How is the FCC cracking down on illegal radio?
One of the FCC's top enforcement priorities is cracking down on pirates. No, not the Pirates of the Caribbean or East Africa—we're talking about pirate radio. Across the country, FCC officials are working to identify and take action against unlicensed radio operators that illegally use the frequencies allocated for legitimate radio operators. These pirate stations pose a host of problems for public safety, including interference with emergency alerts and air traffic control. But they also encroach on those legitimate stations that made significant investments and secured the necessary regulatory approvals to obtain a license. So what is the state of pirate radio in the U.S. and how is the FCC taking it on? Evan is joined by David Dombrowski, Regional Director for Region One in the FCC Enforcement Bureau. If you have information about a pirate radio station, you can notify the FCC by calling 888-CALLFCC or filing a complaint online at https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. Note: This podcast was recorded on June 21st. (Disclaimer)
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to "More Than 7 Dirty Words," the official FCC podcast. I am Evan Swarztrauber.
One of the FCC's top enforcement priorities is cracking down on pirates, and, no, not the Pirates of the Caribbean or the Pirates of East Africa, we're talking about pirate radio.
Across the country FCC officials are working to identify and take action against illegal unlicensed radio operators using frequencies allocated for legitimate radio operators that are causing interference and other issues.
So what is the state of pirate radio in the U.S. and how is the FCC taking it on? Well joining me to discuss this topic is David Dombrowski, Regional Director for Region One in the FCC Enforcement Bureau. David, thanks so much for joining.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: You're welcome. Hi.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, David, you are uniquely qualified to talk about this topic and to help listeners to understand just how qualified you are how did you get to this current position at the FCC. Give us a little of your background.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Sure. I am a Philadelphia native, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I graduated Temple University and my first job was the FCC right out of college and interestingly --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Everyone's dream job.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, everyone's dream job. So I never left, I've been here for over 25 years. I was hired into an engineering training program down in Norfolk, Virginia, where we got classroom orientation on all the different radio services and the bureaus and offices for the FCC.
And then they said to me well here is ten jobs that you potentially could have which one is your top choice? Now you usually get one of your top, you know, first or second choice.
Well media bureau was on there, they are the ones that license FM stations, and I kind of chose that as kind of my eighth choice.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Well that's what I went up with. But it worked out great, it was a great career in the media bureau. It lasted three years there and then I had an opportunity to get to the Philadelphia Office Enforcement Bureau with the field work and that's been -- I was there for 20 years.
I started as a field agent doing inspections and doing pirate radio enforcement was one of my jobs and then I moved into a senior agent position and then eventually the District Director, which the manager of the Philadelphia office.
After the reorganization and modernization of the field I then became the Regional Director and manage several offices now.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well let that be a lesson to the youngsters listening. If you are given ten choices make sure the one you actually one is your eighth choice because that's going to be the one that you get.
But so when we say Region One I think even most people in the FCC are not necessarily aware of how the country is carved up when it comes to enforcement and the field offices, et cetera, so can you give the listeners a brief sense of what do we mean by Region One, what areas do you cover?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. So I have -- In terms of population I manage 20 States in the Northeast area of the United States.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, just 20?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, just 20. So it's not the -- In terms of size wise for mileage it's the smallest region, but it's the most populated.
I have four offices, it includes Chicago, it includes Boston, New York, and Columbia, Maryland. And so it ranges from Maine down to Virginia and all the States east of Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: All right. So that is quite a large area.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It is.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And then just out of those four offices you then have to dispatch agents to 20 different States, so it's quite a big chunk of the country in terms of population.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Mm-hmm.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Pirate radio. I apologize to the listeners in advance if I make any horrible, corny jokes throughout the course of this podcast, but it would probably help to start with a definition, right.
I mean if you are familiar with telecom you know it's an illegal radio station, but what do we mean by pirate radio.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Okay. So a pirate radio by simple terms is a broadcast station operating in the FM band, 88 megahertz to 108 megahertz that you dial up on your car radio, that is operating without a license.
So when we license stations, you know, I used to work in the FM branch so I am very knowledgeable about the process, but there is a whole legal and engineering study that has to be done before you get a license and it takes resources to do that, financial resources.
Once you get a license it restricts you where you can operate, how much power you can use, what antenna you can use, and how high your antenna is.
