FCC Threatens Large Fines Against Landlords Who Allow Pirate Radio Broadcasts on Their Property

The Federal Communications Commission has issued notices to landlords and property managers threatening fines of up to $2,000,000 for allowing so-called “pirate radio” broadcasts from their properties. The notices were issued under the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act (the “PIRATE Act”) which was signed into law earlier this year.

Pirate radio stations transmit without an FCC license on AM or FM frequencies. Pirate stations often broadcast programming aimed at specific demographic groups and cover a fairly limited geographic area. Pirate stations can interfere with licensed radio stations’ signals and sometimes compete with licensed broadcasters for advertising dollars.

For years, the FCC has taken enforcement actions against pirate radio stations, but until the PIRATE Act, the FCC didn’t have authority to act against individuals who are not actively engaged in pirate broadcasting. Because pirate radio stations are typically “fly-by-night” operations that can be hard to pin down and don’t have the resources to pay large fines, effective enforcement has been difficult. With the PIRATE Act, the FCC can now act against landlords and property managers who know that pirate radio operators are broadcasting from their premises. The FCC can impose fines of up to $100,000 for each day a violation continues, up to a maximum of $2,000,000.

On December 17, 2020, the FCC issued three Notices of Illegal Pirate Radio Broadcasting to landlords and property managers in New York City. The notices resulted from investigations by FCC field agents who identified pirate radio broadcasts with direction-finding equipment. The FCC gave each recipient ten business days to report back that they were no longer allowing pirate radio stations to transmit from their property.

Property owners and managers may not know that pirate radio stations are broadcasting from their premises. The FCC’s notices are intended to provide that information. Property owners and managers that receive notices are expected to determine the identity of the pirate operator and to try to stop the illegal broadcasts, but it is not exactly clear what steps a property owner or manager is expected to take. Direction-finding equipment is unlikely to be sensitive enough to determine the exact location in a multi-unit building from which radio signals are originating, and some pirate stations can operate without an external antenna.

The PIRATE Act provides for annual “sweeps” of the five areas in the U.S. where pirate radio is a frequent problem. The FCC will also continue to investigate complaints made by licensed radio stations that experience interference from pirate radio stations. As a result, the FCC is expected to issue more notices, particularly in areas such as New York and Florida that have a high incidence of pirate radio stations.

Categories: Media