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Massachusetts considers anti-pirate radio bill

Pirate radio in handcuffsThe Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill to make unlicensed broadcasting illegal, joining New York, New Jersey and Florida with state laws prohibiting pirate radio on the books. As John Anderson reports, the Massachusetts bill would not make it a crime, but rather permit the Attorney General to take legal action that may result in an injunction, a fine or equipment seizure.

Like other state laws against unlicensed broadcasting, the Massachusetts bill was pushed by broadcasters, who complain about pirate stations, particularly in the Boston area. Touch 106.1 is arguably the most brazen unlicensed broadcaster in that city. Its founder is running for mayor and the station recently hired veteran Boston broadcaster Jimmy Myers.

While local authorities in Florida very frequently enforce that state’s anti-pirate laws, such enforcement is rare in New York and New Jersey. That rarity is evidenced by how much attention was garnered by the bust of a Brooklyn-based pirate broadcasting Caribbean programming.

To date, I have found no reports of an arrest for unlicensed broadcasting in New Jersey.

But arrests are one thing, convictions are another. Since these laws went on the books, I have found no reports of a radio pirate being convicted or going to jail. In one prominent case, a retired air traffic controller named Albert Knighten made a plea deal for 20 hours of community service, with the criminal charges to be dropped after completion.

Now it certainly is possible that other convictions might not have been reported by the press. But given how much publicity these arrests receive I would find it strange if convictions didn’t receive at least as much attention. More likely, arrested broadcasters are either striking plea deals like Albert Knighten, or they’re mounting successful defenses in court. A third option is that the charges aren’t standing in the first place, and accused pirates are walking. But those are results the FCC, local authorities and local broadcasters wouldn’t be crowing about if they hope to keep up the threat against Florida’s flourishing pirate scene.

With the legal threat even more diminished in the Massachusetts bill, its most interesting provision gives licensed broadcasters the right to sue unlicensed broadcasters in court for monetary relief. This might actually be the stronger threat, since mounting a civil court defense may be prohibitively expensive for most radio pirates.

Of course, they have to be identified and caught first.

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3 Responses to Massachusetts considers anti-pirate radio bill

  1. Eric Weaver July 20, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    At this point they only go after pirate FM broadcasters if they put a spur (often an intermodulation product) on some critical spot in the aircraft band. Happened here in the SF Bay where some pirate was bouncing 104.9’s signal onto 121.3 or some such air-traffic-control channel. There has to be some safety issue like that before they’ll take action, is what I hear from my colleagues still in the business.

  2. chuck reinsch July 21, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    I thought that the terms of use of the radio spectrum were established by international treaty, and that it was the responsibility of the FCC to enforce compliance. Doesn’t the Supremacy clause preclude states from attempting to regulate or criminalize activities already subject to federal authority? But a bigger question is why are states taking up this petty issue at all? Is this more legislation drafted by ALEC for the benefit of Clear Channel?

  3. John Anderson July 25, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Federal jurisdiction of the airwaves was settled by the courts in the early 1930s, but in the last decade state broadcasters’ associations began pushing these laws to compensate for the FCC’s impotence at field-level enforcement. I would love to see a serious challenge to one of them. The ARRL made noises of this when Florida passed its law, but nothing came of it.

    I worry about the day that ALEC gets wind of this….

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