And those parameters, you know, restrict your operation and the coverage of your station because we have a whole engineering study that needs to be done so you don't cause interference to other stations.
And what the pirate radio operators do is they don't obtain a license, they don't go through this process, and they try to find vacant spectrum between these stations.
Some of those, you know, if you tune your dial and find some spaces where there is some dead air, well those are intentionally put there in order so that stations don't cause interference to each other.
And so when a station operates say on 95.5 megahertz they now have potential to cause interference to other stations on 95.5 that may be a little distance away.
They also have potential to cause interference to the adjacent channel stations, you know, up above their frequency and below their frequency. So that's why the licensing process is so important to avoid that interference.
Now one thing I want to talk about is Part 15. There is a lot of misconception about what a low power transmitter is. We do let stations operate with low power transmitters but they have to comply with the technical requirements of Part 15 of our rules.
And those rules dictate a lot of restrictions and cover your wireless transmitters that we use every day, remote controls for you car, your headset, bluetooth sets. They also cover your wireless routers in your house.
Now all those things have one thing in common. They are very low power and the range of them are very small. So a transmitter that complies with the Part 15 requirements has a very small operating range, about 100 feet.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: And so that's not practical for somebody that wants to operate a radio station to cover an entire community.
So when they say, oh, I don't need a license to operate I'm a Part 15 transmitter, well we have to do studies and measurements to see if that's true.
We do that with every pirate station. We do a field strength measurement to see if their power exceeds that threshold and if they meet the Part 15 requirements or not.
So if they don't meet the Part 15 requirements they need a license.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So that's what we do.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So everyone can now breathe a deep a sigh of relief, you are not going to have to go out and get a license for your security camera and you garage door opener.
There is a reason that those devices operate in an unlicensed manner because they are not transmitting very far.
Now many listeners as you know have the experience of tuning their dial and there appear to be vacant channels you have said that one of the reasons for that is to guard against interference, but someone listening might say well why do we care, right.
Like if a pirate, you know, gets his station up and running, he finds that no one is in a channel, and he says, oh, I guess I'll set myself here, other than the law, which is obviously important to some people, most people it should be, but why should we care that they are using vacant spectrum?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, well just in the FM band particularly, if we just let everybody operate where they want it just creates chaos, and that's always been our argument that it creates chaos it the spectrum.
Our agency was delegated by Congress to allocate frequencies and allocate it in the public interest and it's a resource. The frequency spectrum is a natural resource and so all of our decisions that we make when we allocate spectrum is for the public interest.
So not only interference, but we also have issues of interference to other radio services. It could be harmful if we let a pirate radio station operate because sometimes they cause interference to other services, like aeronautical communications.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And we're talking about air traffic control?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And that is obviously at the highest importance when we are talking about public safety.
So it's not just that a pirate radio station might be harming other radio stations, which is bad in and of itself and could pose a public safety risk with emergency communications, but we're talking serious stuff when we talk about FAA and air traffic control.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. So we get complaints from the FAA quite often, more than a few times a month in New York, and that the pilots are flying over the city and they are trying to communicate with air traffic control and all of a sudden they pick up a radio station.
So for that period of time they lose communications and they have to try to find another available channel to keep that communication line open.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So you could cause like a catastrophe if we, you know, let this continue.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Do the pilots only complain if it's a song that they don't like?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, well, you know, they operate in the AM band so it sounds really distorted when you are trying to listen to FM radio on an AM radio.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, that's probably why they are complaining, right?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So what is the current state of pirate radio? You know, is this a massive national problem, are there particular areas where it's a problem?
Has it evolved over the years? Has it gotten worse, has it gotten better? Give us a sense of the universe of this problem given that it is such a priority for this FCC to crack down on it.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, it's -- Pirate radio has been around for decades. It's something we have been doing as long as the equipment has been available we've always had pirate radio operators.
But what hast made the problem really expand is the equipment is readily available with the internet now. So over the last ten years people get online and purchase a transmitter and get it delivered to their door and so that makes, you know, everybody a hobbiest now and to have an interest to start a pirate radio station because it's so available.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. Now stop your Googling right now because that is illegal, right?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It is.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Just because it's easy to buy it doesn't mean it's legal. And I have had to make this clarifying point on other podcasts that I have done at the FCC.
We are not trying to teach you to do something illegal, we are trying to prevent you from doing something illegal, so you can stop your Google search.
