Pirate 2016

More than a year after Congress adopted new pirate radio fines as high as $2 million, the new penalties are set to take effect April 26. Signed into law in January 2020, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order in December that also explicitly said it would go after landlords, advertisers, and any other business that provides “physical goods or services” to an unlicensed station. The Enforcement Bureau concluded that under its interpretation of the new law, any parties that help facilitate illegal broadcasting on their property should also be liable for fines of up to $2 million.

The FCC order has been published in the Federal Register. That means the new rules will take effect April 26.

But the process of enacting the new penalty has taken so long that the maximum fine has already gone up, as part of the annual review of civil penalties which, under federal law, the FCC is required to adjust for inflation.

This year the Office of Management and Budget calculated the annual inflation rate at just over one percent – 1.01182% to be exact – which will be reflected in proposed fines issued by the FCC. The Enforcement Bureau said in December that starting in 2021 the new maximum pirate radio fine is $101,182 per day up to a maximum penalty of $2,023,640.

No Pirate Sweeps Yet

Under the pirate radio law enacted by Congress, the FCC is required to conduct sweeps in the five cities where pirate radio is the biggest problem—typically 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.

Enforcement Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold said in January that the FCC had begun studying existing enforcement data to determine which markets would be subject to a sweep. But she said in the report to Congress that the FCC’s tight budget means no actual in-market sweeps have occurred.

“Due to lack of funding and pandemic-related restrictions on travel and building access, the Commission did not conduct sweeps during FY 2020,” Harold said in a report to Congress. Harold said whether those sweeps occur in 2021 and beyond will depend on whether the FCC obtains new funding as well as on the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, she acknowledged enforcement against pirate radio broadcasters has proven “difficult historically” for the FCC.

Harold also told lawmakers that the FCC had not yet begun working on a pirate radio database since it lacks the funding to undertake such a project. “Once such funds have been appropriated, the Commission will begin development of the database,” she said.

On a more positive note, Harold said the FCC has been making progress with landlords it has contacted for allegedly hosting pirate stations on their property. The FCC released the first such notices, targeting three New York City landlords in Corona, Queens in December. “Although these ongoing proceedings are in their early stages, initial discussions with the property owners have been promising,” Harold said.