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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In two consent decrees released last week, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau agreed to significant "voluntary contributions" to the US Treasury to settle noncompliance issues reported in license renewal applications filed by noncommercial radio stations.  Both stations had voluntarily reported public inspection file issues in their license renewals.  One admitted to having no issues programs lists in its public file and having filed no biennial ownership reports for the license renewal period.  The other admitted that it was missing several years worth of quarterly issues programs lists.  In the first case, the FCC agreed to a $10,000 contribution in lieu of a fine (see the agreement here), in the other case a $1700 contribution (which was less than might normally be the case, as it was reduced by a financial hardship showing – see the order here and the agreement with the FCC here).  These cases demonstrate the significance that the FCC places on public file issues – the biggest source of fines in the last license renewal cycle.  With a new license renewal cycle beginning in June 2011, now is the time for all broadcasters – commercial and noncommercial – to make sure that they are ready for the beginning of this cycle by clearing up any outstanding regulatory issues.

The fines also once again demonstrate that the Commission no longer treats noncommercial broadcasters differently than commercial broadcasters – fining noncommercial stations for violations just as it does their commercial brethren (see a previous post on this subject, here).  In these cases, the use of Consent Decrees also demonstrate the problems that issues arising at renewal time can cause.  If a station’s license renewal reports a problem, such as an incomplete public file, the application is pulled out of the routine processing pile for further scrutiny.  Such scrutiny can often take a year, and sometimes several years, to resolve.  While the renewal application is in this state of limbo, a sale of the station will not be approved, and sometimes other regulatory actions can be held up (in fact, in one of these cases, a transfer of control of the licensee company was delayed while this issue was being resolved).  Thus, to avoid these lengthy delays, stations often decide to pursue the consent decree route to try to resolve the issue more quickly than would be the case if the application were just left with the FCC to run its course.


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