Two individuals are facing a $144,344 proposed fine for operating a Kentucky low power TV (“LPTV”) station without a license for the last 18 years. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits any person from operating any apparatus for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by radio within the United States without FCC authorization. Additionally, Section 74.765 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to ensure that a copy of the license is placed in the station’s records and is available for public inspection.

The FCC initially authorized construction of the station in 1987, and the station’s license application was granted in 1990. In April 1993, the FCC granted an application to renew the station’s license for a term expiring August 1, 1998. However, no subsequent license renewal application was ever filed for the station. In April 2004, the FCC sent a letter to the station stating it had not received a license renewal application, and set a 30 day deadline to prove that a renewal application had been filed before the FCC would update its CDBS database to reflect that the license had been cancelled. After receiving no response, the FCC updated CDBS to list the station’s license as “cancelled”.

The FCC later came to learn through an unrelated Experimental STA application that the station was still operating. As a result, in August 2016, FCC agents traveled to the station’s formerly authorized antenna site, where a technician confirmed that the station was, in fact, still operating. The agents then traveled to the station’s studio and spoke with an individual who identified himself as the “operations manager”. The operations manager was unable to provide the agents with evidence of a valid license to operate the station, but asserted that the station’s license renewal application had been filed in 1993, implied that the FCC lost the 1993 filing, and that, as a result, the license remained in effect. The agents informed the operations manager that a current, valid license was necessary to operate the station and that, without one, the station’s transmissions must immediately stop. The agents also issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation (“NOURO”) stating in bold, capital letters: “UNLICENSED OPERATION OF THIS RADIO STATION MUST BE DISCONTINUED IMMEDIATELY.”

In response to the NOURO, the operations manager reiterated the argument he made to the FCC agents at the station. In addition to asserting that the station never received confirmation of grant of the 1993 renewal, the response stated the station operators had never received any other communication from the FCC about the station, and CDBS showed “that the [1993] renewal was granted on 7/27/1993 without an expiration.” The response argued that the failure to file a renewal application in 1998 should therefore be excused. Further, the response indicated that despite the NOURO’s “request” to cease operations, the station remained on air so as to not deprive its viewers of “their only source of news and other events.” FCC agents returned to the station’s antenna site in September and confirmed that the station was still transmitting.

Consequently, the FCC determined that the station operators had willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Act. According to FCC records, the Media Bureau mailed the 1993 license renewal to the station’s address of record. The FCC emphasized, however, that regardless of whether the license renewal was actually received, licensees are responsible for knowing their obligations, including their duty to seek timely license renewals. In this regard, the FCC noted that license renewal reminders are “merely provided as a courtesy.” The FCC also rejected the operators’ CDBS argument because (1) CDBS did not exist in 1998, so the station could not have relied on it at the time the license renewal was due, and (2) both CDBS and the 1993 renewal authorization state that the license expired August 1, 1998.

The FCC’s base fine for operation of a station without authorization is $10,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation. Citing the “egregious” and “longstanding” nature of the apparent violations, the FCC proposed to fine the station operators $10,000 for each of the 22 days between the day FCC agents spoke to the station’s operations manager in August 2016, and when agents confirmed that the station was still transmitting in September 2016, for a total proposed fine of $220,000. However, because the Communications Act sets the maximum fine amount for continuing violations arising from a single act or failure to act at $144,344, the FCC capped the proposed fine at $144,344. The FCC noted that, absent the statutory maximum, an upward adjustment would have been warranted because the station was operated for more than 18 years after its license expired, and more than 12 years after the FCC declared the station’s license cancelled.

In a separate statement, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly supported the proposed fine, but was appalled that the station “[got] away with operating a pirate TV station for almost twenty years.” He lamented that under past leadership the FCC had “been reduced to a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses,” but hoped that pirate operators were now on notice that the FCC “can and will turn that situation around.”