sale of broadcast station

In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that when there is a transfer of control of a station through the sale of the stock of the licensee company, the new owners are not absolved of any FCC violations that may have taken place when the old owners controlled the company. In this case, the old owners had various main studio, public file and issues programs lists issues, along with some compliance problems with late-filed Children’s Television Reports. While the FCC cancelled a fine on the licensee for reasons unrelated to the transfer of the stock (issuing an admonition instead), it went out of its way to emphasize that a new owner of the stock of a licensee company remains liable for the conduct of a predecessor controlling owner. The sale of stock, and the FCC’s approval of that sale, does not remove the threat of fines for violations that occurred when the old owner still controlled the company.

We wrote here about a similar warning in connection with a case decided several years ago. Assignments of license, where the FCC approves the sale of a station to a new licensee, seemingly do provide the new owner with some degree of protection against problems with FCC compliance that occurred during the watch of the old owner – but that is because the licensee has changed. (Note however, as we wrote here, if a compliance issue was discovered by the FCC before the sale, it is possible that the FCC could go after the old licensee for a fine, even after a sale has been completed). But, where the licensee remains the same, the FCC looks to the licensee company for compliance, regardless of who owns that company.
Continue Reading Buyers of Broadcast Stations Through Stock Transfer Beware – Liability for Fines of Prior Owner Can Still be Imposed After the Transfer

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 sale of a noncommercial radio station is often controversial, especially when it’s clear that the format of the station will change after the transfer.  In a decision released last week denying a Petition to Deny challenging the application for the sale of KTRU, the noncommercial radio station owned by Rice University, the FCC again made clear that they are not in the business of regulating the formats of broadcast stations.  For 30 years, the FCC has held firm to its position that the marketplace is best for deciding on what format a station should broadcast.  Thus, when Rice University students argued that the sale of their station and the loss of the diverse format that the station had programmed would harm localism and diversity, the FCC rejected the argument.  Seemingly, that decision makes sense, as we don’t want a government agency becoming a czar of the programming offered by broadcast stations.  When we see decisions from the regulatory bodies in the United Kingdom or Canada sanctioning stations that don’t stick to their legally proscribed formats, we wonder how such a system could possibly function in the US.  Can you imagine the FCC fining a station because it played too many hits on an alternative station?  Of too much rock on an Adult Contemporary station?  Once the FCC or any government agency gets into regulating formats, these sorts of decisions will follow.  Luckily, based on this decision and the prior 30 years of precedent, we won’t have to worry about such an eventuality.

The Commission also rejected other objections to the sale of KTRU. The Petitioners had challenged the noncommercial purpose and educational plan of the buyer – an argument summarily rejected as the buyer was already the licensee of another noncommercial station in the market.  The ownership of that station led to another argument – that the sale would violate ownership limits by concentrating too many noncommercial stations in the hands of one operator.  But the FCC made clear that there are no ownership limitations on how many noncommercial stations one company can ownContinue Reading FCC Makes Clear It Doesn’t Regulate Formats – Rejects Petition Against Sale of Noncommercial Station