“Pirate” Radio Stations & The Age of the Internet

marc bombenon radio stations internet

The age of the internet has brought forth entirely new ways to consume media. Between an influx in podcasts, music streaming services, and even radio streaming apps (ie: IHeartRadio), one wouldn’t immediately think that pirate radio stations would be popular, let alone an increasing concern for broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission. But unlicensed radio stations are steadily increasing and are a growing concern for the industry.

The reality of the situation is that many of the illegally broadcasting stations are catering to communities that are underrepresented in the current legal broadcasting realm. There isn’t a specific demographic that’s dominating the pirate radio waves.  Investigations have found that the programs are being aired in multiple languages, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Gaelic, and Hebrew. It seems that a variety of cultures and communities are seeking a radio experience outside of what the “regulations” can provide. Both listeners and producers of the pirate stations express that the shows create an interactive community experience that they are not getting elsewhere.

Shows are being broadcast all over the US, and the recent influx of telecom technology has provided cheaper, more readily available options for unlicensed stations to get up and running.  There are around 100 pirate stations running in New York City alone, and there are broadcasting hubs all over the United States. Depending on the expertise of who is running them, the pirate radio stations reach anywhere from just a few city blocks to a few square miles (average broadcasting is 1-2 miles), and it’s clear that exist because they are meeting a need.

But not all parties believe that the pirate stations should be operating. Congressional members have stepped up to press the FCC to enforce tougher restrictions and more active penalization.  The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters has also stepped forward with complaints. The most obvious complaint is that the radio stations are undermining their business and effectiveness in the radio industry. But the additional problem is that the pirate stations are not being subject to regulation, leaving listeners exposed to potential false advertising and indecent content. The unlicensed stations also have the ability to block listeners from hearing other programs and emergency alerts.

The FCC is coming under fire by licensed broadcasters because the number of pirate stations has continued to increase while the number of warnings and fines has not. In response to these complaints, a representative from the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler, made a statement of defense. He noted that the FCC is currently working with the smallest budget it has had in three decades. Additionally, the fines and seizing of the property are currently ineffective, as the machinery is easily replaced and the fines remain unpaid.

The FCC promises continued efforts to come up with solutions to the pirate radio station situation. They’ve encouraged these underserved groups to build regulated community stations, but that’s slow moving.

This influx of “pirate” activity does not seem to be slowing down and is an interesting turn of events in the age where many people deemed radio to be a “dead” form of media.

To see the article that inspired this blog, see here: Phys.org