Both radio and TV broadcasters either have recently completed the license renewal process, or will be doing so in the next few years. Many broadcasters think that, once their broadcast licenses are renewed, so too are all of the other communications licenses that are operated in connection with their station. While that may be true for broadcast auxiliary licenses, like Studio Transmitter Links and Remote Pickups, there are other FCC authorizations that are not covered by the broadcast license renewal process, and are also not covered by the applications on FCC Forms 314 and 315 for the sale of a broadcast station. If a broadcaster does not pay attention to the expiration dates for these nonbroadcast licenses, or forgets to separately file an application for permission to assign these licenses during a sale of their broadcast station, a fine like the $18,000 fine that was just issued to a radio broadcaster who forgot that earth station licenses are different from a main broadcast license or a broadcast auxiliary license, may occur.
In this case, the broadcaster sold its radio station in 2003, including in a list of auxiliary licenses in its FCC application for the sale of the station, the call letters of the earth station. While the FCC granted the assignment application with the statement that the seller was authorized to assign the station and all authorized auxiliaries, the Commission makes clear in this order that the sale of an earth station is not a broadcast auxiliary, but instead needs a separate authorization from the FCC's International Bureau before it can be sold. As that authorization was not granted, when the buyer took control of the station (and earth station), it operated that earth station without FCC approval for almost 10 years – without seeking a renewal of the license in 2006 – until the new licensee finally discovered the error and applied for an STA and new license to cover its operations. The FCC determined that the length of the violation required an upward adjustment of the normal $10,000 fine for operating an unlicensed station.
During the renewal process, and at the time of a sale, broadcasters need to remember that not all licenses are covered by the broadcast application process. In addition to earth stations, broadcasters need to remember that they may have other communications systems requiring other approvals, such as private radio or business licenses used to communicate between various station employees or locations. As we have written before, the licensee also needs to remember to notify the FCC of changes in ownership of registered towers, as tower registrations also do not automatically change upon the FCC approval of the sale of a broadcast station.
From time to time the FCC has considered bringing some uniformity to its licensing processes, considering a uniform application for the sale of all sorts of licenses. But that has not been adopted, so sales and renewals of broadcast licenses are still acted on by the Media Bureau, earth stations by the International Bureau, and other licenses by other FCC Bureaus. Take careful inventory of what licenses you hold to operate your stations, make sure that you have all the authorizations that you need, note the expiration date for each license, and remember upon sale to file all necessary application to transfer all of your licenses to the new owner – or you too could face penalties like this broadcaster, or end up without authority to operate the facilities that you might need to conduct all of the business of your broadcast station.