Florida Toughens Law on Pirate Radio

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A new law in Florida makes operating a pirate radio station a felony carrying a five-year prison sentence. The Federal Communications Commission says the state is a hotbed of illegal operators, but a crackdown is complicated by the difficulty of catching offenders. Amy Tardif of member station WGCU reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Turn your radio dial, after this program of course, and you might tune into a pirate radio station. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission shut down more than 200 unlicensed stations. This problem is considered especially bad in Florida. It's now a felony there to operate a pirate radio station, as Amy Tardif of member station WGCU reports.

AMY TARDIF reporting:

This radio station doesn't have a license to broadcast.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man: Dream team radio.

TARDIF: It's also difficult to comprehend.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) for the first time ever, the 239.

TARDIF: Despite the poor quality, and being sought by state and federal authorities, these Ft. Myers deejay wanna-bes kept blasting hip-hop music on 103.3 FM. That bothered Jim Keating, market manager for Clear Channel, which also broadcasts hip-hop on nearby 105.5.

Mr. JIM KEATING (Market Manager, Clear Channel): It's just a slap in the face to legal broadcasters who work real hard and at great expense to be on the air legally.

TARDIF: Keating says the station not only broadcast threats against his organization but pilfered its advertising.

Mr. KEATING: In this case, the unlicensed operator does approach some of our advertisers and, in fact, has gotten commitments from some of our advertisers. We simply take the position if you do business with an unlicensed operator, you don't do business with us.

TARDIF: Florida Association of Broadcasters attorney Reggie Garcia says this is exactly why his group helped create the law, making illegal broadcasts a felony.

Mr. REGGIE GARCIA (Florida Association of Broadcasters Attorney): These pirates were creating interferences for the existing stations, which certainly hurts advertisers who are paying for advertising, hurts listeners particularly trying to hear music but also trying to subscribe and support public stations and could frustrate an Amber Alert when there's a kidnapped child and law enforcement utilizes public and commercial radio to get the word out and those first few hours are very critical.

TARDIF: In the past, policing pirate radio in Florida was up to the Federal Communications Commission, which refused to comment for this story. But when the FCC found pirates, it shut them down and fined them. It was the job of local police to keep the operators from starting up again. But it wasn't high on their priority list. Now that running a pirate station is a felony, law enforcement is paying more attention. Violators face five years in prison, but catching them is a challenge. First, law enforcement officials need to find where the signal's coming from. In the case of the Ft. Myers station, state and federal agents used special equipment to trace it to a duplex in the inner city.

Mr. LARRY LONG (Florida Department of Law Enforcement): Basically what we found was a large PCP pipe that was connected to the side of the house with a transmitter antenna on top of it.

TARDIF: Larry Long is with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Mr. LONG: We were able to locate a computer system that was basically hooked up to the Internet and was using that to broadcast their signal through the transmitter.

TARDIF: Agents confiscated the equipment, but two months later the station was back on the air. That's because finding the operators, Long says, can still be a difficult process.

Mr. LONG: A lot of times, they do these pirate radio stations remotely, so it's going to be very difficult to try to place somebody there. But we're hopeful that we can gather the evidence enough to bring some charges and maybe keep the station from coming back on the air.

TARDIF: And the rapid advances of technology may help keep pirates ahead of enforcers of the public airwaves.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Tardif in Ft. Myers, Florida.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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