But merely the act of purchasing this equipment is illegal and partly that's because it comes from overseas and it's not been tested by the FCC, correct?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, if it's imported. It is illegal for companies to market equipment that hasn't gone through what we call a certification process, equipment authorization process, where they get a company to look at their transmitter to make sure it complies with our technical rules and doesn't have potential to cause interference to other radio services.
And so these transmitters that they are purchasing and pirate stations are using do not go through the equipment process, the equipment authorization process, and that is a problem.
And so we need to make sure that we stop the importation of this equipment, we stop the marketing of these illegal transmitters. So we have a team here in the Enforcement Bureau that does that, our Spectrum Enforcement Division.
So we try to shut down, you know, that equipment coming in to the purchasers. But with customs and border patrol seeing so much equipment coming in through the ports it's hard to identify. They label the equipment as something else.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. They are not advertising.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: There is not a sign on the box that says illegal pirate radio transmitters. And one of the reasons that they are causing harmful interference, in particular to the FAA operations, is because they are not tested, right.
So when the FCC licenses FM stations those stations are generally not going to interfere with aeronautical operations because we make sure that they are not.
But if you are buying something off of the dark web or whatever and it's coming into the U.S. you don't know, and when we talked before the show you mentioned that a lot of times with these FAA complaints it's a malfunctioning transmitter.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It is.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It's not working properly and that's why it's going into air traffic control.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, it may not start to cause interference as soon as you open up and out of the box and operate it, but over time with the heating up of the electronics inside it starts to malfunction and cause what we call spurius emissions where signals are operating outside your intended band and cause interference to other radio services.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And obviously as a good citizen I have never to my knowledge listened to a pirate radio station. That would be inappropriate, particularly given my employer, but is it hard for the average listener, particularly in a dense metro area, you're dialing your car radio or your home radio to even know the difference?
I mean are there tell-tale signs or are some of these stations so sophisticated that it's really hard for the average person to distinguish?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: There is a variety of pirate radio stations out there. They can be just talk radio stations, they could be religious broadcasters, or they could be full-fledged stations that have a staffing of 20 people that make commercials, that create the jingles for their station ID, and the ones that have more money and the money advertisers are the ones that are very hard to distinguish.
A lot of times you can tell by the audio quality. So somebody that hasn't invested a lot of money in equipment and the single processing to make it sound richer you could tell if you have an ear to it, our agents can do that.
But sometimes it is very difficult with those stations that have put more investment into the equipment.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, and it's also I assume illegal for these advertisers to be advertising on pirate stations, they just might not know that they are pirates.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, we don't have a rule in the books that prohibits that from happening. They are not considered an operator by investing in that.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: We do make them aware that they are contributing to this illegal activity. It might be illegal in terms of IRS about the taxes that aren't be collected off the exchange of funds in the business that's going on behind doors.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And we talked a little bit about why this is a problem. Of course, the chaos of the radio spectrum was one of the reasons this agency was created in the first place, including our predecessor agency The Federal Radio Commission, but there are other issues that broadcasters in particular complain about.
I mean they have a significant financial investment in their stations, they have gone through proper FCC process, and now they are competing for listeners with stations that did not go through that process, did not necessarily bear the same financial burden to get up and running, and they are not maybe just competing with listeners, as we have mentioned we've been competing with, they are competing with advertisers as well.
Is this something that plays a role in alerting you to these stations that broadcasters themselves are identifying them and complaining about them?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. We have had meetings with broadcast associations where we went a room with other broadcasters and that's a very big concern of them, the financial end of it.
They spent the fees to get the license. They also spent the regulatory fees that they have to, you know, spend I think yearly, and so they have an investment in their service and these unlicensed stations NP that.
They lose advertisers because of it, they lose coverage area because of it, and it all comes down to dollars and cents. So that is a big concern for the broadcasters in those areas.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So let's say that either a broadcaster or a listener files a complaint, what happens then, what tools do you, your colleagues in the FCC, have to go about finding a station, shutting it down, bringing people to justice?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, this is the fun part, the (inaudible). So --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: We only waited 15 minutes into the episode to get to the fun part so I hope you are listening.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So the complainant needs to tell us where they hear the station. If we get that information we have a vehicle, it's called a direction-finding vehicle and it has specialized equipment in it.
