alternate broadcast inspection program

A flurry of fines against broadcasters have come out of the FCC in the last week.  These fines highlight the scrutiny under which owners of broadcast stations can find themselves should an FCC Field Office inspector knock on their door.  If the FCC pays a visit and finds a violation, a station is often looking at a fine even if it quickly takes corrective action.  Let’s look at some of these fines and the issues raised by each.

First, a Regional Director of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau yesterday released a $17,000 Forfeiture Order (a notice of a fine) to a Michigan AM broadcaster for having a fence around its tower that had “separated” allowing unfettered access to the site and for missing quarterly issues programs lists in the public file.  The FCC refused to lower the fine, despite the licensee’s arguments that the quarterly issues programs lists were in fact at the station but there was “confusion” as to where they were at the time of the inspection, and its argument that it should not be responsible for the fencing issue as it did not itself own the real estate or the towers.
Continue Reading FCC Fines: $17,000 for Unsecure AM Tower Fence (Not Owning the Tower Site is No Excuse); $25,000 for Missing Quarterly Issues Programs Lists; $22,000 for Nonfunctioning EAS and Wrong Tower Coordinates

What should broadcasters worry about from an FCC inspection? A few weeks ago, I was speaking at the Kansas Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention. At the convention, I attended a session conducted by an FCC field inspector and the engineer who conducts the "alternate broadcast inspection program" ("ABIP") for the KAB.  We’ve written about the ABIP program before, and how beneficial participation in that program can be for stations that want to avoid an FCC inspection and possible fine. At the convention, these inspectors talked about the issues on which the FCC is focusing in recent inspections. These issues are not to the exclusion of other common issues that we have written about before – like the need to keep the public file updated, the completion of quarterly issues programs lists, the need to maintain operational an EAS encoder/decoder, and the requirements for manned main studios. But there are other issues, including some that have not been a focus in the past, that now require broadcasters to be on guard.

One issue deals with broadcast auxiliaries. These are the licenses that broadcasters use in connection with their main studio operation. This includes licenses like Studio-Transmitter Links (STLs) that relay programming from the studio to the transmitter site and Remote Pickups (RPUs) that convey remote information back to the studio. During the summer, the FCC fined several stations for using auxiliaries without a license in amounts up to $20,000 (here and here), and issued a fine for $8000 for a station using an STL at a location different than that set out on the STL’s license. Have you moved a main studio in recent times? If so, did you amend your STL license to specify the new studio location – which is most likely the new transmit site for the STL? If you haven’t, and the FCC catches you, you may be looking at a fine.Continue Reading FCC Inspection Issues for Broadcasters – Auxiliary Licenses, Chief Operator Designations, and Tower Issues

In several recent cases, the FCC issued big fines to stations that had significant gaps in their public inspection files – fines of between $10,000 and $14,000.  Unlike many other recent public inspection file fines, these fines did not arise from self-reporting of violations in a license renewal application, nor were they discovered as a result of a complaint from a disgruntled listener or competitor.  These fines also did not arise in connection with the discovery of other violations at the stations.  Instead, these fines were the result of FCC inspections – inspections that seemingly did not turn up other significant violations.  Thus, these cases serve as a warning that broadcasters need to ensure that their file is complete and up-to-date at all times.  Curiously, these large fines come at the same time that the FCC is about to consider comments on whether the public file paperwork burden is justifiable.

These fines were large – demonstrating a seeming trend to ever-higher fines for public file violations.  The $14,000 fine issued today went to a Class A TV station that had no quarterly programs issues lists in its public file for the entire license renewal term – 34 reports were missing at the time of the inspection.  Based on this egregious violation, the FCC decided that an increase over the base $10,000 fine was in order.  Two AM stations, which had pretty much the same violation as the Class A station – no QPIs for the same period of time – received $10,000 fines (see decisions here and here).  A third AM station received a $10,000 fine for having no new information in its public file since 2006.Continue Reading FCC Fines Of $10,000 to $14,000 for Broadcast Public File Violations – Discovered By FCC Inspections

Three recent FCC cases demonstrate how seriously the FCC views tower site issues – imposing fines up to $14,000 for various violations of FCC rules.  One $14,000 fine was in a case where an AM station’s tower was enclosed by a fence that was falling down and did not enclose areas of high RF radiation as required by Section 73.49 of the rules.  The station also had a main studio that was unattended on two successive days, and had no one answering the phone on those days – no one to respond to the FCC’s calls.  The FCC broke the fine down as $7000 due to the lack of fencing, and $7000 to the unattended main studio.

In the second case, the FCC, the FCC fined a station $10,000 for areas of high RF radiation that were not fenced or marked by signs when the FCC conducted its inspection, and $4000 for operating overpower.  The Commission measured the overpower operation on one day, inferred that it had been in place the previous day, and thus deemed the violation repeated.  The Commission found that the station’s tower was fenced, but that there was high RF outside the fence, leading to the fine.  The third case was one where the Commission found that the top flashing beacon on a tower was out on two successive days, even though the required steady lit obstruction lights on the side of the tower were operational.  While the licensee notified the FAA of the outage three days later (with no noted prompting from the FCC), and had the situation corrected two days after notifying the FAA, the Commission also determined that the the violation was repeated and willful, leading to a $10,000 fine.Continue Reading Tower Lights Out, High RF Radiation, Insufficient Transmitter Site Fences – FCC Fines Up to $14,000

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.Continue Reading Non-Functioning EAS, An Unavailable Public File and Open Tower Site Gates Result in FCC Fines of $5500 and $3500

In a decision by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, the Commission issued a $1250 fine to a station that did not have its licensee’s Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws in its public file when a listener came to check the file.  While the rules allow such documents to be left out of the file if there is a list of ownership-related documents in the file and the documents themselves are provided within 7 days of a request, here the licensee did not provide the missing documents for over a month of the request.  After investigating the complaint from the person who had looked at the file, the Commission arrived at the $1250 fine.  But there is another troubling aspect to this case, and that deals with the decisions references to the Alternate Broadcast Inspection Program ("ABIP").

The Alternate Broadcast Inspection Program is run by state broadcast associations, in cooperation with the FCC.  These plans are meant to encourage broadcasters to voluntarily police themselves, by having private inspectors hire by the state associations, inspect their stations.  If violations are found and corrected, the FCC will often be lenient or give the station a pass altogether (as in many reporting violations found in renewal applications).  In addition, the FCC’s own inspectors are supposed to not single out a station that has had an ABIP inspection for a random FCC field inspection.  Here, the station had participated in several ABIP inspections, and the inspector had not found the public file violation.  Nevertheless, the Commission stated that a station is responsible for compliance with the FCC Rules, and it cannot delegate that responsibility to anyone else.  So, even though the inspector had not seen the problem, the station was still liable.  The ABIP program does not give a station immunity from an FCC action in response to a complaint, or from stepping in where there is a threat to safety or other immediate danger.  Even though this action by the FCC, taken in response to a complaint, may not technically be prohibited from the terms of the alternate inspection program, one wonders if the Commission, in this circumstance, is not being a little harsh.  The document missing from the public file was not one fundamental to station operations, or even to the mission of the FCC.  The failure to have it in the file did not cause interference between broadcast stations, nor likely did it have any discernible impact on the content of the broadcasts from the station.  Yes, its absence may have technically been against the FCC’s rules, but wouldn’t an admonition have gotten the message across just as well as a fine in this case, particularly where the participation in several ABIP inspections made clear that the licensee was operating in good faith – trying to comply with the FCC’s rules?Continue Reading $1250 FCC Fine for Not Having Licensee’s Articles of Incorporation in Station’s Public File