Pirate radio challenges U.S. officials as it proliferates

Sep 24, 2006 4:14 am
By Tom Roe

In October 1997, a Wall Street Journal front-page profile of Tampa's "Party Pirate" -- who was selling hundreds of transmitters to microcasters around the U.S., and was showing up in the ratings with his own illicit station in Tampa -- was the last affront for the Federal Communications Commission after hearing about thousands of micro-stations avoiding their regulatory scheme.

The next month the agency cracked down hard on many "pirates," including a three-station 6 a.m. sweep with SWAT teams and media-alerted helicopters in Tampa, that shut down 87X, Radio Free Lutz, and Brewer's "Party Pirate."

(And then, a few months later, a legal commercial station in Tampa promoted a format change by pretending to be a pirate station broadcasting from a boat in Tampa Bay. The media thing can swirl full circle quickly.)

Well, maybe we are in for the same cycle. The Associated Press is circulating a story by Martha Mendoza, here in the International Herald Tribune and Washington Post, called "Pirate radio challenges U.S. officials as it proliferates." This is virtually the same sort of overview the Journal wrote nine years ago -- a large, high-profile pirate radio story that will have pencil pushers talking at the FCC's water coolers on Monday and have writers in other cities thinking about their local angle.

After humilating coverage the past week about two reports the FCC repressed or shredded to avoid alerting the public that media consolidation is statistically worse for the public, what might happen next? A wave of "pirate busts"?

The story says, "A record 181 unlicensed broadcasters received fines, cease and desist letters, or had been raided by early September, up from 143 enforcement actions in all of 2005 and 92 in 2004, according to John Anderson," who researches FCC enforcement at University of Illinois, and at DIYmedia.net. The story also says the FCC's 2007 budget includes an extra $1 million-plus to buy "Mobile Digital Direction Finding Vehicles" that locate so-called "pirate" radio stations.

The story is also positive for microcasters, tracking Stephen Dunifer's Radio Camps in Berkeley, California, and public battles for the airwaves in Santa Cruz, California, and Brattleboro, Vermont. The FCC's longtime spokesman David Fiske says, "If there are more enforcement actions, that's because there have been more complaints."

If the success of several microradio activities is a popular subject in the media again, does that mean even more enforcement and larger budget increases? It doesn't seem a likely political distraction for this fall's Congressional elections, but, maybe after this new wave of media coverage, there will be more complaints.
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