and there was no sign he was even living in the rent home. I may have not permanently shut him down but he surely did close up shop in our town.

    • @Burt: The only problem with a reward system is how are you going to vet that the hunters have appropriate knowledge of knowing the difference between a pirate and a legal, legit Part 15 operator? At one point Commissioner O’Rielly proposed having state and local law enforcement go after pirates. How can these people distinguish the different between a pirate and a Part 15 operator if they have ZERO background in RF theory nor have the proper equipment to qualify the signal as being over the appropriate regulations?

      Some time ago a member of my HobbyBroadcaster.net forums had a run-in with a Western region FCC inspector whose history suggests he has a personal vendetta against Part 15 operators. The operator had a commercially manufactured, factory fresh Part 15 AM transmitter which is virtually impossible to install in a non-compliant manner. The inspector proceeded to use undue influence (i.e., intimidation) on this operator’s landlord to “encourage” the surrender the transmitter by the operator. Had the operator kept the transmitter in his possession I would have suggested seeking legal council as it would have been easy for the manufacturer to prove the device was indeed Part 15 compliant and the enforcement action was unwarranted.

      The FCC should start by addressing the proliferation of illegal FM transmitters on venues such as Amazon and ebay. There are regulations already on the books which are suppose to prevent their importation and sale so why aren’t these venues being stopped and fined? Perhaps if it were more difficult to acquire these transmitters the proliferation of illegal operators would drop proportionally.

  4. This is interesting considering the FCC is shutting down field offices that would ordinarily be investigating these pirates.

  5. I don’t think that being reactive to the pirate problem will resolve anything. Perhaps it’s time for the FCC to become more proactive.

    By that, I mean that it may be time to recognize that the current system of licensing transmitters (along with legal unlicensed operation with Part 15) just isn’t working. Maybe it’s time for the FCC to take a look at what New Zealand is doing with a very low power FM service (which fits right in the middle between LPFM and Part 15) – let’s call them community or neighbourhood broadcasters.

    These stations are licensed, but the license is free. They are allowed to broadcast with up to 1 watt ERP on several dedicated frequencies in the FM guard bands, virtually eliminating interference to commercial stations. While the low power stations are regulated to some degree (they are inspected prior to going on the air, and are subject to inspections while operating), they are largely left to themselves, and do not have the burdensome (read, expensive) regulations and reporting requirements that licensed stations in the U.S. have to endure.

    As a result of this kind of service being available, pirate stations have virtually disappeared, and many, small, independent and community-minded radio stations have sprung up in their place.

    Now, I recognize that there are large differences between the U.S. and New Zealand in population density and urban sprawl, but that same model with dedicated channels, and a possibly lower ERP, could work and might go a long way in eliminating radio piracy, while still allowing the FCC to control the airwaves.

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