FCC Targets Illegal Radio Stations

Published May 31, 2016

More than half of the fines doled out by the Federal Communications Commission in May were issued to illegal radio station operators. FCC fines for the month totaled $258,000, of which $141,000—more than 54 percent—were given to so-called “pirate-radio” stations operating between Florida and New York.

The crackdown has elicited concerns from small-government advocates that the FCC is overstepping its authority.

Illinois activist and tech consultant John Bambenek, for example, said, “All that is needed is some lightweight regulation to ensure radio towers don’t interfere with each other. Much of the pirate radio problem can be solved by having unlicensed portions of the AM/FM spectrum for hobbyists.”

Bambenek added, “The high cost of entry is part of the genesis of the piracy problem, but the radio business is declining because of the cheapness to broadcast over Internet anyway,”

‘Better Things to Do?’
“Clandestine broadcasting has always been an issue, but more and more people are now taking it upon themselves to simply broadcast whatever they want on whatever frequency they wish, without regard for the legally licensed and operational stations which are held to significant standards of operation,” said Alan Guinn, managing director and CEO of the Guinn Consultancy Group, Inc., a global company offering consulting services for tech, education, communications, and other industries.

“Although those using the airwaves may have a political or religious point that they wish to espouse, there are other options for them to pursue other than to put a radio station on the air that is technologically inferior and may interfere with the operations of other, licensed stations, not to mention interference with the ability of the public to receive these other stations,” Guinn added.

Bambenek says he understands Guinn’s spectrum concerns, but adds the FCC fines often extend beyond such matters, and he argues the FCC may have exaggerated some violations.

“I have some sympathy to the need to regulate broadcast radio because of the nature of FM transmissions—people could step on each other’s wavelengths, and broadcasts easily cross state lines, for example,” Bambenek said. “But other FCC fines for not having proper fencing, staff or a public inspection file? Surely the federal government has better things to do.”

‘Antiquated, Unfair’ FCC System
Joe Giganti, a radio host and former producer for the Michael Reagan Show, said, “My first thought is what is the return on investment for such fines?” he asked. “To be sure, serious pirate radio efforts need to be tracked and stopped for the sake of not interfering with legitimate broadcast signals,” he said. “But how much taxpayer money was expended to go after relatively small fish that based on the information provided were not causing the type of interference that typically warrants such oversight?”

He added, “Fines are one thing, but collecting them is another. It would be interesting to see a spreadsheet that contained all the fines listed in one column, a second column that showed what it cost to work that particular situation, and a third that showed the total collected. I strongly believe it would show a net loss to the taxpayer.”

Giganti said the FCC’s entire regulation system is flawed. “It is antiquated, unfairly weighted against the citizen or private owner, and fails to adapt to the types of nuanced situations inherent within the communications industry,” he said.

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.