Pirate 2016

Maybe this time will be different. Vasco Oburoni once before agreed to pay $15,000 to the Federal Communications Commission for operating an unlicensed radio station. But after reneging on a payment plan, he powered his pirate station back up on a new frequency. This time, under a settlement with the federal prosecutors, Oburoni has agreed to surrender his equipment with a potential new fine five-times as big hanging over his head.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston filed a civil suit against Oburoni and the Christian Praise International Church in March, asking a federal judge to order him to stay off the airwaves and slap him with a financial penalty up to five-times as large as the original fine issued by the FCC. The agency said it had issued multiple warnings to Oburoni, who it alleged operated an unlicensed station at 102.3 FM in Worcester, MA. After first agreeing to stay off the radio dial, Oburoni didn’t stay away for long. Soon he was again broadcasting at 97.1 FM with an antenna atop the church building. The station billed itself as “Worcester’s number one African radio station.”

According to the signed consent decree, Oburoni and Christian Praise International Church admitted they operated a radio broadcast station without a license on two different frequencies. If either violates the five-year agreement with prosecutors, Oburoni agrees he’d be liable for a $75,000 fine—five-times the original penalty.

The FCC first was on the hunt for Oburoni’s station in April 2015 after receiving a complaint from Beasley Broadcast Group’s “Country 102.5” WKLB-FM, which was then owned by Greater Media. Using signal-tracking equipment, two Boston-based field agents traced the pirate operation to an antenna mounted on the roof of Christian Praise International’s church building in Worcester. When field agents returned in July 2015, they met with Oburoni. During that conversation he admitted he was operating the station and shut off the transmitter amid fresh warnings from the agents. But the station wasn’t dark for long.

The involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s office in pirate radio cases has been rare. A former FCC Enforcement Bureau official has told Inside Radio that getting the attention of federal prosecutors for the problem has traditionally been difficult, since they typically steer limited resources to bigger crimes. But the Boston case could offer a template for how other U.S. Attorneys around the country could use the federal courts to pressure the operators of unlicensed stations into giving it up for good.