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'Vexing Problem'

FCC Issues $2 Million NAL Against NYC Pirate Radio Operation

The full FCC approved a proposed $2.3 million forfeiture against two New York City pirate radio operators, plus an $80,000 proposed fine for another pirate radio operator in La Grande, Oregon, said a pair of notices of apparent liability released Wednesday. The NALs had been set for a vote at the FCC commissioners' open meeting Thursday, but a deletion notice on the items was released Tuesday.

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The notices are among the first uses of increased powers to act against unlicensed broadcasting conferred on the agency by the 2020 Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act, said New York State Broadcasters Association President David Donovan. There has historically been a high concentration of pirate radio operations in New York. “This is exactly what the Pirate Act was for,” Donovan said. The FCC’s increased enforcement operations authorized by the Pirate Act had been stalled by budget issues and COVID-19 but are now likely to pick up, Donovan said.

Stopping pirate operators is important because they can interfere with stations that are carrying emergency alerts, disrupt airplane communications, and expose neighbors to RF radiation, Donovan said. “I wouldn’t want to live next to a pirate station,” he said. “Operating an unauthorized, or pirate, radio station is illegal under the Communications Act of 1934,” said the FCC release.

The $2,316,034 proposed forfeiture against Cesar Ayora and Luis Ayora in Queens, New York, concerns repeated violations since 2013, when the agency issued a $20,000 forfeiture against them that was never paid. Their Radio Impacto2 ran on 105.5(FM) for years despite that forfeiture, repeated FCC warnings and the seizure of their broadcast equipment, the order said. The Ayoras and Radioimpacto2 didn't respond to requests for comment. Radioimpacto2 operated openly as the home station for Ecuadorians in New York City. The station has a professional website, and the forfeiture order cites multiple YouTube interviews given by the Ayoras on how the station operated. “The Ayoras even advertised their pirate radio station for no less than 25 weeks, and continue to operate their unauthorized station to date,” said an FCC release.

The $80,000 proposed fine against Oregon unlicensed operator Thomas Barnes stems from pirate operations since 2018. Barnes calls himself “The Eastern Oregon Pirate” on his website and posted videos on Facebook in which he said the FCC couldn’t stop him from broadcasting unless it locked him up, the NAL said. Barnes ignored the agency's repeated warnings, but last April informed the FCC he would cease broadcasting after the Enforcement Bureau notified his landlord that under the Pirate Act the landlord could be liable for fines up to $2 million for allowing the activity on his property, the NAL said. Barnes didn’t comment.

The fines in both cases were adjusted upward due to the repeated violations and ignoring repeated warnings, the NALs said. The FCC doesn’t have the authority to compel operators to pay its fines, but DOJ can do so. The higher fines make more attractive targets for U.S. attorneys considering whether to pursue a case, Donovan said. “We are hoping to put a dent in this vexing problem,” he said.