October is one of the busiest months on the broadcaster’s regulatory calendar. On October 1, EEO Public Inspection file reports are due in the online public file of stations that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. An employment unit is one or more commonly controlled stations in the same geographic area that share at least one employee.

October 1 is also the deadline for license renewal filings by radio stations (including FM translators and LPFM stations) in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On the 1st and 16th of the month, stations in those states, and in North and South Carolina, need to run post-filing announcements on the air informing listeners about the filing of their license renewal applications. Pre-filing announcements about the upcoming filing of license renewal applications by radio stations in Alabama and Georgia also are to run on the 1st and 16th. See our post here on the FCC’s reminder about the pre- and post-filing announcements.
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On Friday, the FCC’s Audio Division released its first decision in the current renewal cycle addressing the issue of incomplete public inspection files and missing Quarterly Issues Programs List, proposing to fine an AM station in Virginia $15,000 for apparently not having any Issues Programs Lists in its online public inspection file for the entire renewal term.  The decision, found here, should serve as a warning to broadcasters to make sure that their online files are complete and up to date.

The facts of this case, summarized below, seem particularly egregious as the station had the same issue of missing issues programs lists when its last renewal was filed 8 years ago.  Nevertheless, we can expect that this won’t be the last fine we will see for stations that have incomplete public files.  The FCC has been sending out warnings about incomplete online files for the last year, and we’ve been warning (see, for instance, here and here) that, with all public inspection files now being available online, the FCC will likely be issuing fines during this renewal cycle if documents are missing from the file.  The Quarterly Issues Programs lists are seen by the FCC as being particularly important as they are the only official documents demonstrating the public interest programming that was actually broadcast by a station (see our article here). 
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On the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, we should all be thankful for the work of the nation’s first responders. Broadcasters and other members of the electronic communications industries play a part in the response to any emergency – including through their participation in the Emergency Alert System (EAS). In recent weeks, the FCC has been aggressively prosecuting parties who it has found to have transmitted false or misleading EAS alerts. This was exhibited this week through the Notice of Apparent Liability issued to CBS for an altered and shortened version of the EAS tones used in the background of a “Young Sheldon” episode, leading to a $272,000 proposed fine. Consent decrees were announced two weeks ago with broadcasters and cable programmers for similar violations (see FCC notices here, here, here and here), with payments to the US Treasury reaching $395,000. These follow past cases that we have written about here, here, here, here, and here, where fines have exceeded $1 million. The CBS case raised many interesting issues that have received comment elsewhere in recent days, including the First Amendment implications of restrictions on the use of EAS tones in programming, and whether an altered tone in the background of an entertainment program, where audiences would seemingly realize there was no actual emergency, should really be the subject of an enforcement action. But the question that has not received much attention is one raised by the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory released last month addressing the improper use of EAS alert tones and the Wireless Emergency Alert tones used by wireless carriers (known as WEA alerts), and simulations of those tones. That advisory raises questions of just how far the FCC’s jurisdiction in this area goes – could it reach beyond the broadcasters and cable programmers to which it has already been applied and extend to online programming services?

This question arises because the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory addresses not only EAS tones used by broadcasters and cable systems, but also the WEA alert tones voluntarily deployed by most wireless providers. The advisory makes clear that the use of either EAS or WEA tones without a real emergency is a violation of the FCC rules. The Advisory states:

The use of simulated or actual EAS codes or the EAS or WEA Attention Signals (which are composed of two tones transmitted simultaneously), for nonauthorized purposes—such as commercial or entertainment purposes—can confuse people or lead to “alert fatigue,” whereby the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.

The FCC goes on to state:

the use of the WEA common audio attention signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency, authorized test, or except as designed and used for PSAs by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial entities, is strictly prohibited.
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The FCC’s recent action reforming many of the rules governing the broadcast of TV programming serving the educational and informational needs of children will go into effect on September 16 (see our articles here and here). Yet, at the same time as it was announcing the process by which these rules will be implemented (see our post from yesterday), it released two consent decrees resolving apparent violations of the old KidVid rules revealed in license renewal applications filed many years ago. In one case, the FCC agreed to a financial penalty of $109,000 to be paid by Nexstar in connection with violations at two stations – one in Arkansas and one in Texas. These violations apparently first arose in connection with license renewals filed almost 15 years ago. In another case involving a religious commercial station in Pullman, Washington, the financial penalty was $30,700 for violations that were identified in connection with its 2014 license renewal application. In both cases, the licensees agreed, in addition to the financial penalties, to institute compliance plans to ensure that future violations of the children’s television rules do not occur at any commonly owned stations.

The Consent Decree entered into by the Washington station penalized the station for preempting children’s programming for station fundraisers so that it did not meet the obligation to air an average of 3 hours of weekly “core programming” addressing children’s educational and informational needs. Certain supplemental programming claimed by the station to substitute for the underperformance was aired outside of the hours in which “core programming” must air to receive credit toward a station’s obligations (currently those hours are 7 AM to 10 PM, but they will expand to 6 AM to 10 PM on September 16). The FCC also identified errors in the Quarterly Children’s Television Reports submitted by the station (as we reported yesterday, these reports will be replaced by an annual filing after the final quarterly report that is due by October 10).
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Many of the revisions to the FCC’s Children’s Television rules become effective on September 16 (as we wrote here), though there are portions of the revised rules whose implementation will be delayed pending approval by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The FCC earlier this week released a Public Notice detailing which provisions will become effective on September 16. That notice also discusses how stations should report on their educational and informational programming directed to children on their next Quarterly Children’s Television Report, due to be filed at the FCC by October 10.

