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.
Continue Reading The Limits on FCC Leniency on Fines for Noncommercial Broadcast Stations

How to deal with a noncommercial radio station’s public inspection file when the station is licensed to a college and has a main studio in a restricted-access student residence hall is a question that I have received repeatedly when I have conducted sessions on FCC rules at noncommercial broadcasters’ conventions and meetings.  In a consent decree reached with a college and announced by the FCC on Friday, the FCC’s Media Bureau has suggested how this issue should be dealt with – by asking for a waiver of the Commission’s rules to allow the file to be maintained at another campus building which has access for the public during normal business hours.

In that case, the Bucknell University station had its main studio in a residence hall not open to the public, and it kept its public file at the student center, another campus building to which the public had access.  While the station posted a sign at the entrance to the residence hall where the main studio was housed that the public file was at the student center, and instructed campus security that this was where anyone who asked for the file should be directed, the college had not asked the FCC for a waiver of Section 73.3527(b)(1),  which requires that the public file of a noncommercial station be kept at the main studio of the station.  In the Consent Decree, the FCC agreed to waive the FCC rules to allow the public file to remain at the student center location, balancing the needs of the public for access to the file with the security needs of the college.  Nevertheless, the licensee made a $2200 “contribution” to the US treasury for not having previously asked for a waiver of the rules to locate the files at a location other than its main studio, and for also failing to include in its files Quarterly Issues Programs lists for several years during the license renewal term in which these issues arose.
Continue Reading The Location of the Public Inspection File of a College Radio Station When the Station’s Main Studio is in a Building Not Open to the General Public Addressed in FCC Consent Decree

Last month, I did a seminar at the College Media Association about the FCC legal issues that college broadcasters need to think about – talking about required FCC filings, pubic file obligations, underwriting issues, and programming that can get the broadcaster into trouble. Slides from that presentation, which present only an outline of the more detailed discussion that we had during the session, are available here.

I mentioned during the session that the FCC decided two years ago that they would be somewhat lenient with student-run radio stations who are first-time violators of certain FCC rules. In a case that we wrote about here, the FCC said that the fines that are imposed on commercial broadcasters for rule violations like the failure to include quarterly issues programs lists in the public inspection file (fines which can exceed $10,000 when numerous such lists are missing from the public file), would be greatly reduced – to something on the order of $1000 – for student-run stations that are facing their first violation, and provided that the fine dealt principally with paperwork matters and was not one that affected public health or safety. In a decision released by the FCC last week, the limits of that leniency were made clear.
Continue Reading A Seminar on FCC Rules for College Broadcasters – And an FCC Case on the Limits on Leniency on Fines For Rule Violations By Noncommercial Broadcasters

The FCC has once again proposed a $10,000 fine against a college radio station missing quarterly issues/program lists in the public inpsection file.  This time, the culprit is Rollins College, a small liberal arts college in Florida with 1700 students. 

We know that $10,000 is the "base forfeiture" for failure to maintain a complete public inspection file, and this is not the first time the FCC has proposed this fine for a college radio station.  But we have questioned before whether a $10,000 fine is appropriate for this type of violation and the amount seems even more egregious when it is levied against a small noncommercial educational college radio station.  It is the same fine that would be levied against a major commercial television network station located in New York City for the same violation.

Yes, rules are rules and they should be followed by all FCC licensed broadcast stations.  But as Dave Seyler notes in a thoughtful piece written for Radio Business Report, it may not be in the best interests of the federal government to "siphon money out of our educational system."  In this case, as in other similar cases, the college received no warning following an FCC inspection…just the fine. 


Continue Reading Does $10,000 Fine Make Sense for Small College Radio Station Missing Public File Documents?

The days when noncommercial broadcasters could count on being treated by the FCC with a lighter regulatory touch are over.
Continue Reading FCC Gives No Special Consideration to Noncommercial Broadcasters Who Violate the Rules – Colleges Pay Attention to Your Radio Station!