January 21, 2021

Volume XI, Number 21

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FCC Enforcement Bureau Targets Landlords That Allow “Pirate” Broadcasting from Their Properties, Threatens Significant Fines

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC or Commission) Enforcement Bureau (Bureau) has announced that it has begun targeting property owners and managers for knowingly permitting illegal AM and FM radio broadcasting from their properties under a new 2020 federal law known as the PIRATE Act. The Bureau will provide written notice to property owners and managers that are believed to be ignoring or facilitating illegal “pirate” AM or FM broadcast operations from their properties. Pirate broadcasting has become increasingly prevalent and disruptive to licensed broadcasters in recent years, particularly in large urban markets. In notices issued against three New York properties, the property owners and managers were given 10 days to respond before enforcement action moves forward. Relatedly, the Bureau and Office of Managing Director (OMD) released an Order amending the FCC’s rules to codify this new authority granted under the PIRATE Act.

Background

On January 24, 2020, Congress enacted the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act. The PIRATE Act provides specific authority to the Commission, under section 511, to combat pirate radio broadcasting with significant penalties.  The PIRATE Act authorizes the FCC not only to go after the pirate broadcasters themselves, but those who “suffer” pirate broadcasting, which the Bureau has construed to mean those, such as property owners and managers, who permit or facilitate pirate broadcasting from their premises.

The PIRATE Act defines pirate radio broadcasting as the transmission of communications on the AM and FM radio broadcast bands without a license issued by the FCC (not including the use of unlicensed, low power devices permitted under the Commission’s rules). The PIRATE Act permits the Commission to issue forfeitures for violations of section 511 of up to $100,000 per day and up to a maximum fine of $2 million. Accused parties will have a designated period of time to remedy the violation before enforcement action moves forward.

Notices of Pirate Broadcasting

In notices issued on December 17, 2020, the Commission first asserted its authority under the PIRATE Act to target property owners and managers that are permitting third parties to engage in pirate radio broadcasting from their properties. The notices were issued against three New York properties: 3535 95th Street3512 99th Street, and 3520 97th Street. The property owners and managers were given 10 days to respond to the notice.

Order

Relatedly, the Bureau and OMD released an Order amending the FCC’s rules to codify this new authority granted under the PIRATE Act. The amended rules permit the FCC to propose penalties “against any person who willfully and knowingly does or causes or suffers to be done any pirate radio broadcasting.” 

Bottom Line: The FCC has for the first time used its new authority under the PIRATE Act to propose significant forfeitures against property owners and managers alleged to be ignoring or facilitating illegal broadcasting. Accused parties may be found liable even if a pirate station ceases operation but later resumes its activity at the same site. Tower owners and other property owners that may allow broadcasting from their premises should make sure their lease agreements address these issues.

Stephen Sharbaugh contributed to this alert.

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Copyright © 2020 Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 11
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About this Author

Michael Bennet Communications Attorney
Partner

Michael Bennet has been advocating for and advising companies across the communications spectrum for over 30 years. Michael began his career in the pre-divestiture world as a broadcast attorney assisting radio and television stations with their licensing and transactional needs, as well as litigating in comparative hearings, before expanding his practice to servicing public utilities, petroleum companies, and providers of wireline and wireless telecommunications and broadband services.

As a founding member of a successful boutique telecommunications law firm known for strongly...

202.857.4442
Martin L. Stern, Womble Carlyle Law Firm, Regulatory Policy Attorney
Partner

Mr. Stern provides legal and strategic counsel on regulatory, policy and commercial matters to telecommunications, information technology and media firms, including network operators, programmers, and technology companies, in the United States and globally.  He represents clients before the Administration, Congress, and federal agencies, including the FCC, U.S. Departments of Justice, Commerce, Transportation, and Homeland Security, FTC, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and CFIUS.  He also develops and executes regulatory and legislative strategies,...

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