The FCC has proposed amending its rules governing the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in order to test and improve the effectiveness of the system.  In particular, the Commission has proposed that all EAS participants be required to join in a nationwide test — to be scheduled by the FCC in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — to ensure that the system will function properly to inform the public in the event of a national crisis.  The FCC proposes to implement the national test on a yearly basis and seeks comment on the specific language of the proposed rule.  A copy of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) was recently published in the Federal Register establishing the deadline for Comments on the proposed rules as March 1, 2010, with Reply Comments due on or before March 30, 2010.

In issuing its NPRM, available here, the Commission acknowledged the shortcomings of the current rules and its belief that a national test — and the data gathered from such a test — is critical to ensuring consistency and reliability in a system that has actually never been used to deliver a national Presidential alert.  Under the current system, an EAS message is initiated, which is then passed via specially encoded messages to a broadcast-based transmission network, and then on to broadcast stations, cable operators, and other EAS participants in a daisy-chain distribution to the final end users, i.e., the public who is listening, watching, or reading, on radio, television, cable, or other services.  This daisy-chain structure leaves the system, in the Commission’s estimation, vulnerable to a significant failure if the message distribution is severed or delayed at any one point.  By proposing an annual national test, the Commission seeks to test the system in an organized, controlled manner, gather data from the EAS participants, and apply what is learned.  Under the Commission’s proposed rule, the annual test would replace one of the required monthly tests and participants would have at least two months advance notice of the nationwide test.  EAS participants would be required to log the test results of the test and provide information on the results to the Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau within 30 days of the test.  The Commission seeks input on the proposed rule, including whether once a year is sufficient, and what the costs would be attendant to the testing and reporting.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes National Test of EAS – Emergency Alert System; Comments on Proposed Rules due March 1

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to broadcasters for failure to observe some basic FCC rules.  As there many FCC rules to observe, broadcasters should use the misfortune of others who have suffered from these fines as a way to check their own operations to make sure that they meet all of the required Commission standards.  In the recent cases, fines were issued for a variety of violations, including the failure to have a manned main studio, the failure to have a working EAS system, incomplete public files, operations of an AM station at night with daytime power, and the failure to have a locked fence around an AM tower.  This post deals with the issues discovered at the studios of stations – a separate post will deal with the issues at the transmitter sites. 

The main studio rule violation was a case that, while seemingly obvious, also should remind broadcasters of their obligations under the requirement that a station have a manned main studio.  In this case, when the FCC inspectors arrived at the station’s main studio, they found it locked and abandoned.  Once they were able to locate a station representative to let them into the studio, they found that there was some equipment in the facility, but it was not hooked up, nor was there any telephone or data line that would permit the station to be controlled from the site.  The Commission’s main studio rules require that there be at least two station employees for whom the studio is their principal place of business (I like to think of it as the place where these employees have their desks with the pictures of their kids or their dog, as the case may be, and where they show up in the morning to drink their morning cup of coffee before heading out to do sales, news or whatever their job may be).  At least one of the two employees who report to the studio as their principal place of business must be a management level employee, and at least one of those employees must be present during all normal business hours.  Thus, the studio should never be devoid of human life.  The studio must be able to originate programming, and the station must be able to be controlled from that location so that the employees there could originate programming in the event of a local emergency.  In light of these violations and others, the station in this case was fined $8000.


Continue Reading FCC Inspections – Fines for Violations of Rules on Main Studio, EAS, and Public File

I’m writing this entry as I return from the annual convention of the Iowa Broadcasters Association, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa. Anyone who has read, watched or listened to the national news this week knows of the terrible tornadoes that devastated a Boy Scout camp in that state, and the floods ravaging many of its cities and threatening others. I arrived in Iowa on Wednesday having just completed the filing of reply comments in the FCC’s localism proceeding, and after reviewing the many comments filed in that proceeding. After talking with, watching and listening to the Iowa Broadcasters, I was struck by the contrast between the picture of the broadcast industry contained in the Commission’s notice of proposed rulemaking and that which I saw and heard reflected in the words and actions of the broadcasters. I could only think of how the broadcasters of Iowa and the remainder of the country have dealt admirably in their programming with the disasters that nature has sent their way, and with the other issues facing this country every day, and have been able to do this all without any compulsion by the government. Why, when we have probably the most responsive broadcast system on earth, do we need the government to step in and tell broadcasters how to serve their communities?

At dinner on Wednesday, I watched one station general manager repeatedly getting up from his meal to take calls from his station about their coverage of a tornado that had come within a quarter mile of his studio, and how he had to insist that his employees take shelter from the storm rather than continuing to broadcast news reports from their exposed location as the tornado bore down on them. Another told me of how he and another employee had spent the previous day piling sandbags around the station to keep the water from flooding the studio, all the time reporting between every song the station played updates on the weather and travel conditions in their community. Other stations had continued to operate after their tower sites flooded by gerry-rigging antennas on dry land to permit their continued operation. In one of the more minor inconveniences, one station talked about operating for a few days after their city’s waterworks had been inundated by floods , meaning that their studio (and the rest of town) had no running water for drinking or even for flushing the toilets.  Yet, between these inconveniences, large and small, the broadcasters continued their service, without being told how by the government.


