In Pirate Hunt, FCC Puts the Focus on Landlords.
The FCC has been deploying new tactics to pursue pirate radio offenders, targeting the owners and landlords of properties where illegal signals are being emitted. But it’s too soon to tell how well the strategy is working.
A review of a commission database as of September shows that the frequency of enforcement actions has seemingly increased this year after a pandemic in which agents had to cut back on field time chasing signal complaints.
The FCC does have a bigger hammer to deploy now. The Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act, signed by President Trump in January 2020, has been “a helpful tool” in the fight against illegal broadcasters, according to the commission. It gives the FCC authority to levy fines of up to $100,000 per violation and up to $2 million total.
Stronger penalties and “the fact that those penalties can now be applied to landlords and others who help illegal broadcasters is a helpful deterrent,” according to an FCC spokesperson. The new law “is a strong tool when we warn those that are facilitating illegal broadcasting, who are then incentivized to stop the pirate radio operations on their property.”
However, no forfeitures have been assessed under the act.
“To date, due to pandemic-related restrictions, as well as lack of funding to implement the PIRATE Act until earlier in 2022, no forfeitures have been assessed” under the act, the spokesperson said.
In early 2021 the head of the Enforcement Bureau noted that Congress had not yet provided additional funding for implementing the act even though the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $11 million to do so.
The act requires the FCC to take further steps, such as mandatory sweeps of the top five cities with the highest concentrations of pirates — typically New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas — and the creation of a public database that lists all entities that have received notice they are operating a broadcast station with proper authority. The database was one of the items for which the commission lacked funding.
A summary of the commission’s FY2022 budget discusses proposed hiring in connection with the new law, but the FCC does not comment on personnel matters, according to the spokesperson.
As autumn arrived Congress was considering a $390 million FCC proposal for FY2023, which was to begin on Oct. 1, but the legislators instead passed a continuing resolution, giving themselves until mid-December to finalize a budget.
The proposed amount could allow the FCC to hire as many as 15 new full-time employees to work on anti-pirate initiatives.
The commission declined to answer specific questions about current efforts, “since we do not comment publicly on the details of enforcement sweeps or other investigative techniques in order not to compromise the effectiveness of its enforcement efforts.”
It declined to provide Radio World with a copy of its annual PIRATE Act report, which it submitted to Congress earlier this year, deferring questions to the relevant congressional subcommittee. A request for interview with Loyaan Egal, acting chief of the Enforcement Bureau, was declined.
But recent public notices indicate that the FCC is actively using its new landlord authority now.
In a recent instance, field agents traced an FM signal to a property in the Cambria Heights section of Queens in New York City. The property, which is owned by Paul Wilfrid, is on 229th Street. He received the following notice: “You are hereby notified and warned that the FCC may issue a fine of up to $2,149,551 if, following the response period, we determine that you have continued to permit any individual or entity to engage in pirate radio broadcasting from the property that you own or manage.”
Wilfrid was told to respond with evidence he was no longer allowing illegal broadcasts to originate from his property.
A similar notice was delivered to Michelle Hepburn of Yonkers, N.Y., also this summer. The letter stated: “Agents from the New York Office confirmed by direction-finding techniques that radio signals on frequency 104.5 MHz were emanating from your property at 159 South 13th Avenue, Mount Vernon, N.Y.”
Again the letter indicated that fines of over $2 million could kick in if the broadcasts didn’t cease. Another letter in July went to the owners of a property in the Bronx where a signal on 105.7 MHz was emanating. The FCC followed in September with notifications warning property owners of alleged pirate operations in places like Brentwood, N.Y., Battle Creek, Mich., and Beltsville, Md.
If forfeitures eventually are levied but not collected, PIRATE Act cases are referred to the Justice Department or Treasury as governed by section 504 of the Communications Act. But for years, broadcasters have complained that such cases frequently are not prosecuted.
The most recent forfeiture order in the FCC database was in in June 2020. In that case, Gerald Sutton of Alma, Ark., was issued a civil penalty of $10,000 for operating an unlicensed pirate radio station. It’s not clear from FCC recordkeeping whether that fine was collected.
But in some cases the threat of large fines seems to be effective. The FCC in 2019 issued Notices of Apparent Liability against several alleged pirate broadcasters in the Boston area, including one for $450,000 against Gerlens Cesar, operator of Radio TeleBoston. Cesar eventually entered into a consent decree with the commission in which he admitted he violated the FCC’s rules and agreed to pay a civil penalty of $5,000. He also agreed to pay $225,000 in additional fines if further violations occur.
By Randy J. Stine
Published October 17, 2022 in RADIO WORLD (2022-10-18)