NAB Ajit Pai

FCC chairman Ajit Pai made some news at the NAB Show Tuesday, announcing that he’s circulated a proposal among his fellow commissioners to update the agency’s rules on translator interference. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would allow FM translators to resolve interference issues by moving to any available frequency, as a “minor change” to a facility, and require a minimum number of complaints to support any interference claim.

As the Commission licensed hundreds of new translators as part of its 2015 AM Revitalization effort, it has also seen a corresponding increase in interference complaints. “The goal is to simplify and expedite the complaint process,” Pai told a standing room only crowd at the We Are Broadcasters Celebration Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas. The proposal comes one year after the NAB suggested a similar change to the agency’s interference rules for FM translators.

Pai was greeted with a standing ovation after being introduced by NAB president Gordon Smith, who praised him for making a profound difference in telecommunications and for understanding the broadcast industry. The chairman was greeted with frequent applause during a speech that was peppered with jokes and with stories about his recent visits to radio and TV stations in Kentucky and Tennessee. “It’s always great to be with broadcasters,” Pai said. “Or perhaps I should say, it’s great to always be with broadcasters.”

Since being named chairman in January 2017, Pai has become a regular at broadcasting conventions, speaking at last year’s Radio Show in Austin and participating in a January NAB event to discuss the role of broadcasters during emergencies. “Putting these visits on my calendar, and broadcast issues on the FCC’s agenda, is common sense,” Pai said. “You’re a preeminent source of entertainment and information. You deliver the most watched shows on television. And more than 90% of Americans still tune into broadcast radio on a regular basis.”

Pai also recounted his visit last month to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both hit hard by last year’s hurricanes, acknowledging the role broadcasters play as first informers. “These stories are just part of a broader theme,” he said. “Below the national spotlight, broadcast journalism drives meaningful change,” he said, pointing to reporting by TV stations in Virginia and Indiana that resulted in positive legislative changes in those communities.

“At the FCC, I see it as our job to create a regulatory environment that enables you to keep doing great work like this,” Pai said. “A big part of that is modernizing our media rules to match the marketplace and technology of today. That’s required a lot of work… for most of these rules were written during the analog era, at a time when Amazon was nothing more than a river and “googol” was nothing more than a really big number.”

Pai walked the audience through FCC rule changes enacted under his purview, like authorizing the Next Gen TV transmission standard, ending the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban, and scrapping the “main studio” rule. On the latter, he said it’s already making it easier for broadcasters to add new service or maintain existing service in rural communities.” Pai also took a bow for the commission’s work to scrap outdated regulations as part of its Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, which has launched eight separate rulemakings, with Pai promising more in the months ahead.

“When you look at all of our media decisions together, the larger picture becomes clear: We are simply allowing any and every broadcaster the ability to compete in a free market, unshackled by regulations that no longer make sense,” he said.

Cracking down on pirate radio has also been a top priority at the Commission under Pai. Since January 2017, the Enforcement Bureau has conducted 306 pirate-radio investigations and issued 210 Notices of Unlicensed Operation, marking a 101% increase compared to the previous year. That coincided with $143,800 in fines and $323,688 in proposed fines. And last month in Boston, The Department of Justice, working with the U.S. Marshals Service and Boston Police Department, raided an unlicensed station operation, seizing the equipment that was being used to transmit a pair of pirate stations. Pai broke the news that the Commission recently took similar action against pirate operators in Miami and in Queens, NY, working with its federal partners.

Pai closed his speech with a seamless segue into the presentation of the Crystal Radio Awards (see separate story), which followed as part of the We Are Broadcasters Celebration. “For the most part, broadcasters get the recognition they deserve keeping their audiences informed during times of emergency; for launching the latest hit show that attracts millions of viewers; for exposing wrongdoing or injustice and effecting change,” he said. “But often underappreciated are the everyday contributions that you make to your communities.”