Continue Reading Iowa Broadcasters – Floods, Tornadoes and Localism

The FCC has scheduled a Summit on the Emergency Alert System ("EAS"), to be held on May 19.  The EAS system is the alert system used by broadcasters to pass on emergency information from government officials to their listeners.  EAS replaced the Emergency Broadcast System ("EBS") and was intended to be a more reliable substitute for the system originally adopted during the Cold War to convey a Presidential message about a nuclear attack or similar emergency to the entire country.  Over the years, the system has adapted to include information about local emergencies and "amber alerts" about the kidnapping or disappearance of children.  However, especially since 9-11 and some of the hurricanes in the South, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the system, and means to make the distribution of emergency information more reliable and efficient have been sought.  The FCC currently has a rulemaking pending to determine ways in which that system can be made more efficient – a question sure to be addressed at the Summit.

In the current proceeding on reforming the EAS system, one of the questions that has been asked is how the system should be activated for non-Federal emergencies.  Obviously, the President can still activate the system for a national emergency, but how alerts about local emergencies are initiated is one of the more controversial issues in the proceeding.  Currently, there is no uniform system.  Instead, each state’s system may have different points from which an alert can be initiated.  Concerns have been raised that if the ability to initiate an alert is too broadly distributed, alerts may be initiated haphazardly, and if too many alerts are issued, the system will lose its impact and other important programming may be preempted unnecessarily.  Thus, proposals have been made that the alerts should be initiated only by a state’s Governor or his or her specifically designated representative. 


Continue Reading FCC Schedules Summit on Status of EAS

The FCC’s Emergency Alert System ("EAS") is the bane of many broadcasters.  Failing to have operational EAS equipment, or otherwise failing to comply with the requirements of the rules, including failures to conduct the mandatory tests of the system, are among the most common causes of a fine following an FCC field inspection.  To help ensure compliance with the EAS

As the Commission held its last localism hearing in Washington on Halloween night, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s views on how the FCC should insure that stations are responsive to their communities became somewhat clearer.  In his opening statement, the Chairman outlined a set of actions that could be taken by the FCC to insure more service to the public.  While emphasizing the importance of efforts to encourage new entrants into broadcast ownership, the Chairman’s proposals to add new regulatory requirements, including requiring that a station be manned during all hours of operation, may well have the result of making it more difficult for any new entrant (or for existing smaller operators) to profitably operate their stations.  In addition, he has offered proposals that would seemingly require cable and satellite carriage of in-state television stations not in a system’s DMA – a proposal sure to cause concern to stations in DMAs that straddle state lines.

The Chairman’s statement includes the following proposals:

  • Requirements for uniform filings by broadcasters quantifying their public service – presumably their news and information programming and the public service announcements that they provide
  • Requiring that stations have manned main studios during all hours of operations (not just during business hours)
  • Allowing flexibility for LPFM stations to be sold, but adopting new rules to insure that such stations are used for local programming, not something provided from a network or other programming source
  • Providing television viewers the ability to get an in-state television stations on cable and satellite even if the county in which they reside is "home" to a DMA with stations in another state
  • Capping the number of applications accepted from the 2003 FM translator filing window – which might result in the dismissal of hundreds of applications that have effectively been frozen for 4 years


Continue Reading Shape of Things To Come: New Public Interest Obligations, Changes in TV DMAs and More Flexibility For LPFM

The Commission’s Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“Further NPRM”) regarding the next generation Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) has been published in the Federal Register, setting the date for Comments as December 3, 2007 and the date for Reply Comments as December 17, 2007.  This summer, the Commission adopted a Report and Order extending its

As we’re approaching the anniversary of September 11, it may be appropriate that the FCC issued an order on Friday upholding a fine imposed on a radio station that did not have an operating EAS system.  The station, while it had a system in place that was capable of transmitting the required EAS tones, had not received any EAS alerts for about a year, and had not entered any reasons for that failure in its station log at any time during the period.  The FCC initially issued an $8000 fine, but reduced the fine to $6400 based on a showing that the station did not have any history of past violations.  However, even though the station was operating at reduced power for a significant period of time due to towers damaged by a storm, the FCC refused to reduce the fine further based on financial hardship as the fine did not exceed 2% of the station’s average gross revenue during the previous three years.

The FCC will reduce fines for a variety of reasons – the most common being the past good record of the station.  In most cases, as here, a showing that the station has not previously been fined will be sufficient to demonstrate the past compliance of the station and justify some reduction in the amount of the fine.  Stations also often plead that they cannot afford to pay a fine.  The 2% of gross revenue standard announced by the Commission in this case seems to set the threshold at which the Commission will consider that plea.  To prove that a reduction of a fine is in order, according to this case, a station needs to submit financial statements showing the past three years performance, and demonstrating that the proposed fine will exceed 2% of the station’s average gross revenues.


Continue Reading Fine For EAS Violation – Financial Hardship Not Enough to Merit a Reduction