PIRATE Act Passage, Or Plank Walk, Now Senate Choice


In North Miami, Fla., a buccaneer of broadcasting continues to operate at various hours of the day, and at varying kilowatts of power, at 90.1 MHz. The actions still undertaken by Fabrice Polynice, operator of “Radio Touche Douce,” come even after his receipt of the biggest punishment the FCC is presently empowered to hand out — a fine that advertising over a few weeks could probably resolve, if Polynice had any intention of paying.

This “So … come and get me” attitude is one reason why the NAB and such organizations as the New York State Broadcasters Association are pleased that the House of Representatives on Monday, by voice vote, passed the “PIRATE Act.”

But, that’s not news. The House in the 115th Congress did the same. It’s the U.S. Senate that must act. If and when it does will be much more meaningful than Monday’s actions.

The Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act, introduced by Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), is the second attempt to get the Senate to act. It didn’t last year. Thus far, no companion legislation has been introduced in the upper body of Congress.

This may require the NAB and state broadcaster associations to step up their lobbying efforts on the north side of Capitol Hill with visits to the Hart Senate Office Building in the coming weeks.

The bill, introduced in the house as H.R. 583, increases fines for illegal pirate operations from $10,000 per violation to $100,000 per day per violation, up to a maximum of $2 million, and streamlines the FCC’s enforcement. “By preventing illegal pirate radio operations, airwaves are kept free for legitimate broadcasters and public safety announcements,” Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Republican Leader Bob Latta (R-Ohio) said late Monday.

Enforcement is key, given the continued pirate radio activity seen in South Florida, the New York Tri-State Area and the greater Boston area. In recent months, RBR+TVBR detected unlicensed radio activity in the Spuyten Duyvil area of The Bronx, chronicled recently by The Riverdale PressIn Delray Beach, Fla., home to RBR+TVBR‘s editorial offices, an occasional pirate has been known to pop up on the dial, although they are much more infrequent than in recent years.

“Protecting our public airwaves from illegal pirate radio disruptions is crucial to safeguarding important public safety communications, including our nation’s Emergency Alert System and critical aviation frequencies,” said Latta, who was joined by House Energy & Commerce Committee Republican Leader Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a former radio station operator. “This bill gives the FCC the tools it needs to take down these illegal broadcasts and increases the penalties for these bad actors. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly pass this important bill to strengthen our public safety communications.”

NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith was one of the first to applaud the House vote. “Unlawful pirate radio stations not only interfere with licensed radio broadcasts, but also jeopardize air traffic control communications and threaten public safety. We commend Reps. Tonko and Bilirakis for their leadership on this issue and urge swift passage of the PIRATE Act by the Senate.”

Similarly, New York State Broadcasters Association President David Donovan cheered the House vote.

“This is an important day for American consumers who rely on legally licensed stations for life-saving news and information,” he said. “Every day listeners in New York City are subject to interference from illegal operators. These illegal stations interfere with airport communications,the Emergency Alert Service (EAS) and ignore all consumer potection laws. Passing the legislation constitutes a milestone in the effort to eliminate these illegal operations. By increasing fines and conducting spectrum enforcement sweeps the FCC will have additional tools to combat these illegal operators.”

While Donovan called Monday an “important day,” the actions could be all for naught, without Senate action. This led Tonko to call on his fellow legislators on the other side of Capitol Hill to introduce companion legislation and act.

“Safe public airwaves are easy to take for granted in our everyday lives, but the negative consequences of a breakdown in this system can be serious,” Tonko said. “The same broadcasting standards that empower first responders and air traffic controllers to communicate in life-or-death situations are also helping parents protect their children and themselves from hateful bigotry and vulgar obscenities. I am grateful to my colleagues in the House for their consistent bipartisan support of this legislation and I urge the Senate to take up this worthy measure without delay.”

NAB EVP Dennis Wharton believes Senate action could be seen by the end of April, if not sooner. “We are optimistic the Senate will also pass the pirate radio bill that cleared the House,” he told RBR+TVBR from the NAB’s State Leadership Conference in Washington.

Why are Wharton and his colleagues optimistic?

There was one objection registered in the Senate to the House pirate radio bill that passed by voice vote in 2018. The objection was removed from the bill that cleared the House by unanimous vote on Monday.

As such, Wharton sees no further obstacles to Senate introduction of a companion bill, and the signing into law of the PIRATE Act by President Trump in the near future.

Also attending the NABSLC in Washington is Donovan. He tells RBR+TVBR his organization will be working with the Senate and explaining the importance of this issue to listeners in states across the country. “We had overwhelming support last year in the Senate, but ran out of time,” he says.