Pirate radio has been a favorite topic of mine since I first built a little AM transmitter from a Radio Shack kit as a kid. In the mid-90s, just as the microradio movement started to take off with inspiration from Human Rights Radio’s Mbanna Kanatko and Free Radio Berkeley’s Stephen Dunifer, I started to follow unlicensed radio more closely, and have ever since.
In these nearly fifteen years of study I’ve become very used to the typical misconceptions that turn up both in the press and among pirates themselves. They range from the myth that pirate stations interfere irreparably with airplane to communications to the ill-founded belief that the so-called “emergency authorization” clause in federal regulations can be used to defend unlicensed broadcasting.
One of the most pernicious misconceptions turned up in a recent interview with John Miller of FCC Free Radio right here at RadioSurvivor. In explaining the various reasons why he decided to end unlicensed broadcasting in favor of being online, Miller told Jennifer Waits, that “Unfortunately people [pirate broadcasters] go to jail now.”
To be fair, Miller is not entirely mistaken with this assertion. Currently there are two states, New Jersey and Florida, with laws on the books that make unlicensed broadcasting a state crime. In New Jersey its a fourth-degree felony, punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 and eighteen months in prison. Florida’s law is harsher, with a maximum penalty of 5 years in the pokey. But these are the only states with such laws in the US. In California, where FCC Free is located, there are no anti-piracy laws, state and local cops have nothing to do with pirates and nobody is going to jail.
John Anderson at DIYRadio.net studied FCC enforcement actions for his Master’s thesis, and recently took up this misconeption and laid it to rest quite succinctly:
Mythbusting time: The FCC cannot arrest people and send them to jail. FCC field agents are government inspectors, not licensed law enforcement officials. In fact, when they do have to call in “the law,” it’s typically either Federal Marshals (see Freak Radio Santa Cruz) or the local po-po (see San Francisco Liberation Radio).
In both cases, the “arrest warrant” was for the equipment conducting the unlicensed broadcasting, not for actual people. And when the FCC does go after individual people, it does so typically by seeking a monetary forfeiture; sending folks to prison for pirate radio is messy, arduous, and not typically worth the effort. Even then, such fines are a bitch to collect.
Even among the two states where unlicensed broadcasting is against state law arrests only are really happening in Florida. I can find no reports of anyone in New Jersey having even been arrested, never mind going to jail. Out of the entire country Florida is a special case to begin with, serving as home to a proliferation of unlicensed stations unseen anywhere else in the US. But, again, while there have been reports of arrests in Florida–such as this recent bust in Fort Myers–I’m unable to turn up any good reports on convictions and jail time.
Therefore, for all intents and purposes, there are only two states in the US where a pirate broadcaster seriously risks jail time, and only one where there is a record of arrests. In the forty-eight other states, jail time is so remote so as to be not a risk at all.
Now, unlicensed broadcasting is still against the law, and the FCC can issue fines. But, as John had documented for the last decade, the Commission’s track record for actually collecting those fines is not that great.
I don’t mean to claim that unlicensed broadcasting carries no risk, but rather to put that risk in perspective. Many people break laws every day, whether it’s by jaywalking or speeding, smoking pot or internet file sharing. And some of those people get caught and pay fines, get sued or go to jail. Yet those activities continue, with many violators making a rational analysis to weigh the risk of getting caught against the benefits of that activity.
No doubt it can be a shock to receive a letter from the FCC threatening thousands of dollars in fines, and I don’t blame anyone on the receiving end for deciding to put away her transmitter and antenna. Yet, being hassled by the FCC on an administrative charge–not criminal–is still a very different thing than dealing with real criminal charges from the police.
Unlicensed broadcasting carries risks and anyone thinking about becoming a radio pirate should give those risks due consideration. But, unless you live in Florida or New Jersey, don’t be spooked into thinking you’re likely to go to jail, even if the FCC catches you red handed.
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