It's about $200,000 worth of equipment. It's covert surveillance equipment.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Like an unmarked van?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It is. Well, I can't say exactly what it is, but, yes, they're --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: It doesn't say FCC pirate agent?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: No, it doesn't have -- It's not marked with pizza delivery guy either.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So don't bother looking for it.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So this equipment helps us track us down. It has a radio receiver in it, it has a computer screen with a map, and it has a little compass rose that tells us what direction the signal is coming from.
So when we finally are able to pick up the signal in our car we then drive in the area in kind of a circle around the source and we plot lines, we call them lines of bearing on a map, and where they intersect is where this transmission source is originating.
Now that maybe gets us down to the building, you know, where it might be operating. You still have to go down on foot and go out onto maybe the rooftop where the antenna is to confirm that that is the source.
A lot of stations conceal their antennas, they hide behind things, they take the antennas down during they day, so they try avoid detection. Our agents are pretty smart on the tricks.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And, of course, just finding the antenna is not the end of the story, because it's not like when you find the antenna the DJ is standing right next to the antenna being like, uh, you got me.
The antenna is not where the people are necessarily or where the rest of the equipment is.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Right. There is a studio somewhere. A lot of times the studio is not co-located with the transmitter. They use either the internet or a wireless source to get the signal back to the transmitter.
And so that impedes the investigation a little bit because it is difficult to find where that studio is located, but we do, we do a lot of interviews.
We do follow the bread crumbs to where it leads us and a lot of times we are able to identify the operators and where the studio is and have success in getting the station shut down.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And it's important to clarify that FCC enforcement agents are not law enforcement agents, but I was struck by how some of the work that goes into identifying and shutting down a station is like good old-fashioned police work, like knocking on doors saying, hey, have you seen anything weird, have you seen people carrying around transmitters or antennas.
That's part of it, right, and you rely on some cooperation in some instances to get it done. Are people generally cooperative or are people just like I have no idea what you are talking, I have never seen anything, what is this, I don't want to deal with this?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: The majority of the people do not give us truthful information and so our agents have to be trained to do interviews to know when people are telling the truth or not and it may just require keep asking the right questions and keeping after it.
If they have some skin in the game, an operator or a landlord or a property owner that let somebody put a station up on their rooftop, you know, it's illegal for them to have that station there.
We have language to kind of consider them an operator, so they could be liable for a fine and we do issue them a warning letter. So hopefully that's enough for them to get the station taken down and maybe share some information about who the real operator is.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. So sometimes the apartment owner, the building owner, or whatever, is totally in the dark about this, didn't know about.
Other times though you might have reason to suspect that they are in on it, they are getting a kickback. Has that happened?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. Oh, it happens a lot, especially in these urban areas like New York. There is always a building manager they call the supra and he has a shop down in the basement and a lot of times we find the equipment down in his shop.
He has taken, you know, money from under the table to allow the station to operate from the rooftop without the property owner's knowledge. That happens a lot.
Sometimes we find stations that just access the rooftops without anybody knowing and put the transmitter kind of hidden in a wall somewhere or a crevice and the antenna on the roof and remain anonymous for months without anybody knowing that the station is there.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And you have tools to escalate the situation. Let's say you don't get cooperation from a building owner, you don't get cooperation from the eventual studio, maybe it's in their apartment and they're not opening the door, obviously, because they don't want to get caught.
So how do you escalate the situation, you know, what tools do you have to say, okay, we're not getting cooperation let's take this up a notch?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So we have fines that we could issue. We call them Notices of Apparent Liability where we will fine the operator.
We also get the other federal agencies involved, the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney's Office, where we can seek a warrant.
The warrant is issued to the U.S. Marshal Service actually and that allows us to go in with the U.S. Marshal Service and seize all of the equipment that is associated with the operation of a radio station, really anything physically connected to the transmitter.
It could be computers, antennas, coaxial cables. We take it all. The U.S. Marshals actually seize it. They inventory it all and then they sign it over to the FCC to hold and then we finally get the courts to order that it's released to the federal government and it's our property.
After that we just destroy it through an electronics recycler.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So all that good equipment just gets recycled.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well at least you are recycling.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It's kind of sad to see, but --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. Recycling is good.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So when it comes to local law enforcement are they generally uninterested in taking this on or, you know, because you mentioned federal agents are often involved, it's federal courts, U.S. Marshals, Department of Justice, because we are a federal agency, but have we leveraged the resources and the knowledge of local law enforcement in working on this, are there, you know, different approaches from different States?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So some States have laws on the book that prohibit pirate radio operation, States like New Jersey and New York and Florida.
