FCC Chief Promises Crackdown on Unlicensed Broadcasting

Friday A/V Club: Pirate radio, then and now



Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai has a reputation as a deregulator, but when it comes to unlicensed broadcasting he's been tightening rather than loosening the noose. "Since becoming Chairman," he declared in a statement last week, "I've made it quite clear that the FCC won't tolerate the unauthorized and illegal use of the radio spectrum. Towards that end, I've made it a Commission priority to crack down on pirate radio operations."

Some of you might think pirate radio is an anachronism in an age of internet streaming. (Some of you might think that about radio, period.) But it's still around. Unlicensed broadcasters still homestead unused spots on the spectrum, and the FCC still wants to drive them away, whether or not they're actually interfering with anyone else's signals. Pai's statement came alongside an apparent escalation in the war on piracy: His agency wants to slap Radio Touche Douce, a Haitian station in Miami, with a fine of $144,344. That's the highest possible penalty for the violation; The Miami Herald reports that two FCC officials "can't recall the last time a station was hit so hard." What's more, the commission is taking the rare step of fining not just the broadcaster but his landlords, arguing that they did not merely host the antenna but actively conspired to keep the operation afloat.

John Anderson of DIYmedia isn't convinced this crackdown will amount to much. He points out that these particular pirates have been on the government's radar screen for years; the case, he writes, "represents the aggregate efforts of nearly a decade's worth of FCC personnel and resources to shut down two pirate radio stations, which—when busted hard—combined forces to continue on, not even bothering to move locations." Anderson isn't persuaded that "an extra zero tacked onto the amount is going to change matters one whit." And even if it does work this time, he doesn't think this fine-the-landlord approach will be all that useful a tool for the feds if they try to apply it nationwide.

Anderson is surely right that the FCC doesn't have the resources to put a big dent in unlicensed broadcasting across the country. The most potent threat to pirate radio right now isn't the government; it's the possibility that radio itself, licensed or not, will gradually lose its audience as the Americans who grew up with the medium die off. That said, even if the commission can't kill pirate broadcasting as a phenomenon, it may well make life difficult for several particular pirates and their fans.

The first full-length feature I wrote for Reason, way back in 1995, was about the FCC's attempts to stop the then-burgeoning movement of pirate "microbroadcasters." I touched on the subject again in my first cover story for the magazine after I joined the staff in 1999, and a couple years after that I finished a book, Rebels on the Air, that digs deep into the history of illicit transmissions. If nothing else, Pai's clampdown is giving me a strong sense of déjà vu. This isn't the world's first crackdown on unlicensed broadcasting.

So I'll wrap this up with an artifact from another place and time. Back in 1965, British Pathé spent a couple days filming the crew of Radio Caroline, one of the offshore stations that challenged the BBC's monopoly in the '60s by transmitting pop music from outside the U.K.'s territorial waters. Part of this footage then appeared in a short film about life on the water. Half a century later, Pathé posted both that film and a bunch of outtakes from it online; Lion Keezer then edited the relevant footage together, adding recordings of Radio Caroline DJs and some period-appropriate music (the Kinks, Roy Orbison, Martha and the Vandellas). The result is a nice little window on the days when pirates ruled the waves:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. RE: FCC Chief Promises Crackdown on Unlicensed Broadcasting

    Oh, thank God for the FCC!
    I feel so much safer now there will be fewer pirate radio stations out there.
    God bless Big Government!

  2. The most potent threat to pirate radio right now isn’t the government; it’s the possibility that radio itself, licensed or not, will gradually lose its audience as the Americans who grew up with the medium die off.

    Gasp! Can the same be said for the FCC itself???

    Wasn’t there a few years ago a feature movie about a 60’s pirate radio station on a ship off the British coast?

    1. Yeah. I still haven’t seen it, but it apparently got the history wildly wrong.

    2. Don’t worry. The FCC will run the internet soon and guarantee their existence into the foreseeable future.

  3. no reference to “Pump up the Volume”?

  4. Can’t stop the Signal.

  5. Can an analog pirate radio station disrupt modern encoded digital broadcasts at the power they likely operate at?

    I’m assuming that pirate stations aren’t broadcasting in digital?

  6. The most potent threat to pirate radio right now isn’t the government; it’s the possibility that radio itself, licensed or not, will gradually lose its audience as the Americans who grew up with the medium die off.

    They don’t even have to die off.

    The last time I intentionally listened to AM/FM radio was last month on a vacation when I saw a flashing light on one of those ‘Tune to this shitty low powered AM station for garbled traffic info’ signs you see on roadsides.
    Good thing I did too because the road I was planning to take was closed 50 miles ahead due to forest fires.

    Prior to that its been several years since I tuned into a radio station. Commercial free music of my choice comes from my phone.

  7. I’ve heard of accounts where the FCC had difficulty in distinguishing between blatant pirate radio operators and individuals who use unlicensed but legal Part 15 radio broadcasting.

    Legal Part 15 FM broadcast is pretty much limited to yardcasting, since typical table radios will receive a signal at 150 feet at best. Sensitive car receivers can receive the signal a bit further away, but who’s going to sit in their car to listen to the radio.

    In contrast, legal Part 15 AM with one of the FCC certified transmitters mounted at ground level can have a daytime range of a mile or more, and the reach can in broadened by installing multiple transmitters around one’s town. It goes without saying that evening coverage suffers dramatically due to skywave interference.

    Does legal Part 15 radio have the reach of a pirate radio station? No, of course not … but when properly engineered you aren’t going to have the Feds knocking on your down ready to fine the socks out of you (or your landlord if you’re a renter). Part 15 radio is also less likely to create harmful interference to both other stations on the dial in addition to elsewhere in the radio spectrum.

    I’ve been promoting the use of legal Part 15 radio, not only for campus-limited school broadcasting but also legal, license-free broadcasting for special business purposes and hobbyist endeavors for almost a decade, thanks to my HobbyBroadcaster.net resource site.

  8. Phoenix had a great pirate station until about 6 months ago, KWFUCC 87.9 FM

    They still stream stuff at http://www.kwfucc.com/ but it was cooler over the air.

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