Both radio and TV broadcasters either have recently completed the license renewal process, or will be doing so in the next few years. Many broadcasters think that, once their broadcast licenses are renewed, so too are all of the other communications licenses that are operated in connection with their station. While that may be true for broadcast auxiliary licenses, like Studio Transmitter Links and Remote Pickups, there are other FCC authorizations that are not covered by the broadcast license renewal process, and are also not covered by the applications on FCC Forms 314 and 315 for the sale of a broadcast station. If a broadcaster does not pay attention to the expiration dates for these nonbroadcast licenses, or forgets to separately file an application for permission to assign these licenses during a sale of their broadcast station, a fine like the $18,000 fine that was just issued to a radio broadcaster who forgot that earth station licenses are different from a main broadcast license or a broadcast auxiliary license, may occur.

In this case, the broadcaster sold its radio station in 2003, including in a list of auxiliary licenses in its FCC application for the sale of the station, the call letters of the earth station. While the FCC granted the assignment application with the statement that the seller was authorized to assign the station and all authorized auxiliaries, the Commission makes clear in this order that the sale of an earth station is not a broadcast auxiliary, but instead needs a separate authorization from the FCC’s International Bureau before it can be sold. As that authorization was not granted, when the buyer took control of the station (and earth station), it operated that earth station without FCC approval for almost 10 years – without seeking a renewal of the license in 2006 – until the new licensee finally discovered the error and applied for an STA and new license to cover its operations. The FCC determined that the length of the violation required an upward adjustment of the normal $10,000 fine for operating an unlicensed station.


Continue Reading $18,000 FCC Fine for Operating Earth Station with Expired License Reminds Broadcasters That Not All of Their Licenses are Covered During the License Renewal or Assignment and Transfer Approval Process

The FCC has fined a Boston radio station $4000 for airing misleading announcements on the radio station as to the nature of the prize to be awarded in a station contest. In addition to an interesting set of facts in this case, the FCC’s decision also reviews several other recent decisions in explaining why it came to the decision it did as to the amount of the proposed fine. 

In this case, the contest was promoted on the air as an opportunity to win a choice of three cars. The "Cool, Hot or Green" contest announcements never revealed on the air that the winner in fact did not receive the car, but instead only a two year lease on the car, and only if the winner passed a credit check. Nor did the on-air announcements mention that full contest rules were available on the station’s website. While the written rules on the website made clear that the prize was merely a lease of the car, as has been the case in many recent decisions (see our summaries here and here), the Commission faulted the licensee for not broadcasting an accurate disclosure of these rules on the air. While the licensee argued that this was but a minor ambiguity in the rules, the FCC, reviewing some recent decisions, disagreed.


Continue Reading $4000 FCC Fine for Radio Station’s Misleading Contest Announcements Provides Summary of Recent Decisions on Contest Rule Violations

An Australian radio team was reported to have called the hospital where Princess Kate – Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – was being treated.  This prank has now apparently had tragic consequences, in that the nurse from whom the team received information has seemingly committed suicide. Even before the unexpected terrible outcome was known, it was very clear that this broadcast was not the type of gag that US broadcasters should imitate.  Beyond the personal consequences that resulted from this event, the prank itself would be a violation of FCC rules if done by an American station, and would lead to an FCC fine.

The radio team, by pretending to be the Queen of England and Prince Charles, apparently managed to talk to a nurse on the floor where Kate was being treated, and they received inside information about the Princess’ medical condition. The tragic result was the suicide of the nurse after the prank was revealed.  Since then, the radio team has apparently been suspended by the station.  Even if this situation had not resulted in the tragedy of the death of the nurse, broadcast stations in the United States should not  try to repeat such a stunt, or one anything like it. As we’ve written many times before, the FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from putting a phone call on the air, or even recording a call for future broadcast, unless the caller is first told that he or she is going to be recorded, and consents to the call being broadcast. Unlike other laws that deal with the recording of telephone calls for other purposes – where having consent to recording from only one party to a conversation is permissible in many states – the FCC demands all across the US that broadcasters have two-party consent to calls even before the person on the other end of the call says "hello." As we have written before, the FCC imposes significant fines for any violation of the rule, no matter how well meaning, even if the call is done in a news context


Continue Reading Tragic Australian Radio Prank – US Broadcasters, Don’t Try This At Home

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 a decision issued last week, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau once again made clear that stations will be given no slack if they don’t announce on the air all of the material terms of a contest – even the specifics of changes in prizes to be awarded over a long period of time. In this decision, the FCC imposed a $4000 fine on a radio station for a contest called “Who Said That,” where the station broadcast a clip of a celebrity saying something, and gave prizes to listeners who identified the celebrity. The fine was triggered by the last clip in the series, broadcast in 2007, that was not correctly identified for 20 months. Through the summer of 2008, the station continued to broadcast the contest rules, but apparently stopped broadcasting them except when prompted by a listener from summer 2008 through September 2009, when the prize was finally awarded, . The failure to announce the rules during this time period, and the failure to announce that prizes had changed during this time, led to the $4000 fine.

The Commission faulted the licensee for not updating the on-air announcement of the list of the prizes to be awarded. The licensee argued that there was no material violation as, when certain prizes became unavailable (e.g. tickets to concert that occurred during the period when the prize remain unawarded), the station substituted prizes of equal value. But the failure to announce the substitutions, or even that substitutions would be made, was seen by the FCC as a violation of Section 73.1216 of the rules.


