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.)