In recent weeks, tragic events in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere engender thoughts for the victims, their families and their communities.  Events like these have become all too common, and certain normal routine has developed, with broadcast stations devoting substantial amounts of airtime to coverage of the event until some new story takes away their attention. While the events are ones that cause us to think about those involved, and perhaps the broader political and policy issues that each raises, broadcasters also need to consider, to some degree, the legal implications of the coverage of such events and the questions that are sometimes raised about the FCC issues that can arise in such coverage.  Why isn’t EAS invoked?  Can we interview political candidates about the events?  What other legal issues should broadcasters be considering in connection with events like these?

One question that seemingly arises whenever events like these occur is why isn’t EAS used more often?  Even during 9-11, there was no activation of the EAS system, and there were some questions of why that was.  In fact, EAS is not intended to provide a source for blanket coverage of events like those that occurred recently, or even of those with broader national implications like the events of 9-11.  There are no reporters or information-gathering sources at the other end of the EAS alert system putting together updates on the news and ready to start providing substantive coverage of any news event.  Instead, EAS is meant to provide immediate alerts about breaking, actionable events – like the approach of a severe storm, the need to evacuate a particular area in the advance of a fire or after a tanker spill or, in its origins during the Cold War, the possibility of a nuclear attack.  In any of these events, it is not EAS, but the broadcasters themselves and other journalists who are the ones that need to provide the in-depth coverage of events as they occur.  While the FCC is looking at revamping the EAS system in many different proceedings, the basic workings of the system do not change.  A weather alert or a Presidential address on a catastrophic event may occur through EAS, but the full coverage of that event, with all the developments and details, is going to come from the broadcasters themselves, not from Federal, state or local EAS alerts.
Continue Reading Covering Breaking News and Local Emergencies – FCC Issues to Consider

Perhaps Sunday’s anniversary of Pearl Harbor made the FCC want to make this week one which concentrated on emergency communications issues, or perhaps it is just a coincidence.  But the FCC has been active in the past 7 days dealing with emergency communications related items for broadcasters.  On Wednesday, it issued a consent decree by which a broadcaster agreed to a $46,000 fine for the use of EAS tones in a commercial message. This decision follows on the heels of an investigatory letter sent to a satellite radio programmer about the apparent use of a simulated EAS tone in a commercial message when, of course, there was no real emergency.   On Monday, there were two fines for non-operational EAS receivers and EAS recordkeeping failures.  At the end of last week, comments were filed in an FCC proceeding looking at the retransmission of EAS alerts in non-emergency situations, such as when a tone is included in programming on a station, and what can be done to avoid those alerts being sent throughout the system.  Comments are also due by the end of the month on suggested best practices on security for the EAS system, in light of the many issues that have arisen with the hacking of EAS receivers.  Here is a quick look at each of these issues.

The two most recent decisions highlight the severity with which the FCC is treating the use of EAS tones – real or simulated – in non-emergency programming.  We have written about past cases where the FCC has issued very substantial fines for the use of such tones in nonemergency situations, here and here.  In the decision released on Wednesday, the licensee of a Michigan radio station admitted to having broadcast ads for a storm-chasing tour which contained the EAS warning tones.  The National Weather Service received complaints, and in turn filed a complaint with the FCC.  The Consent Decree does not provide much more information, but to indicate that the commercial containing the EAS tones was broadcast on only a single day.  A $46,000 fine for a one-day violation demonstrates the gravity with which the FCC views these violations.  And it is a sense of importance that attaches not just to licensees, but to programmers as well.
Continue Reading A Week of Emergency Alert System Actions at the FCC – Fines Including One for $46,000 for EAS Tones in a Commercial, and Reviews of Best Practices for the System