Earlier this week, I posted a Top Ten list of legal issues that should keep a broadcast station operator up at night. In two orders released today, the FCC found stations where these issues apparently had not been keeping their operators awake, as the FCC issued fines for numerous violations. At one station, the FCC found that the EAS monitor was not working, the fence around the AM tower site was unlocked, and the station had no public inspection file, resulting in a $5500 fine (see the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau order here). At another station, the FCC inspectors were told that the station had no public file, and they also found the AM tower site fence unlocked, resulting in a $3500 fine (see the order here). These cases are one more example that, while broadcasters have plenty of big-picture legal and policy issues that they need to be concerned about, they also need to worry about the nuts and bolts, as the failure to observe basic regulatory requirements like tower fencing, EAS, and public file requirements can bring immediate financial penalties to a station.
The tower fencing issue is one that we have written about before. FCC rules require that public access be restricted to areas of high RF radiation, which are likely to occur at ground levels near AM stations. The FCC has many times issued fines for fences with unlocked gates, holes, or areas where there are gullies where a child could climb under the fence into the tower area. The FCC has been unwilling to accept excuses that the fence was locked "yesterday" or "last week" or at some other less defined time in the absence of proof, as they’ve heard that excuse many time. If the fence is open when they arrive, expect a fine.
EAS is another area where many stations have had issues. In this case, it appeared that the station operators were unfamiliar with the EAS system and how it worked, or why it hadn’t received the required EAS alerts. I’ve heard from many engineers who work with the Alternate Broadcast Inspection Program ("ABIP") that this is a frequent problem at stations around the country. ABIP is a program that many state broadcast associations run, where they hire private inspectors to visit stations to assess their FCC compliance. If stations pass the ABIP program, they are exempt from a random FCC technical inspection for three years (though the FCC can still inspect a station which has passed the ABIP inspection where there are complaints or violations that are a threat to safety). These inspections can identify problems early, so that you can avoid fines later. All stations should consider such an inspection to avoid issues such as a non-functioning EAS receiver.
An ABIP inspection would also discover a problem that one of these stations had – no public file. Obviously, all full-power stations are supposed to have public inspection files. See our memo on the contents of the file for commercial stations. And all employees who could possibly be called on to greet an FCC inspector who arrives at a station should know where the file is kept. No file, or employees who don’t know about the file, expect a fine.
Careful planning now, and undergoing an ABIP inspection can avoid fines later. In this case, a little prevention would have provided a cure from thousands of dollars of liabilities.
[Additional thoughts – 10/28/10 – note that, in both of these cases, the FCC initially fined the stations much higher amounts, but reduced the fines to the levels reported above after the stations showed that they would be unable to pay the higher fines. The initial fines were $25,000 – reduced to $5,500 – and $17,000 – reduced to $3,500. These amount show just how much violations of the sort found here could cost a successful radio station.]