The FCC yesterday released, and trumpeted, a Consent Decree reached with Cumulus Radio for a violation at one of its New Hampshire stations where full sponsorship identification announcements were not made on issue ads promoting an electric company’s construction project in New Hampshire.  In the Consent Decree, Cumulus agreed to pay a $540,000 penalty to the FCC for the violations of the rules – plus it agreed to institute a company-wide compliance program to make sure that similar violations did not occur in the future.  In connection with the fine, the FCC released a press release highlighting the fine and the importance of identifying the true sponsor of issue advertising.  Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau stated “While failure to disclose these identities generally misleads the public, it is particularly concerning when consumers are duped into supporting controversial environmental projects.”  This fine is yet another example of the enhanced enforcement of all FCC rules by the new Enforcement Bureau, enforcement that has been controversial both among those being regulated and even among the FCC Commissioners themselves.  What was behind this extreme penalty, which probably dwarfs the profits that this radio station will make for the next several decades?

According to the FCC’s Consent Decree, the Cumulus station broadcast 178 announcements promoting the Northern Pass Project, a proposed hydro-electric project involving the construction of 180 miles of power lines in Canada and New Hampshire.  While the actual texts of the announcements were not provided in the FCC decision, and apparently included several versions of the ad, all supported the approval of the Northern Pass project, but none included the language “paid for” or “sponsored by” Northern Pass Transmission LLC, the full name of the company that paid for the ads and was behind the project.  Cumulus claimed that the station’s employees believed that references in the ads to the Northern Pass project were sufficient to inform the public of who was behind the ads, the FCC says that is not enough – the full name of the sponsor, making clear that it was the sponsor of the ad, is required.  This is not the first time that the FCC has, in the context of the Consent Decree, imposed a big penalty for a lack of a full sponsorship identification on broadcast programming but, outside of the context of “payola” violations, this may well be the largest fine imposed on a radio station for this kind of violation.
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In a decision released this week, the FCC fined a Chicago radio station $44,000 for omitting sponsorship identification announcements on 11 on-air spots promoting the positions of the sponsoring organization on certain issues facing the local community.  Finding that the purpose of the sponsorship identification rules (Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC rules) is to allow the station’s listeners to know who is trying to convince them of whatever is being broadcast, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau decided that each of the violations would be assessed the base fine of $4000 – meaning that there was a total fine of $44,000.

We wrote about the original Notice of Violation in this case two years ago, here.  In a two month period, the station had run a series of paid announcements on behalf of an organization called Workers Independent News (“WIN”), addressing social and political issues.  The announcements consisted of 45 90-second spots, 27 15-second promotional announcements, two two-hour programs, and one one-hour program.  All but 11 of these announcements had proper sponsorship identifications.  Even those 11 announcements identified the announcer as being with WIN, but they did not specifically say that the 11 spots had been “paid for” or “sponsored by” by the organization.  That alone was enough to prompt the fine.  But $44,000?
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How do you advertise a business that sells tobacco products and has the word “cigarette” in its name? Apparently, you don’t, at least not on radio and TV stations – based on the teachings of the Public Notice released by the FCC this week, entering into a consent decree with a broadcaster. In exchange for