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SPECIAL REPORT: Has the FCC Gotten Fine Happy?

March 1, 2011
by Ed Ryan
Radio Ink Editor-in-Chief

When I was a young buck Operations Manager at WZOZ in Oneonta, New York, the owner of the station would consistently get on my  case about the quarterly issues report. "Make sure it's in the file cabinet before the deadline", Chris Coffin would say to me. I remember  it being some of the most tedious work at the station. We were doing great, local news and event coverage and interviews with the  Mayor. It was a dream big fish/small pond job right out of college. But that paperwork. I'd rather listen to the needle skip on a Johnny  Mathis record than fill out that paperwork. Rules are rules, and if we wanted to retain the privilege of broadcasting on the publics  airwaves, those files were done and ready to be viewed by any Tom, Dick or Harry that wanted to inspect them. And for the 7 years I was there, nobody ever did.

It seems to me, lately, there are more than a few stations out there that aren't as keen on the rules as Chris Coffin was. A big fine for an  incomplete public file. Another fine for failing to renew a license. Didn't reduce power when you were supposed to? Break out the check book. Forget to tell a caller he's being recorded? Fine. Not fine, it's OK fine. Fine, FCC fine. Yesterday's $10,000 Cumulus NAL  for public file violations got me wondering, has the FCC stepped up efforts to peg radio stations for every rule on the books all of a sudden?

A cynic might think the feds are running a little short on cash, maybe they have stepped up enforcement to generate some much needed  greenbacks. So, we made the call to the FCC enforcement office and they say nothing has changed. There is no stepped up enforcement. They are not doing anything different, it's normal operating procedure for the inspectors in the field doing what they have been doing every day. And, you must admit, if true, not having issues reports for 9 quarters is more than ooops I forgot this time. Today we start a 5-part series on how you can avoid an FCC Fine. What must you have to stay clean?

First, we turned to attorney Matt Gibson of Wiley Rein in Washington. Gibson says start with the list of what you must have in your public file:
 - The current station authorization and any subsequent modifications of it
 - Pending applications
 - Citizen agreements
 - Maps showing the station's service contour, main studio and transmitter location
 - FCC Form 323 ownership reports and related materials
 - The station's political file
 - The station's equal employment opportunity file
 - A copy of the FCC's "The Public and Broadcasting"
 - Letters and email from the public
 - Materials relating to FCC investigations or complaints
 - Radio issues/programs lists
 - Local public notice announcements
 - Time brokerage agreements
 - Joint sales agreements

Gibson says there are three main precipitants of enforcement actions: "self-disclosure in the license renewal process, routine FCC field inspections, and complaints and pleadings from competitors, disgruntled former employees, public interest groups, and others with bones to pick against the station or its owner". He says the FCC doesn't typically go after any particular violation first. However, on occasion the agency has been known to move quickly in cases that align with hot-button policy issues. So, it's a good idea to keep one eye on the politics.

One of the questions that continues to baffle me is how any Radio station can be fined for a license renewal issue. That would appear to be the most important piece of paperwork a GM could ever do. Gibson says the FCC can fine a station that fails to renew its license in two ways.  "First, if the station was merely late in filing its application a full four months in advance of the license expiration date (but filed before the license expired), the FCC can assess a $3,000 base fine for failing to file a required application.  If however, a station does not file a renewal application before its license expires, the station will lose its authority to broadcast as of the license's expiration date. As a result, any subsequent broadcasts can be treated as unauthorized and are subject to a base fine of $10,000 per violation".

Finally Gibson says the best way to avoid a fine is to obey all of the FCC's rules. "A general manager and an engineer who are both familiar with the day-to-day FCC requirements, together with reputable FCC counsel, will go a long way to ensuring ongoing compliance."

We'll have more on this issue tomorrow and your comments are always welcome below.


(3/1/2011 6:40:20 PM)
Been in the business for 25 years, now a small market owner and have never seen an FCC inspection. Are there typically any warnings or just a fine... period for any violation?

- Chris Samples
(3/1/2011 10:28:03 AM)
Here is one answer to your question, how can a station be fined for license renewal? Answer: The attorney screws up! I have a technical client that uses a very large Washington D.C. firm and the specific attorney has decades of experience with an excellent track record. The problem is the attorney uses staff for just about everything. This client has five stations and everything was turned over to the attorney for filing along with the credit card information to pay for the applications. All five applications were filed on time but somehow only four were paid and for whatever reason nobody knew the one application had not been paid until well after (about six months) the expiration of the current license. The fee was paid at that time. The client waited well over a year on pins and needles for a decision from the FCC. In the end the FCC ruled that the client had filed on time but failed to pay the fee on time so the FCC levied penalties and interest on the amount of days the fee was late. When the late fees were paid the license was renewed. The late fees were much less than a fine but the client still has a blackmark on his record through no fault of his own other than trusting his attorney. Doublecheck everything your attorney does for you, check every application, it is easy to do with on-line access.

- Richard Hardy
(3/1/2011 10:07:59 AM)
don't play by the rules get fined, don't play by the rules and give the govt a reason to take over. broadcasters' seem to think they own the freq when they are only renting it.

- ~kned
(3/1/2011 5:32:20 AM)
While I agree that fine-happy FCC agents should not be nit-picking on stations for every rule in the books, I must point out a few things. When I was at WNYM in the late 80's, we were constantly "tested" by either the GM or the CE once a month on basic stuff relating to the operation of the station that a surprise FCC visit could bring. In retrospect, that was a good thing. Till this day, I remember the 'exact' definition of "modulation." I would constantly write up Zev Brenner's weekly programs for the public file to keep it up to date. That was running a radio station legally. Having said that, inspectors with a lot of time on their hands, should stop popping radio stations for every little thing with high fines.

- Al Gordon

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