As we noted in our earlier article on the effective date, many of the new rules, including the following, will go into effect on September 16: (1) allowing “core programming” (i.e., the programs which meet the educational and informational programming requirements) to air starting at 6 AM (instead of 7 AM under the current rules); (2) eliminating the obligation to air additional core programming for each multicast channel operated by a station; (3) allowing some core programming to air on multicast streams instead of the main program channel; (4) allowing some short-form programming to substitute for core programming of at least 30 minutes; and (5) allowing more flexibility in the preemption of children’s programs. Not going into effect for now are rules relating to changes in the notifications to program guides, rules relating to public notice of preemptions and “second homes” of preempted programs, and the elimination of the need for noncommercial TV stations to display the E/I symbol in children’s programs. Also awaiting OMB approval and thus not yet effective are the rules changing the FCC reporting requirements from a quarterly obligation to an annual one. Yesterday’s public notice addressed how stations are supposed to complete their Quarterly Reports in this interim period.
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The FCC this week issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a $233,000 fine to Cumulus Media for violations of the sponsorship identification rules.  The fine illustrates not only how seriously the FCC takes its sponsorship identification rules (particularly in the context of political and issue advertising) but also the how aggressively the FCC can act for even the slightest violation of a consent decree involving a prior violation of its rules.  If the FCC catches you once in a rule violation, don’t get caught again for the same violation – and if you agree to the terms of a consent decree in connection with that first violation, by all means abide by the letter of that decree or the FCC will not hesitate to exercise its full enforcement power.

This case involves alleged violations by Cumulus Media.  Three years ago, Cumulus entered into a consent decree with the FCC agreeing to pay a $540,000 penalty after admitting that it did not include a full sponsorship identification disclosure on issue ads supporting government approval of an electrical utility project in New Hampshire (see our article here on that consent decree).  As part of the consent decree, the company agreed to a 3-year compliance program to educate its personnel about the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules, to appoint a compliance officer to oversee compliance with the rules and answer questions, and to report to the FCC within 15 days any violations of these FCC rules.  In the Notice released this week, the FCC alleged that Cumulus reported that it had in two instances aired ads without the proper identification – each set of ads running 13 times before the lack of a proper identification was caught and corrected.  In one instance, the violation was reported to the FCC within two weeks, but in the other case, it was not reported to the FCC for approximately 8 months.  Based on this instance of late reporting, and the 26 sponsorship identification violations, the FCC proposed the $233,000 fine.  How did they come up with that number?
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The FCC yesterday issued a News Release about an unusual action taken by the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts entering into a consent decree with a pirate radio operator, where the operator agreed to surrender all of its operating equipment to the FCC, and to stop broadcasting illegally.  If the operator is again caught operating

The license renewal cycle, about which we have been warning broadcasters for at least the last year (see, for instance, our posts here, here and here), is now upon us. June 3 is the filing deadline for license renewals for radio stations in Maryland, DC, Virginia and West Virginia. Radio stations (including FM translators and LPFMs) licensed to any community in any of those states should be filing their renewal applications in the FCC’s Licensing and Management System (LMS) by Monday’s deadline. The new FCC forms, as we wrote here, have been available since early May, so the renewal and the accompanying EEO program report should either be on file or ready to be filed in LMS by the June 3 filing deadline. These stations should also be running their postfiling license renewal announcements on the 1st and 16th of June, July and August. Radio stations in the next renewal group, in North and South Carolina, should begin their license renewal pre-filing announcements on June 1st and 16th as well, informing the public about the upcoming filing of their renewals due on August 1. See this article on pre-filing announcements for more information.

In addition, broadcasters in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees should also be preparing to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public File Report. This report is due to be added to their online public files by June 1. A link to this report should also be placed on the station’s website, if it has a website.
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Looking for a brief explanation of the online public inspection file and Quarterly Issues Programs List, and how they will be viewed in connection with the upcoming license renewal cycle – including the potential fines for violations of the rules? The Indiana Broadcasters has just released this video of me discussing those issues available

It’s that time again.  If you are planning any on-air pranks on Monday for April Fools’ Day, think twice.  As we do every year about this time, we need to play our role as attorneys and ruin the fun by repeating our reminder that broadcasters need to be careful with any on-air pranks, jokes or other bits prepared especially for the day.  While a little fun is OK, remember that the FCC does have a rule against on-air hoaxes. While issues under this rule can arise at any time, broadcaster’s temptation to go over the line is probably highest on April 1.

The FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes, Section 73.1217, prevents stations from running any information about a “crime or catastrophe” on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused.  Public harm is defined as “direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.”  Air a program that fits within this definition and causes a public harm, and expect to be fined by the FCC.
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