FCC hearing Tom Wheeler

A full 20% of the Enforcement Bureau’s time last year went to combating pirate radio as it allocated more attention to pirates than any other trouble spot. FCC chief Tom Wheeler says the effort includes a new strategy when targeting unlicensed operators.

“We have shifted from our historic ‘whack-a-mole’ enforcement approach to focus on the worst actors—pirates that are repeat offenders that cause interference to licensed broadcasters, that run advertisements, and that operate at high power,” Wheeler told a House Communications Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

Since taking office nearly three years ago, Wheeler told lawmakers, the FCC has taken more than 300 pirate radio enforcement actions. “There were 91 actions that have been taken through May of this year on pirate radio compared to 130 for all of last year,” Wheeler noted during the hearing.

In March, the Commission sent an “enforcement advisory” to local officials around the country as well as to advertiser groups and real estate trade associations explaining what pirate radio is, the threat unlicensed stations pose to public safety, and how the public may be unwittingly supporting pirates. “Providing support for such illegal activity could not only damage the reputation of such businesses, but could expose them to FCC enforcement or other legal actions,” the advisory warned. The letter also asked the groups for their help in identifying pirates to get the stations off the air.

“We don’t just want to do more to combat pirate radio, we want to do it smarter,” Wheeler said. He also renewed a request that Congress give more assistance to the FCC’s efforts. One idea under consideration is a proposal that would make it a federal crime to assist a pirate radio operation. Wheeler backed the idea saying he’d like to work with lawmakers to “crack down on these criminals.”

Yet for all the FCC is doing, some broadcasters believe the efforts have come up short. The New York State Broadcasters Association commissioned an engineering study to try to determine how many pirate FMs are on the air in the New York City metro. (See separate story, NY Broadcasters Push FCC to Act on Pirate Radio.)