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FCC Enforcement Against Pirate Radio Lowest Since 2005

FCC actions against unlicensed broadcasters hit their lowest point since 2005 last year. That’s according to John Anderson at He’s been tracking enforcement actions against pirate radio since 1997.

FCC Actions include station visits by Enforcement Bureau field agents, as well as more mundane things, like Notices of Unauthorized Operation, which are essentially letters informing a broadcaster that the Commission is pretty sure you’re a pirate. In 2014 there were fewer than 200 of these actions in total.

Since hotspots of unlicensed activity like South Florida, Boston and Brooklyn haven’t appeared to cool, John attributes the decline to some downsizing and a shift in the political winds. He notes that more time is being devoted to enforcements in other bands, like those allocated to public-safety or Citizens’ Band.

A couple of weeks ago John proposed that a better way to deal with those local dials choked with unlicensed broadcasters who interfere with each other and licensed broadcasters would be to engage in some harm reduction. For instance, he recognizes that many pirates heard in his Brooklyn neighborhood operate transmitters with poor technical oversight, while others are more careful, running “clean” operations. John suggests pirates could be approached and encouraged to improve their transmissions to remedy distortion and interference. Reviving a true 10-watt class of LPFM might also provide an accessible and licensed alternative in densely populated urban areas where few 100-watt LPFM opportunities exist.

Paul Thrust at Engineering Radio responded positively, but cautiously, to John’s proposal, saying “some good might come from helping pirate broadcasters clean up their act.” However, he observes that “for most engineers this will be a non-starter,” because they tend to view the world in black and white terms, and would be unwilling to assist with an unauthorized broadcast, even if it would result in some shared improvements.

It appears that the current proliferation of unlicensed broadcasters is due to two major factors. First is the easy availability of cheap FM transmitters. Second is the need that some communities have to communicate using radio because they are left out of dominant electronic media and have less access to internet.

Compared to the late 1990s and early 2000s when the the micro power radio movement first spurred the FCC to ramp up enforcement efforts, I’m simply amazed at how cheap and obtainable transmitters are on eBay. Not to get all “kids these days,” but fifteen years ago a wannabe pirate had to either build his own transmitter, or jump through many hoops and drop hundreds of dollars to source one that would work at all reliably. I reckon that bar to entry also helped raise overall technical standards, but by accident, not by design.

Also, many unlicensed broadcasters who identified as part of the micro power movement saw their actions as civil disobedience, which tended to hew to an ethos of behaving as if they were licensed. Maintaining high technical standards was also a defensive maneuver, intended to mitigate negative attention or pissing off local radio engineers who might otherwise be sympathetic, or at least agnostic.

It’s a pity that so many unlicensed operators are running “dirty” rigs, and tend to agree that it would be sensible to organize a welcoming party to help these broadcasters clean up their act. How many competent engineers would participate is hard to guess; Paul Thrust is probably correct in his assessment. But it is also clear that FCC enforcement actions are mostly symbolic and ineffective at stemming the tide.

Is it time for an “Adopt a Pirate” program? Let us know in the comments.

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2 Responses to FCC Enforcement Against Pirate Radio Lowest Since 2005

  1. Seth Green February 24, 2015 at 11:06 pm #

    Depending on the circumstances I’d help a pirate to clean up their act, after all, I got my start as a bootleg station as a teen, something that led me into some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I did it as something cool for friends, and when it comes down to it, pirates are trying to communicate and better themselves and their community.

    The inner engineer in me has the urge to get any signal sounding good, especially if it’s just a compressor/limiter adjustment, VU calibration, or even explaining how to use a junk PC and freeware audio processor software for more pro sound very cheap.

    Still, would that lead to a climate where engineers seem sympathetic and more pirates feel free to go on? I feel like it would be a no-win, the pirates are going to broadcast anyway. I wonder about the legalities, what would you say if the FCC asked who helped the station and your name came up?

    I also wonder why the AM band isn’t being talked about. This seems to be very localized ethnic community broadcasting, so why couldn’t part.15 transmitters work? There are many stations broadcasting for a mile or more legally with .1 watt from a transmitter on a rooftop. Cars have AM radios too, so all they’d have to do is spread the frequency in the community to reach their listeners, and it would be legit. If they have to go pirate, so be it, at least it’s not on the crowded, competitive FM band! I’d even argue that this could help the AM band, which needs listeners to know about it at this point!

  2. Michael February 28, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    A possible solution would be a web forum where knowledge can be shared. The UK pirate community has one, and usually the comments about cheap chinese import transmitters are not positive.

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