Nobody but the trades seem to be writing about the radio industry’s war on pirate radio broadcasters, but a war it is, and it’s heating up.

Broadcaster associations are lobbying hard to ensure passage of a new law which would impose draconian penalties on those who broadcast unlicensed transmissions over the airwaves. In other words: Pirates.

The PIRATE Act (a retronym for “Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement”) passed the House of Representatives unanimously in the last Congress and looks to do the same this time around, though lobbying of the Senate leadership of both parties is well underway to ensure it’s brought to a vote in the senior chamber this time.

The penalties for unauthorized broadcasting over the airwaves matches the description in the title. They will crush radio piracy. The draconian measures in the proposed bill include a fine of $100,000 for each day they broadcast (up from $10,000), and accumulating up to $2,000,000 total. The bill calls upon the FCC to bulk up its enforcement, so it behaves almost like the grim-faced agents in white vans in the movies, conducting “enforcement sweeps.” The language of the bill as introduced in the 116th Congress calls for yearly sweeps by “appropriate enforcement personnel to focus specific and sustained attention on the elimination of pirate radio broadcasting within the top 5 radio markets identified as prevalent for such broadcasts.”

Ajit Pai, demon enemy of net neutrality, boasted that enforcement was already on a dramatic upswing since he took over the big corner office at the FCC:

Since January 2017, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has launched 306 pirate-radio investigations and has issued 210 Notices of Unlicensed Operation, a 101% increase in enforcement against pirates compared to 2016.


A letter by the National Association of Broadcasters – signed by broadcaster associations from all 50 states – paints the situation in dire tones. To listen to them, planes are falling out of the sky and ambulances are crashing into hospitals due to broadcast interference from pirate radio.

“For years unauthorized pirate radio stations have harmed communities across the country by undermining the Emergency Alert System, interfering with airport communications, posing direct health risks and interfering with licensed stations’ abilities to serve their listeners,” it reads. “The time has come to take significant steps to resolve this vexing problem.”

It’s a problem most people are completely unaware of. It’s perverse – at a time when fewer than ever are listening to terrestrial radio and its power is at its weakest is when the radio industry has found absolute compliance among the lawmaking bodies of the United States. And far from being the wild-haired speed freaks of the past, most pirate radio stations these days broadcast non-English language programming aimed at minority communities underserved by licensed broadcasters.

Even the pirates themselves are increasingly abandoning the AM and FM spectrums to broadcast entirely on the internet, via unlicensed streams – the modern equivalent of pirate radio.