So that's been great because now we can work with the local authorities, such as the police or the district attorney's office, and get them involved in the investigation, and they have the power to arrest and fine people.
And that's a pretty big deterrent when you show up with police officers threatening to arrest somebody because they are operating a pirate radio station.
So we have had the most success in getting stations off the air when the district attorney is involved, because the U.S. Attorney's Office when we do the in rem seizures, they have a lot of case work and very high profile cases so there is a little reluctance sometimes because of the case precedence for the U.S. attorneys to take on our cases.
So the avenues of working with the district attorneys is a great way to get the injunctions, the court orders, for the pirate station to cease operating permanently.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Probably just workload is another challenge in addition to folks moving the antennas around or taking them down during the day or only operating on weeknights and weekends, as you have said, which forces agents to work overtime.
We have talked about other challenges in densely populated areas just like traffic jams, you're driving around in this van and you can't go anywhere because it's rush hour in New York City.
So those are some of the challenges that you all have to tackle in taking on this important enforcement function.
Now, of course, my favorite thing that I want to ask you is what are some fun examples, maybe not fun, but interesting examples of cases that you have closed where maybe the circumstances were a bit bizarre or interesting that might help a listener understand just how weird some of this stuff can get and just how interesting some of these operations can be.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, we have a lot of stations in New York, in particular. You have somebody that puts a station on the air and then what that person does is he leases air time for his station for other DJs and they come in and so he is getting a kickback from the DJs and he is getting advertising revenue.
And so he kind of gets shielded, right, you know the operators who are operating the station because they advertise their phone numbers in social media and so we can easily identify them, but you always have somebody that's the money guy that's safely hiding behind all these other staff and --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right, he's no the public face of it.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: No, not the public face, but he's all the behind the scenes guy. So we have a lot of those stations operating, so it's big revenue for them.
We also had a case in Queens, New York, where several pirate radio stations got involved together and they were using each other's equipment in order to change location to avoid detection.
They were also changing frequency. So they thought that was a way for them to avoid detection by hopping from building to building and frequency to frequency.
Our agents typically work in a certain area so they become familiar with all the pirate radio operators and they kind of started to notice the pattern and so we were able to gather all of the evidence and go to the U.S. Attorney's Office and seize all that equipment and get the station off the air.
There was a case that I worked back in Philly back in the day --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Your hometown.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Hometown. We have pirate radio there, too, not as bad as we did in New York. This station was operated in Pennsauken, New Jersey, which is right across the river from Philadelphia, and it covered the entire Philadelphia area.
It was the strongest pirate station I have ever witnessed. It had a 20-mile range.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Is that a point of pride for you from Philadelphia?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Well they had their antenna up really high. It was a three bay antenna for any of the those tech-y's out there, so it was a high efficient antenna and a very high powered transmitter.
But the interesting thing about this was that it was operated by a group of people who considered themselves Moors, which are indigenous people of the United States who were here before the United States was colonized.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: And so they said well because we were here before it was colonized our federal laws don't apply to us.
So we typed up this -- They showed me a license and it was something typed up on the computer that said we're licensed by their statutes of the Moors people and so they felt that they have a right to operate.
Well we did go to the courts, we got the warrant, and the U.S. Marshals went in with us and we seized the equipment. Interestingly, the antenna was so high up on the tower we had to bring a bucket truck in from a fire station and raise it --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's some great local cooperation right there.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Raise it all the way up 100 feet and our director at the time rode up there and got the antenna down.
And it was good media coverage, too. There were helicopters flying over and taking videos, so we got on a little TV, and that helps to go a long way when we get a little media coverage.
It helps to show that -- That's a deterrent in itself right there when you get media coverage.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. Now some folks might be asking themselves this is all great, I totally agree that pirate radio is bad, and I think that you should absolutely go after it, but what about the First Amendment?
Do we have a right under the first amendment to speak via a radio station even if it is unlicensed by the FCC and is there potentially a case that can kind of exemplify why pirate radio is not protected under the First Amendment?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, there was a case back in the 1990s, late 1990s. There was an operator named Stephen Dunifer. He was out of Berkeley, California, and his station was called Radio Free Berkeley.
