Pirate 2016

On a voice vote without any debate, a bill that would raise fines on unlicensed radio station operations to as much as $2 million has cleared its first hurdle in Congress. The House on Monday unanimously approved the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement or PIRATE Act (H.R. 583).

The House passed a similar bill during the previous congressional session. This time Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) championed the bill. It would raise fines on unlicensed station operations from $10,000 per violation to $100,000 per day per violation, up to a maximum of $2 million.

The FCC would also be required to conduct sweeps in the five cities where pirate radio is the biggest problem—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas—at least once a year. And then, within six months, field agents would be mandated to return to those markets to conduct “monitoring sweeps” to determine whether the unlicensed operators simply powered back up or changed frequencies. The agency would also be required to issue a report back to Congress on an annual basis about its pirate-fighting efforts. Supporters have said that while current FCC chair Ajit Pai has stepped up the agency’s enforcement actions, changing the federal statute would ensure future chairmen wouldn’t pull it back.

Yet the sponsors have pulled back from their previous bill, which would have made it easier for the Commission to go after landlords, advertisers, and any other business that provides “physical goods or services” to the unlicensed station. That language has been removed from the latest legislation. The sponsors have, however, kept the proposed requirement that the FCC create a public database of legal radio stations and a list of known pirates or entities that have received notices of noncompliance. The database could not only help dissuade some local businesses from buying time on an unlicensed station but also put the Commission on firmer legal ground if goes after a business which uses as its defense the argument that it wasn’t sure whether the station was a pirate or not.

“This bill gives the FCC the tools it needs to take down these illegal broadcasts and increases the penalties for these bad actors,” Energy and Commerce Committee Republican Leader Greg Walden (R-OR) and Communications Subcommittee Republican Leader Bob Latta (R-OH) said in a joint statement. They urged the Senate to follow the House lead and take up the bill.

There is currently no Senate version of the PIRATE Act, something that led to the legislation stalling out in the last session of Congress, despite the House giving its unanimous approval once before. It’s expected to be a radio talking point as broadcasters flood into Washington this week as part of the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual State Leadership Conference and its dedicated day of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Chorus Of Support

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, NAB president & CEO Gordon Smith praised Tonko and Bilirakis for championing the bill and called on the Senate to swiftly pass it. “Unlawful pirate radio stations not only interfere with licensed radio broadcasts, but also jeopardize air traffic control communications and threaten public safety,” Smith said, adding that the bill strengthens the FCC’s ability to combat illegal radio operations.

Dave Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, offered a similar endorsement. “This is an important day for American consumers who rely on legally licensed stations for life saving news and information,” Donovan said in a statement issued Monday evening. Calling passage in the House of the bill “a milestone in the effort to eliminate these illegal operations,” Donovan thanked the lawmakers who shepherded the legislation through the House, including Tonko, Rep. Frank Pallone (D NJ), who chairs the House Commerce Committee, and ranking House Republican Greg Walden (R OR).

In addition to the NAB’s support, the PIRATE Act has the backing of all the state broadcast associations as well as the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB).