Watch what your employees are up to. That’s the message of a recent decision by the FCC, fining a broadcaster $4000 for airing a telephone call that was taped and broadcast without the consent of the caller. In the case released earlier this week, the licensee asked for forgiveness based on the fact that the employee had already left the employment of the station, and because the licensee did not know of the conduct, could not even confirm that it occurred, and did not condone that conduct if it had in fact taken place. Essentially, the FCC found that the evidence provided by the caller who complained to the FCC was so convincing that the Commission could conclude that the call had in fact been aired without the caller’s consent even though the licensee could not confirm it, and the licensee was responsible for the actions of its employees. This sends the clear message to licensees that they must carefully supervise their employees, and think twice about putting that “wild and crazy” disc jockey on the air if the licensee thinks that he won’t be restrained by the Commission’s rules.
This case is another example of the FCC’s rules against airing phone calls without the consent of the caller (or taping those calls for airing without consent), except in the limited circumstances where a caller should know from the context of the program that, by calling the station, he will be put on the air. For instance, if the caller calls on a call-in line to an on-air show where the stations employees are regularly putting callers on the air, then the station should not have problems under the rules. But broadcasters are safest if they are cautious with such phone calls – warning callers with a taped or live message that there call may be taped or put on the air before the taping or airing occurs
The case was also interesting in that the FCC dismissed complaints about the nuisance that the station had allegedly created at a local hotel. According to the decision, the on-air disc jockey told listeners that a touring rock star was at a local hotel, giving out the room number and telling listeners to call or visit the hotel. Despite the fact that the hotel was allegedly deluged with calls and visits from fans, the station continued to urge fans to visit the star. The FCC found that the conduct was not so serious as to have violated the Commission’s “hoax rule” (which is triggered by an on-air action that ties up emergency personnel or otherwise threatens the public safety) and was not otherwise so egregious that the incident, standing alone, showed that the station was not operating in the public interest. Note, however, that this does not give broadcasters license to try this kind of stunt at their own stations, as the hotel owner may have had local actions that he could have brought in civil court for nuisance or on some other legal theory. So think twice before urging your listeners to do something wild and crazy.