And so he brought this argument up when we tried to get his station off the air by using the court proceedings and he fought that we were violating his First Amendment rights.
And he had some good backing, financial backing, by the ACLU who were fighting for him, and he was a microbroadcaster and he tried to encourage others to follow in his footsteps and protect our First Amendment rights, so he was --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I pirate evangelist?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. He was going around the country and stirring the pot and getting a lot of people excited about microbroadcasting, so that's really where it started to really proliferate.
And then he had, you know, he was on the internet. That was right when the internet really started exploding so he was able to get his message out.
So we eventually went to the courts and fought. The FCC argued that we were here to regulate the airwaves. It would create chaos if we allowed them.
We were able to prove that it wasn't a violation of the First Amendment rights and so that set the precedence for any future case for that argument.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. Now when we talk about enforcement actions, you know, I'd like to kind of paint a picture for our listeners.
Are we talking about U.S. marshals with machine guns kicking in doors, are we talking about politely knocking on a door and saying, hey, guys, your time is up, we found you, you know, what's the image that essentially you see when this goes down in your experience or is there kind of a spectrum of different cases, some are a little bit more intense than others?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Well it depends what level we are at with the investigation. If we are out there just gathering evidence for the first time our agents will go to the door, they will identify themselves with their badge.
Again, they are not law enforcement, so we don't have weapons. We usually go with the police just for our protection and also for the protection of the occupants inside the residence.
We try to interview them. It's a very calm, peaceful, that's what our agents are trained to do, because it works a lot more in getting the truth of what's going on rather than being threatening and forceful.
After that when we don't get compliance from somebody he gets a warning letter and comes back on the air and then we do get the warrant with the U.S. marshals.
Yes, they come with weapons. We have been at in rem seizures we call them where the U.S. marshals come with the local law enforcement and there is 20 of them and they have to secure the whole block off, the have to secure the building for our protection.
And they come -- I've worked with them when they have bulletproof vests on and automatic weapons.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Because you don't know what you are running into.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: We don't know.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Exactly.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: No, and some of these are in high crime areas where there is a lot of drugs. We have had cases where we have gone in on in rem seizures and found drug paraphernalia inside the building and so that becomes now a law enforcement issue and they take care of that, they handle that situation.
But they secure the property for us so that we feel safe going in there and then we help them identify what equipment we need to seize. And so, yes, we may -- We have a warrant for the property.
We do contact the property owner before we execute the warrant to let them know we are at the door and we don't want to break the door down but we need them there to open it.
If we can't get in touch with the property owner we try to use a locksmith and if we can't get the locksmith then the door comes breaking down and then we try to secure it before we leave.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: All right. Yes, so it's kind of like a cascade of options --
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It is.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- and you always try to go with the least destructive one.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: The least, right.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So there are no doubt some good samaritans listening to this show that want nothing more than to help with the scourge of pirate radio.
What can the average person do? Let's say they are listening, they think something is suspicious they get a tip, they see something weird in their building, what can they do to help you and the FCC tackle this problem?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: So we have two ways to file a complaint. We have a call center, it's 888-CALL-FCC where we have staff there during business hours to take your complaint.
But the easiest way to file a complaint is go online. If you just use an internet browser and search FCC complaint you will come to the link for filing a complaint.
Now if you go that menu there are several options of different radio services. If you click on "radio" you'll come to a page where you can input your address and your phone number and email and a description of like what, you know, what you are experiencing.
And that is where we ask for the public's help. We want them to be as descriptive as possible. If they are getting interference to a station they would like to listen what station is that, give the call sign.
Where are you hearing this interference problem? Be specific. Give me an address or an intersection in the town that you are picking it up on.
When do you hear the station? Is it when you are driving in, you know, to and from work? Do you hear it any other time, you know, at night time? Do you hear it on the weekends or is only a station that operates during the weekends?
That's really helpful because then we can note when to send the agents out. Our agents will contact you. We'd like to contact you. That doesn't prohibit somebody from filing an anonymous complaint, we still take those.
We also recommend that the complainant contact the station that they are getting interference to --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: The legitimate one.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, the legitimate one, the licensed station.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: And let them know. Some stations think that it's best to flood the FCC with complaints. It's not. It takes a lot of time to process just one complaint and so it is distracting our agents of getting into the database and populating all the fields and calling the complainant.
