Licensee of AM Station Cannot Evade $25,000 Fine

This month, the Director of the FCC Enforcement Bureau’s Atlanta Office issued an NAL in the amount of $25,000 to the licensee of an AM station in South Carolina for failing to maintain a locked fence around the base of its antenna tower, failing to install operational Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) equipment, and for failing to maintain and make available a complete public inspection file.

The licensee’s troubles began during a July 2011 inspection by agents from the Enforcement Bureau. First, the agents inspected the tower at the transmitter site and discovered that a portion of the fence surrounding it had collapsed and was overgrown with weeds, indicating the fence had been broken for some time. Section 73.49 of the FCC’s Rules require that towers be enclosed within “effective locked fences or other enclosures” and such fences may not be in a state of disrepair for more than one day. The agents did not find a perimeter fence around the property either, allowing anyone to walk right up to the base of the tower.

Next, the agents inspected the station’s main studio. At the time, the only personnel present were staff of the entity operating the station pursuant to a local marketing agreement (“LMA”). The agents found that there were no EAS logs or equipment located at the main studio. Section 11.35 of the FCC’s Rules requires that broadcast stations ensure that all EAS equipment, encoders, and decoders are properly installed and fully operational, are capable of transmitting the required weekly and monthly EAS tests, and that stations maintain a log of such tests. The agents also inspected the transmitter site and discovered that the station’s EAS encoder/decoder was not connected to any receivers or to the transmitter. The agents returned to the site the next day with an engineer, who confirmed that the encoder/decoder was not connected to the transmitter or the receiver. Thus, although the encoder/decoder was itself operational, it could not broadcast a test over the air. When asked about the EAS equipment, the LMA operator indicated that she was unaware of the FCC’s requirements to maintain operational EAS equipment and a log of the weekly and monthly tests performed, and she had never observed any EAS activity during her five years at the station.

Additionally, the agents found that the station’s public inspection file was incomplete—it lacked all of the required quarterly issues/programs lists, ownership reports, manuals, and a copy of the LMA under which the station is operated. Again, the LMA operator indicated that she was unfamiliar with the public inspection file and did not know if the requisite documents had ever been placed in the file. The agents then contacted the licensee of the station, who also denied knowledge of the public inspection file requirements and who stated that the LMA operator was in fact responsible for the file.

Following the inspection, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Letter of Inquiry to the licensee. The licensee submitted a response, again asserting ignorance of many of the FCC’s requirements. He believed that some of the documents in the public inspection file were located at the transmitter site and that the LMA operator was responsible for the file. He also claimed that “an act of vandalism” had occurred at the transmitter site one week prior to the FCC’s inspection and that was when the EAS equipment became disconnected, the EAS logs disappeared, and the fence was broken.

The Enforcement Bureau did not accept the licensee’s defenses, however. In the NAL, it noted that, given that the fence was overgrown, it was unlikely it had been destroyed during the recent “act of vandalism.” The Bureau also found that the station had violated the FCC’s EAS rules because the EAS equipment was unable to receive or send EAS tests over the air. Finally, it determined that the public inspection file produced by the station was missing all issues/programs lists, ownership reports, a copy of the LMA contract, and a current version of the Public and Broadcasting -- all violations of the public inspection file rule.

Despite the Enforcement Bureau’s skepticism towards the licensee, it decided not to increase the base fine amounts, and issued a forfeiture of $7,000 for the tower fencing violations, $8,000 for not having properly installed and operational EAS equipment, and $10,000 for the incomplete public inspection file.