Continue Reading $4000 FCC Fine for Not Updating Material Terms of Broadcast Contest in On-Air Announcements

A $4000 fine was levied by the FCC on an FM station owner who failed to file an application for license after completing construction of changes authorized by a construction permit, finally submitting the license applicaiton about 4 years after that permit had expired. When a broadcaster receives a construction permit authorizing technical changes in a station’s facilities, in most cases, it has three years to complete construction. Upon the completion of construction, the licensee must file an application for a license (on FCC Form 302 for commercial stations) certifying that the station was constructed as authorized. In this case, when the license application was finally submitted long after the permit expired, the application stated that construction had in fact been completed within the three year period set out in the construction permit.  So the applicant requested retroactive approval of that license, relying on past FCC cases where license applications filed after the end of the construction period were nevertheless granted where the applicant could show that construction had been completed during the period set out in the construction permit.

The FCC decided in this case that a waiver was not appropriate given the time that expired between the expiration of the permit and the filing of the license application. While gaps of a few days or even a few weeks between the expiration of the permit and the filing of the license application are excusable, the Commission concluded that a four year gap was just too much to excuse – not the minor error that can be forgiven without a fine. Waiting four years to file a license application was deemed to be too much to forgive – so the question was whether a fine was appropriate and, if so, how much.


Continue Reading $4000 Fine for Station That Forgets to File License Application After Completing Construction of Modified Facilities

With Hurricane Isaac soon to make landfall on the Gulf Coast, the FCC is issuing its usual reminders to broadcasters and other communications facilities in areas that are likely to be affected by the storm.  It has today issued two public notices.  The first Public Notice reminds video providers – particularly television stations, but other video providers as well – that they need to present visually emergency information that they may be conveying verbally on the air so that those that are hearing impaired have access to that information, and similarly that information that is provided visually (e.g. through a crawl), be also provided aurally, or at least alert tones must be used to put the visually-impaired on notice of the fact that emergency information is running on the station.  A second public notice tells communications users that they can use the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System ("DIRS") to notify the FCC about service outages that may be caused by the storm

The information about making emergency information accessible is one that is commonly issued by the FCC (see our stories here and here about past warnings).  The FCC reminds  video providers that emergency information must be made available to those with hearing or visual impairments.  For those who are hearing impaired, information must either be provided by closed caption, or by some other means that does not block the closed caption information.  Even where a station is exempt from captioning a story – as many are in the case of breaking news – a visual element must still be provided for all audio information given on the air about "critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency."  So stations should do open captions or have their on-air announcers use whiteboards or other means to visually convey the emergency information that they are providing in their commentary.  In the past, big fines have followed from stations that have not provided such information visually (see our post here), and the FCC has made the complaint process easier in recent years, as highlighted by today’s Public Notice.


Continue Reading FCC Issues Reminders to Broadcasters in the Path of Hurricane Issac – Provide Visuals Of Emergency Information and Notify the FCC of Service Outages

Two big fines for the broadcast of telephone conversations without first getting consent of the person at the other end of the phone were released by the FCC today, and each raises a number of interesting issues. Section 73.1206 of the FCC’s rules prohibits the broadcast, or recording for purposes of broadcast, of telephone calls without first getting the consent of the person on the other end of the phone. In the first case released this week, a broadcaster was fined $25,000 for the broadcast of two phone calls on two commonly-owned stations. In the second case, the same broadcaster was fined $16,000 for a violation of the rule at a different station. These cases are very interesting in that they address and reject many defenses to the fines that were raised by the broadcaster.

The $25,000 fine came in the follow up to a Notice of Apparent Liability which we wrote about here. In this case, a station was accused of airing two calls in a program called “You Fell For It.” A complaint alleged that the station called individuals and put them on the air without notice. The licensee first attempted to defend against the claim on the grounds that the person who complained was not one of the people who was called and put on the air without consent. The FCC found that this was not necessary – any listener to the station could complain about a violation of the rules. The FCC found that this rule is not one where the only complaint can come from the individual harmed by being put on the air – though the FCC does not present any policy basis of why the rule should be enforced if the individuals who are apparently being protected (individuals who want to preserve their privacy by not going on the air) do not complain about the station’s conduct.


Continue Reading FCC Fines of $25,000 and $16,000 for Airing Phone Calls Without Prior Consent

Having broadcast all of the material rules of a station’s contest was not enough to avoid a $10,000 fine for having misleading rules – when there were errors in the contest deadlines posted on a station’s website and in emails sent to contest participants. In an FCC Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a fine for a North Carolina FM station, the Commission also upped the fine from the usual $4000 base fine for a contest violation to $10,000, because the corporate parent of the licensee had been hit with two other fines for contest violations (one in 2009 and one almost two decades ago, in 1994) and as the company had very significant revenues in the past year.

The contest was called “Carolina Cuties”, where contestants posted pictures of their babies on the station’s website, the winning picture to be selected by a vote of station listeners.   The station’s on-air announcements properly stated that the voting could continue through September 5 of last year, with the winner announced on September 6. But, on the website, during a week at the end of August, it was stated that the winner would be selected on September 4.  This was later updated to say that the voting deadline was September 4, but correctly stating that the prize would be awarded on the 6th.   An email to contestants also used the September 4 voting deadline date. Votes were in fact taken through September 5, as announced on the air. Nevertheless, as the website and emails stated that the voting deadline was September 4, the Commission determined that the station contest was not conducted “substantially as announced or advertised,” and proposed to levy the fine.


Continue Reading $10,000 FCC Fine for Failure to Follow Contest Rules – On-Air Rules Were Right, But Online Rules Were Wrong

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?