What should be the fine for radio stations that operate without an FCC license, even though they usually serve underserved or minority communities?
From the stations that play top-40 hits like Ariana Grande to your local college’s radio channel, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is supposed to grant licenses and approve all U.S. radio stations. However, some people set up their own stations outside the official system, known as “pirate radio.”
These stations usually broadcast things that mainstream radio — whether music or talk radio — won’t. This article gives examples including Caribbean music that can’t get airtime on mainstream radio and call-in sessions where undocumented immigrants can speak with immigration attorneys.
Under President’s Trump pick to lead the FCC, Ajit Pai, the commission has taken a much harsher stance towards pirate radio, moving to shut down hundreds of such stations. Here’s a full list, which includes 95 in Florida, 65 in New York, and 64 in New Jersey.
The FCC’s concern is that by broadcasting at the same spectrums as existing approved radio stations, the pirate radio stations can interfere with potential emergency broadcasts. Stations broadcasting at a certain frequency can create interference in the authorized audio signals being broadcasted at equal or similar frequencies.
What the bill does
The Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Actwould dramatically increase the financial penalties for operating pirate radio.
The maximum fine per day would surge from $19,639 currently to $100,000. The maximum total fine would surge from $147,290 to a full $2 million.
It was introduced on January 16 as bill number H.R. 583, by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY20).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill is necessary for public safety, especially during times of emergency.
“Protecting our public airwaves is critical for preserving community safety, whether for first responders or for working parents who don’t want to expose their children to uncontrolled hate and obscenity,” Rep. Tonko said in a press release.
“Whether a frequency is being used in emergencies to coordinate community response and save lives or by parents who just want to tune their car radios with their kids in the car, our communities are better served when broadcasting is governed by the rule of law.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the real reason pirate radio exists is not because current fines are too mild, but because the FCC’s rules aren’t free enough to allow those who want to broadcast alternative content to obtain and pay for a license.
“If these unlicensed operators were ever afforded the opportunity to transition to a licensed station, would they take it?” President Obama’s FCC appointee Mignon Clyburn wrote. “Unfortunately, in most large media markets, that opportunity may never exist, both because of the lack of an available license and high financial hurdles.”
“Among the policies this Commission should consider include finding ways to replicate and enhance the success of low-power FM (LPFM) stations; establishing a pilot incubator program; and when divestitures are required during merger transactions, we should urge the parties to strongly consider offers from women and minority business owners.”
Odds of passage
The bill passed the House on February 25 by a voice vote, where no record of individual members’ votes was recorded, a procedure used for relatively non-controversial bills. It had first attracted nine bipartisan cosponsors: five Republicans and four Democrats.
A previous version passed the House by voice vote in July 2018, but never received a Senate vote. It’s possible the same fate could befall it during this Congress as well.