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Pirate Radio Round-Up: FCC sniffs out FM, shortwave & CB stations; Chicago’s unsolved Max Headroom mystery

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Every so often I like to do a round-up of events in unlicensed broadcasting. In this update we have a review of FCC actions against unlicensed broadcasters, including one on the shortwave band and another on the CB band, good buddy. Plus, there’s an investigation into one of the country’s most notorious TV pirates.

Sniffing Out Pirates Like Scooby Doo
FCC offices on the coasts seem to be following up on quite a few complaints of unlicensed FM broadcasters this fall. There’s been a fair amount of activity in Southern Califonia. At the end of October one man in the town of Taft was issued notices for allegedly broadcasting on three different frequencies from one location. Additional accused FM pirates in Pacoima, La Crescenta and Newhall received notices, while a shortwave broadcast in Chula Vista was scouted on November 7 at 6133 MHz, an area of the band that is popular with shortwave pirates.

Agents in the FCC’s New York office traveled across the Hudson to New Jersey, tracking down three station in Passaic and five in Paterson during September. They also sniffed out one Brooklyn-based broadcaster that month. A station allegedly operating in Avon, Massachussetts was found by the Boston office. But in none of these cases did an FCC agent enter the station, question the broadcaster or seize any equipment.

Fines in NY and FL
Indeed, as should be just too obvious, a pirate broadcaster’s best defense is to not open the door when the FCC comes a-knockin’. At least on the first visit. Not heeding this advice landed a Spring Valley, NY man a forfeiture order for $10,000. Back in October 2012 FCC agents tracked down a station located inside a taxi business.

The accused broadcaster, Vicot Chery, contested the initial notice of liability saying that he “was not aware of what was going on” at the station and that the fine would pose an “absolute hardship.” More interestingly, Chery attempted to argue that he was improperly questioned by FCC agents because his attorney had not be contacted and was not present.

However, FCC agents aren’t cops and they aren’t bringing criminal charges, so the right to an attorney defense doesn’t quite fit. The Commission also explains that it has the “authority to inspect all radio installations associated with stations required to be licensed by any Act,” and, “The radio station at issue in this case was required to be licensed by the Commission” in the first place. Plus, he let them in.

In Florida the cops lend a big hand to the FCC, since unlicensed broadcasting is a felony in that state. The Commission recently touted a $10,000 forfeiture made against a man in Oakland Park who was arrested for unlicensed broadcasting in August 2012. In that case police found the station, but not the operator, who later surrendered. Police in Pinellas Park also arrested a man for allegedly operating a station for which he was listed as “CEO,” according to a press report.

It’s Freeband, Dude
Lest you think the FCC enforcement agents only concern themselves with the broadcast band, know that they’re kept quite busy policing all bands of the airwaves. A man in Lewiston, NY was recently issued notice of unlicensed operation for allegedly running an overpowered CB rig. Agents from the Philadelphia office inspected the man’s CB station on October 23 and found “four radio transmitters which were transmitting with more than 4 watts carrier power or were not certificated CB transmitters. The agents also found that you owned and operated linear amplifiers that you use with your radio transmitters.”

Although the Commission doesn’t say what frequencies the man was using, the fact that they issued a notice of unlicensed operation indicates that he was operating outside the CB band. While it is still prohibited to exceed certain power levels on the CB band, no license is required to transmit on these frequencies.

Transmissions just outside CB frequencies are not allocated to any particular service, or bump into the amateur radio bands, all of which ostensibly require a license to use. This is a practice known as “freebanding,” which also ticks off many licensed hams who are known to report frequent freebanders. While the FCC doesn’t say explicitly that the Lewiston man was freebanding, there’s a good chance that was the case, perhaps even unintentionally.

Unsolved: Chicago’s Max Headroom Mystery
Finally, one of the great unsolved mysteries in pirate broadcasting happened 16 years ago, on November 22, 1987. That night an unknown Max Headroom-masked man briefly hijacked the broadcasts of Chicago TV stations WGN and WTTW. While there were several other prominent cases of TV hijackings in the mid–80–all on satellite– those perpetrators were caught.

The identity of Chicago’s pirate Max Headroom is still unknown, but reporter Chris Knittel did try very hard to track him down. Writing for Vice’s Motherboard, Knittel recounts how he followed breadcrumbs deep into Chicago’s pre-internet BBS nerd culture to find a man–who was a teenager at the time–who claims to have met the likely broadcasters. He also talked with the former bureau chief in the FCC’s Field Operations Bureau at the time who laments the unwillingness of the Chicago-based agent to be more like a detective and beat the pavement to track down the TV hijackers.

It’s a fascinating read, and also helps to explain why we haven’t seen any TV signal hijackings since.

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2 Responses to Pirate Radio Round-Up: FCC sniffs out FM, shortwave & CB stations; Chicago’s unsolved Max Headroom mystery

  1. Emily Taylor September 4, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    Those are all old no one gives a shit about shortwave or cb

    • Sean March 20, 2015 at 12:00 am #

      Un-ironically posted comment…?

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