So we would rather take one single complaint from a broadcast licensee saying, hey, I've gotten 50 listener complaints in this area, here is where we are hearing it, do a little leg work yourself and verify that it's an unlicensed station, and then we can work with them in getting the station off the air.
And they also would be able to contact us and find out where the complaint is in the queue and, you know, what's going on with the complaint and have we investigated it yet.
You know, when they do that they get a ticket number when they file the ticket online so the broadcasters can call us and find out, let us know that they filed the complaint and follow up with us.
They don't know how to reach us? They can call their State Broadcast Association to get our contact information.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Got you. And I am glad you mentioned call signs because that could be a potential suspicious signal is that pirate radio stations, because they are illegitimate by their very nature, are not doing typical radio station things like announcing their call sign at the top of the hour or doing, you know, certain regular scheduled activities, so that could be something that might mean you are listening to a pirate station.
Now this is not just a focus of the FCC, Congress is also interested in this. They have a bill circulating around called the PIRATE Act.
Of course, it's called the PIRATE Act, and that stands for Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, very creative on that, wasn't it?
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Oh, yes. I mean you got to give it to Congress for the bill naming that they do. What would that bill do differently?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Well there was a version of the bill that passed the House first and now there is a similar bill being considered by Senate.
But if we sign it into law we would have some additional resources, first increasing the fines. Right now it is $10,000 per day per occurrence. That would allow us to increase the fine to $100,000.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Ten times as much, that's big, yes.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. And an overall limit of $2 million. We also would be required to file a report to Congress annually on our enforcement activities in pirate radio. We would also have to create a database for the public access.
It would identify what are the legitimate stations and also identify what stations we sanctioned so they could better get an understanding, you know, is this a legitimate station I am hearing or not.
And another thing, also, we would have to direct our attention annually to five markets that are most affected by pirates and we would do some step-up enforcement.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And those, and I think we mentioned New York, we mentioned Philadelphia, are there other hot spots in particular where this seems to just be a bigger problem than elsewhere in the country?
MR. DOMBROWSKI: You know, that's hard to say. I know at least in our region we get them everywhere. We get them in Virginia, we get them out in Illinois, even just remote areas of West Virginia they pop up.
More areas, more just the urban areas. I know out on the West Coast in California we have more significant numbers than other areas, so that probably would be one of the five markets identified, maybe the L.A. area would probably be another market that we would look at.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, in those dense urban areas because the FM band is already pretty clogged up with legitimate stations that might be one of the reasons that people throw up their hands and say, well, I guess I'm just do an illegal station because I am frustrated by the legal process for getting a station, but that is not a justification in any sense of the word.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: It's not, you know, and we didn't talk about, there are other legal ways to go about it. They could stream. I mean stream --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: A lot of these stations are streaming at the same time so it really boggles my mind why an FM station that's unlicensed, you know, has its stream content and then also it's broadcasting over the airwaves.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: They could stream it just like this podcast we're doing.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes. And they could also --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: We're not using an FM spectrum for this podcast.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: And there is a lot of digital FM stations out there that are looking for programming so they could maybe work out at least an arrangement.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Like subchannels, yes.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Yes, to lease some air time off these legitimate stations.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, so you have options. Well I want to, you know, just emphasize the importance of this issue.
You know, there was a glowing article in a certain New York publication that at least one FCC commissioner was irked by because it seemed to be kind of glorifying this underground practice and making it seem like some interesting thing, but you really got to keep in mind not just the radio stations that are interfered with, but emergency communications.
Radio plays such an important role when you talk about hurricanes striking or other natural disasters, people turn to their local broadcast, including radio for information, and to have that be interfered with is a public safety concern let alone the FAA issues which are very serious.
So just keep in mind next time you read some nice hipster article about how great pirate radio is in your community, that there are serious issues at play and what the FCC is doing is really important and that's why it's so great to have you on here to share your perspective and some of your history working on this and we really just want to thank you for your service.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Thank you. I was glad to be here, it was a great opportunity.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: My guest has been David Dombrowski, Regional Director for Region One in the FCC Enforcement Bureau.
Find this podcast in the iTunes store or Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. Please leave us a review because it will help others find this show.
I will put in the show notes a link to the FCC complaint page and the phone number if you would like to get involved.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: That's not going to be my cell phone is it?
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: No. That would be not a good practice.
MR. DOMBROWSKI: Okay.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. And that's it, we will catch you next time.