A multiyear effort to eradicate unlicensed radio stations paid off as President Trump on Friday signed legislation that will give the FCC the authority to slap pirates with fines of up to $2 million. The president signed the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act, or “PIRATE” Act (S.1228), without ceremony but the move was nevertheless cause for celebration among supporters. “Great news for the efforts to eliminate these illegal operators causing harm to their communities and local broadcasters,” said FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly in a Twitter post. He’d been pushing Congress to give the agency greater enforcement power.
The new law raises fines on unlicensed station operators to $100,000 per day per violation, up to a maximum of $2 million. In addition to tougher fines on violators, 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 to Congress on an annual basis about its pirate-fighting efforts.
One provision included in previous versions of the PIRATE Act proposed during the prior session of Congress would have made it easier for the FCC to go after landlords, advertisers, and any other business that provides “physical goods or services” to an unlicensed station. That language was removed from the bill that ultimately became law. But in a move to help advertisers and others steer clear of pirates, the new law requires the FCC to 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 put the Commission on firmer legal ground if it goes after a business which uses as its defense the argument that it wasn’t sure whether the station was a pirate or not.
Getting the PIRATE Act passed has been a legislative priority for the National Association of Broadcasters for the past several years. The trade association has said it will help the FCC go after illegal stations. “Pirate operators interfere with licensed, legal radio stations. On a number of occasions, the FCC has found that pirate radio operators interfered with communications between airline pilots and air traffic controllers, creating a public safety hazard,” NAB Executive VP Dennis Wharton said in an email.
O’Rielly has previously said larger pirate fines would help the agency attract the attention of the Department of Justice and convince it that it’s worth the time to pursue pirate-related cases. In a speech to Massachusetts broadcasters in November, he said in order for the effort to be effective there will need to be a public education effort to alert pirates of the fines they could face. He also called on advertisers to guarantee they’re not supporting an unlicensed operator.