Tougher penalties for operating a pirate radio station are now only a presidential signature away from becoming law. With a unanimous voice vote on Wednesday, the Senate approved the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act or “PIRATE” Act (S.1228) that would raise fines on unlicensed station operations to $100,000 per day per violation, up to a maximum of $2 million. The bill cleared the House last February, meaning it now goes on to President Trump for his signature. The White House hasn’t said whether President Trump intends to sign the PIRATE Act, but its unanimous backing from both the House and Senate means it’s unlikely he’ll block it from becoming law.
The National Association of Broadcasters welcomed the vote. NAB President Gordon Smith said it would provide “stronger resources” to help the Federal Communications Commission combat illegal stations, which not only interfere with licensed radio stations but also public safety communications and air traffic control systems.
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 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.
One provision that had been 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 the unlicensed station. That language has been removed from the current legislation now on the way to President Trump. 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.
In New York, where the FCC says one in five pirate cases have originated during the past two years, the Senate’s vote was also welcomed by David Donovan, President of the New York State Broadcasters Association. But he said it’s a means to the end, not the solution. “Illegal pirate radio stations continue to harm New Yorkers,” said Donovan. “While pirate radio enforcement has increased under the administration of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, these tools are necessary to resolve the problem. The time has come for the FCC to regain its authority over FM radio frequencies in New York.”
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has been among those in Washington pushing the FCC to do more, in a Twitter post called the Senate vote “great news” for the agency’s effort to combat unlicensed stations. O’Rielly has said larger pirate fines will 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.