You may be forgiven for having forgotten: there’s still music over the air in the United States. Judging by how many people have given up on listening to terrestrial radio, though, you probably didn’t notice the boom in Pirate Radio stations in the US.

How do you define a “boom”? There are likely more pirate radio stations in New York City than licensed ones, and the majority of the illegal broadcasters are serving non-English speaking immigrant communities. A report published by the New York State Broadcasters Association from May 2016 suggests that “there may be more than 100 unauthorized stations operating in the New York City Metropolitan Area” alone. (PDF)

But with that popularity comes a crackdown.

Demon enemy of net neutrality Ajit Pai spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas last month and presented some stark figures about the Federal Communications Commission’s punitive activity in what can only be characterized as a full-fledged pirate radio crackdown. According to Radio Ink:

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. The Commission has also issued $143,800 and proposed fines totaling $323,688.


Pai also praised the FCC’s “creativity” in cracking down on property owners who (sometimes unwittingly) host pirate radio facilities. By “proposing the statutory maximum forfeiture,” according to Radio Ink, “we want to make clear that aiding a pirate’s unauthorized use of the radio spectrum won’t be tolerated,” Pai said.

The FCC also publishes this nifty map with a geographical breakdown of enforcement actions (which looks unnervingly like the maps of Soviet nuclear strikes from War Games):

There are also efforts afoot to increase punitive measures against illegal broadcasters. The Outline notes that representatives from New York and New Jersey have proposed drastic new measures which would increase the maximum fine for pirate stations by more than 1300%, from $147k to $2 million.

This buzz of activity has finally surged upward into the US Congress. On May 8 2018, sponsors introduced what they’re calling the “PIRATE Act” into the US House. Reverse acronym’d, the “PIRATE Act” stands for “Pirate Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act” and unlike nearly every other piece of legislation these days, it appears to have widespread, bipartisan support:

The bill was introduced TODAY (5/8) by Communications and Technology Subcommittee Vice Chair LEONARD LANCE (R-NJ) with Rep. PAUL TONKO (D-NY), co-sponsored by CHRIS COLLINS (D-NY), and GUS BILIRAKIS (R-FL), and would increase fines for pirate radio operators from $10,000 to $100,000. It would also require “enforcement sweeps” every five years in the top-five markets with pirate activity (NEW YORK, LOS ANGELES, CHICAGO, SAN FRANCISCO, and DALLAS).


That’s right: “enforcement sweeps.” The use of quotes makes it no less ominous.

Congressman Lance praised Chairman Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly as “able partners in making sure these broadcasts are stopped. This bill will give the FCC even more tools to take down these illegal broadcasts. I thank my bipartisan cosponsors, Congressman Tonko, Congressman Collins and Congressman Bilirakis for joining me in this important public safety effort.”

It appears that, oddly, the overall effect of pirate radio broadcasts has never been less, yet the stakes – and punishments – have never been higher.



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