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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Captain Hook and his Pirate Radio Buddies

“What are you doing there…with all that electronic gear on your boat?”

“Ayyyyy, Matey.  I’m runnin’ a pirate radio station.”

“You bet your lime barrel.  We are transmittin’ on 103.9 FM.  Look above the topsail.  You’ll see two bays of antenna peekin’ atcha.  We’re transmittin’ away.  Go back to your car, landlubber and tune us in.”
“Well, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  Seems you’re using the wrong verb tense.”
“What’s that ya’ say, Matey?”
“Wrong tense.  You’re not transmitting.  You were transmitting.  You’re shut down.  Now.  I’m from the enforcement bureau of the FCC and you were operating a pirate station.  Now you’re not.  See – look over there.  One of our staff just literally pulled the plug on 103.9 FM.”
“Go ahead.  Try.  I’ll be back on in a day.”
“Maybe, but that’ll make the fine that much bigger.  Hey!  Your parrot just ate my badge.”
I envision a conversation something like that.  Well, actually, nothing like that.  There are a few pirate stations on boats but those usually try to stay in international waters.  Most of them are on land – and around us.  [As an aside, if you have a chance to see Pirate Radio, do it.  Fun film.]
Some are relatively benign.  Those are the ones that operate on vacant channels, not really interfering with licensed stations but siphoning listeners from them.  Then there are the dirty birds, willfully and/or maliciously interfering with licensed signals or transmitting profane or indecent language and music at all hours.
It’s the FCC Rules and Regulations, a subset of the Code of Federal Regulations that permits stations to broadcast on allocated frequencies for which they are licensed.  Unless you’re operating under what’s called “Part 15” at extremely low power, you can’t flick the ON switch on a transmitter without a license.
For some time, the commission has been relatively, well, for want of a better term, “relaxed” in their enforcement of anti-piracy.  Part of that is the political clime but it’s more a function of reduced budgets and small field staffs. 
That said, it doesn’t mean they’re asleep at the switch.  This page shows the number of enforcement actions by state since 2003.  It’s not really clear what that means.  The action could be a “ticket” (violation), Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL otherwise spelled f-i-n-e), property seizure or even stronger action.  So, they’re out there.  Not tuning and listening like they used to (anyone remember the Allegan, Michigan monitoring station?) but certainly, if they get a call or two, they’ll do some level of investigating.
Well, a couple of folks complained awhile back1and a couple of weeks ago, the commission announced a fine of $144,344 against an alleged pirate in North Miami, FL.  You can read the release here but, bottom-lining, these guys had been around the pirating block more than once.  So how many warnings before the camel’s back breaks? 
The question from a lot of people is, “What’s the big deal?”  After all, everyone should be allowed to voice his/her own opinions, play his/her music over the airwaves.  A great argument in the 1950’s but, today, specious at best. “80/90,” which vastly increased the number of FM stations across the country gave more and arguably varied voices.  Low Power FM (LPFM) added yet another level of stations, most of which really are operating in, as the Commission says, the Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity.
Also consider that, as you would guess, pirates don’t employ EAS equipment so if the nukes come, you won’t get the warning.
Despite all of this, the pirates are there.  Maybe it’s the thrill of evading the law.  Doubtful it’s monetary – while there are pirates out there selling advertising time on their ersatz station, it really can’t be much.2
However, if the commission is charged with protecting the airwaves for the public and that protection is extended to willful and harmful interference and impact on legal station listenership and revenue, then it’s time to enforce the law.  We could change the law but if you want to see anarchy in action, just change that one.  Since there’s no longer a rule that you must have a construction permit before buying a transmitter3, they’ll be on every corner.  Heck, they’re almost there now.
Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly had a great summary in a 2015 FCC blog.  Basically, he said pirate radio is not innocuous, It’s not innocent and it’s not even multicultural.  It’s a violation of law.
There may be some angry emails coming my way but, seriously, the rules/laws are there.   If you want to do your Part 15 partying, go ahead.  But beyond that 100 milliwatts, turn it off.  Oh, and, please – disconnect that lousy mini-FM transmitter you’re using to feed your smartphone audio to your car radio.  I hear you at every intersection.
1The complaints actually started in 2012 but the activity began years before!
2I checked Ad Age.  They don’t track pirate radio revenue
3Just go to and search for FM transmitter.  And while you’re perusing, keep in mind that a high percentage of these do not comply with US emissions rules so not only are they causing interference on their tuned frequency but at numerous other frequencies, too.  Then call to mind the frequency assignments just above the FM band:  air traffic control.  Just sayin’.

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