“This is a test of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. The FCC just heard unauthorized EAS tones on your station. If this was not a real emergency, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau will be contacting you seeking $1 million and arduous compliance reporting going forward. This concludes this test of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. Blaaap Blaaap Blaaap.”
iHeartCommunications, Inc. just agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty, admitted that it misused EAS tones, and agreed to a compliance and reporting plan as a result of airing a false emergency alert during a Bobby Bones show.
Let’s take a look at what the FCC prohibits in the use of EAS tones. Section 325(a) of the Communications Act prohibits the transmission of any false distress signals. Section 11.45 of the Commission’s rules prohibits the transmission of false or deceptive EAS codes or attention signals, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual national, state, or local area emergency or authorized test of the EAS.
The prohibition on the unauthorized use of EAS tones is an absolute. Other than use for an actual national, state, or local emergency, or for an authorized EAS test, the FCC prohibits EAS tones on the air and enforces this prohibition with substantial fines.
Here is what iHeart agreed to as part of its compliance plan. iHeart agreed with the FCC to a companywide EAS compliance plan to keep EAS tones from being broadcast absent an emergency or authorized EAS test. All of iHeart’s EAS encoder/decoder equipment is to be set to a strict-time function setting. iHeart is to use “reasonable best efforts” to permanently remove all simulated or actual EAS Tones from iHeart’s playback systems.
iHeart is required to develop a compliance checklist that describes the steps an employee must follow to ensure compliance with the FCC’s EAS rule, and to distribute a compliance manual to its employees that explains EAS rules and iHeart EAS operating procedures. iHeart must implement an EAS compliance training program which includes employees reporting noncompliance with the FCC’s EAS rules. iHeart must report any noncompliance of the EAS rules to the FCC within 15 days after discovery of noncompliance and must also file periodic compliance reports with the FCC.
The $1M paid by iHeart to the FCC is a “civil penalty” agreed to by both sides along with an admission of liability and remedial measures. Presumably, iHeart agreed to this in lieu of possibly a larger fine and more punitive sanctions. While the FCC’s order does not speak to either the size of the penalty nor the breadth of the ancillary compliance plan, it does note the significant number of stations licensed to iHeart and the 82 stations on which the Bobby Bones show in question is carried.
Presumably, if a one-radio-station licensee violated the EAS rule, absent extraordinary circumstances, the station would not be hit with a $1M fine. But this iHeart FCC order does point to the seriousness with which the FCC views EAS and indicates that future fines for violations will be substantial.
A substantial fine for EAS tone malfeasance is only one of several areas in which radio station air personalities can incur a substantial FCC liability. Additional areas include on-air contests which are not run substantially in accord with the stated contest rules, and sponsorship ID violations which include payola and plugola. A significantly violated FCC rule by air personalities is the prohibition on broadcasting, or recording for broadcast, any telephone conversation without first informing the caller, or called party, of the intention to do so.
Misuse of EAS tones makes the FCC headlines today. Any one of the above violations, however, can result in a substantial FCC liability. Your challenge, as a manger or licensee, is to impress upon your air personalities that there continues to be a significant liability in certain areas from on-air content that can result in a violation of the FCC rules.