In a decision released last Friday, the FCC made clear how far it is willing to go in extending to noncommercial stations leniency for fines for violations of its rules. As we have written before, the FCC changed its policy in a case in which we were involved so as to mitigate harsh penalties for first-time paperwork violations when those violations were by student-run college radio stations. So, if a noncommercial student-run station is found to have missed several years of Quarterly Issues Programs Lists or failed to timely file Biennial Ownership Reports, instead of a fine that would exceed $10,000 had a commercial broadcaster committed the same violations, the noncommercial licensee will usually be able to reach a consent decree with the FCC, reducing the fine to something like $1000 or $1500, but also including a plan to ensure compliance in the future and a requirement for periodic reports to the FCC on the success of that plan. But the FCC made clear that this policy applied only to paperwork violations, and technical operations of the station would not be covered. In a decision released on Friday, the FCC demonstrated that for technical violations, and violations that go beyond your typical paperwork issues, those fines will be higher.
In Friday’s decision, the licensee of an Atlantic City noncommercial radio station filed its license application four years late, long after the station’s license had expired. Thus, for that period, it had been operating without a license. In addition, it had not prepared Quarterly Issues Programs Lists for the entire prior license term and the current one, did not file any Biennial Ownership Reports. Finally, the station had been operating with an antenna that was more than 2 meters below where its license said that it was supposed to be. While the FCC reached a settlement with the licensee, it broke out the “civil penalty” (i.e. a fine) paid by the licensee into two parts. For the missing ownership reports and Quarterly Issues Programs lists, a penalty of $1500 was imposed for violations that would probably have cost a commercial operator many multiples of that amount (see, e.g. our article here about a $10,000 fine for a commercial operator missing Quarterly Issues Programs Lists). But the FCC also asked for an additional $4750 for the late-filed license renewal and the antenna that was several feet below where it was supposed to be. While these might also be less than what a commercial broadcaster would pay for similar violations (see fines issued today, here, here and here, of $1500 each to three broadcasters who filed renewal applications late, but still within the period before their prior licenses had expired, noting that the typical fine for such a violation was $3000, but reducing that amount because of a clean record in the past or inability to pay a higher amount), they do demonstrate that the Commission’s willingness to negotiate minimal penalties for noncommercial broadcasters does have its limits.
I’ll be speaking at the CBI National Electronic Media Convention in Minneapolis next week, conducting sessions including one on FCC legal issues for college radio stations. I’ll also be conducting a webinar tomorrow for about 19 state broadcast associations on the Public File obligations – which will cover issues for both commercial and noncommercial broadcasters including the obligations to prepare Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and to file Biennial Ownership Reports (and, remember, Biennial Ownership Reports for commercial stations across the country are due on December 2). I’ll be posting slides from the state broadcaster presentation here at some point in the next week to provide more information on these important compliance issues.