“The Documents Are Not Available”

On Thursday, February 25th — one day before the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s inaugural conference — I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet up with friend and colleague, Dr. Christopher Terry, who was also attending the conference. Like me, Dr. Terry is a media law and policy scholar who hails from Wisconsin. And also like me, Dr. Terry has been watching with interest the FCC’s foray into definining journalism on the public airwaves.

In his classes, Dr. Terry uses the Commission’s $44,000 fine against WLS-AM for airing newscasts produced by Workers Independent News as a teaching point to explore the FCC’s regulation of sponsored content. In prior posts, I’ve explained how Workers Independent News purchases airtime on selected commercial radio stations to air its newscasts and features. The FCC case stemmed from WLS-AM’s failure to run the required disclaimer that WIN had paid for its own airtime in a small fraction of broadcasts.

But when the FCC decided to sock WLS with such a stiff fine, it made WIN’s legitimacy as a news organization key to its rationale. Unprecedented in the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, the FCC effectively declared Workers Independent News to not be news, thereby justifying such a large forefiture.

Shortly after the FCC’s 2014 decision, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency for all documents related to its decisionmaking process in the WLS case. Last November, FCC attorneys reported back that they had identified several thousand pages of material…but released less than 90 redacted pages. Among them was the original complaint that kicked off the FCC’s inquiry, which defamed Workers Independent News as an activist organization masquerading as a news outlet. It was on this allegation that the FCC seemed to rest its case. Read More

Paper Tiger Warns: Don’t Do Business With Pirates

With unlicensed broadcast operations taking place with impunity in several of the nation’s largest media markets, and facing near-emasculation in the field, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a new tack to try and ameliorate the “pirate problem.”

A letter co-signed by all five Commissioners was mailed out last week to several local government and industry trade groups, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of National Advertisers, and National Association of Realtors, among several others.

This letter seeks to inform the recipients about who pirate stations are and asks that they avoid doing business with them. The letter claims that unlicensed broadcasters “can cause harmful interference to licensed radio broadcasters serving their communities, thereby starving stations of their ability to reach their listening audiences and obtain necessary advertising revenues.” It also claims that pirate stations have the potential to interfere with public-safety radio systems.

The tone is slightly admonishing: the recipients are informed that they “may be unknowingly or unintentionally providing aid to pirate stations. . .including buying advertising on such stations to housing the physical stations themselves.” The Commissioners hint that this may expose them to “potential FCC enforcement or other legal actions,” and cautions that being in business with a pirate station may also “sully the reputations of those businesses with the licensed broadcast community and other professional organizations” – sort of a “Scarlet P” approach. Read More

O’Rielly Outlines Anti-Pirate Agenda for 2016

Speaking at the Country Radio Seminar last week, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly laid out several items he’d like to make part of radio’s regulatory agenda this year. And true to form, the man who’s made pirate radio a personal crusade has big plans to try and wipe out what he calls “poison ivy in the garden of the radio spectrum.”

O’Rielly acknowledged that the largest concentrations of unlicensed broadcasters are in America’s cities, such as New York, Boston, and Miami, but claims that “the problem is expanding rapidly,” and it represents “an attack on the integrity of our airwaves – an attack that must be confronted and defeated on no uncertain terms, lest it continue to push forward.” Read More

FCC Pirate Radio Enforcement Drops to 2004 Levels

This year has been fairly unremarkable regarding the FCC’s unlicensed broadcast efforts: just 111 actions against a few dozen stations across 10 states. However, the overwhelming majority (76%) of enforcement efforts this year have been have been focused on the FM dials of New York and New Jersey. This is a clear sign of the broadcast industry’s active involvement in the enforcement process, acting as a conduit for complaints on which the FCC follows up.

That said, enforcement tactics remain almost wholly administrative. Only five Notices of Apparent Liability totalling $70,000 have been issued this year, while just one fine of $20,000 has been levied against a pirate radio operator. In every case, the FCC built up at least six months’ of evidence; in some instances (particularly involving pirates facing threats of fines in New Jersey), the unlicensed broadcasters have been on the agency’s radar since 2012. Read More

FCC Facilitated Right-Wing Hit Job on Workers Independent News

A year and a half since I tendered my Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Communications Commission on its disturbing foray into determining the legitimacy of broadcast news outlets, the agency has finally responded. And it was with a big middle finger: of the more than 4,200 pages of documentation the agency identified as related to the case, the FCC released a paltry 88 (embedded at bottom).

The vast majority of this release is meaningless. It includes copies of the official orders in the WLS sponsorship-identification case, copies of the spot-sales contracts Workers Independent News entered into with WLS (it spent more than $33,000 to air its newscasts and feature programs on the station over a three-month period), official correspondence between the FCC and WLS’ attorneys related to the initial complaint inquiry, and some redacted e-mail correspondence between FCC staffers regarding the collection of the $44,000 fine assessed against WLS.

However, what little useful information gleaned from the disclosure only heightens the suspicion that the sponsorship-identification case against WLS was not motivated by the station’s failure to disclose (in a fraction of instances) that Workers Independent News had paid for its airtime, but rather by a right-wing operative seeking to muzzle Workers Independent News on ideological grounds. Read More