noncommercial radio fines

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.
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Fines against noncommercial stations may that are primarily student run may not be as harsh as they have been in the past under a ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau earlier this week. The new policy came about as part of a consent decree entered into by an Iowa college-owned broadcaster whose student-run station had failed in its obligation to keep quarterly issues programs lists during most of the prior license renewal term, and also was late in meeting its obligations to file biennial ownership reports with the Commission. Instead of imposing what could have been as much as a $25,000 fine on the broadcaster, the FCC instead agreed to a consent decree by which the broadcaster contributed only $2500 to the government and agreed to certain ongoing obligations to insure its compliance with FCC rules going forward. The FCC also announced, as part of its decision in the case, that it would apply this policy of more leniency in other cases involving student-run stations in the future.  See, for instance, this decision from last year for evidence of how this policy marks a change in the FCC’s policy.

However, this new policy will apply in only very limited circumstances – only to noncommercial stations that are primarily student run. In the decision, the FCC recognized that these stations often had very limited budgets and also a high staff turnover as students graduated and new students took their place. As such, the potential for these kinds of errors increased, and yet the ability to pay for fines was small. In this case, the station involved had an annual budget of less than $7000. Were the Commission to impose big fines, these stations might be forced off the air, as the Commission noted a trend where many noncommercial student-run stations had been sold recently by colleges and universities – often leading to protests about the sales and inevitable format changes (see, for instance the decision we wrote about here).


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Noncommercial broadcasters get no breaks when dealing with proposed FCC fines, said the Commission’s Media Bureau in two cases released this week.  While many noncommercial broadcasters may yearn for a day when they were treated leniently if violations were discovered – getting off with perhaps an admonishment letter – those days are over, as they have been for some time. In one case released this week, the FCC specifically states that noncommercial broadcasters are no different than commercial ones when dealing with fines (or "forfeitures" as they are called by the FCC).  If the noncommercial broadcaster violates a rule, they will be treated just like a commercial broadcaster, and have to pay the same fine as would the commercial broadcaster.  

Noncommercial broadcasters have often argued that they cannot afford to pay big fines, as their budgets are limited.  Even when noncommercial stations are owned by colleges or local governments, they have limited budgets, and fines don’t figure into them.  But, in two recent cases, the FCC has rejected arguments for the reduction of proposed fines based on financial hardship, in both cases finding that the budget of the station was not important – it is the total budget of the licensee that is important in assessing if a fine is too much (see our post about how the FCC determines if a fine should be reduced because its payment would create a financial hardship on a station).  In the case cited above, the FCC said that it was the local government agency (a metropolitan school district) that was the licensee, and its financial resources should have been assessed in determining whether the proposed fine was too great.  In a second case, it was a state university that owned the station, and the FCC said that it would look to the overall finances of the university in determining if the fine was too high – not the amount budgeted for the station.  In neither case had the licensee put forward a financial showing for the full licensee organization, so the FCC rejected the requests for reductions of the fines based on financial hardship.


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