The FCC announced this afternoon that it has reached an agreement with iHeartCommunications resolving “an investigation into the misuse of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) tones….” As we’ve noted before on numerous occasions, the federal government is very touchy about the use of an EAS alerting tone when there isn’t a test or actual emergency.
There are principally two reasons for this. First, as the FCC noted (again) in today’s Public Notice, quoting Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, “[t]he public counts on EAS tones to alert them to real emergencies…. Misuse of the emergency alert system jeopardizes the nation’s public safety, falsely alarms the public, and undermines confidence in the emergency alert system.”
Second, the greatest advantage and disadvantage of the EAS system is that the tone contains digital data that automatically triggers EAS alerts by other stations monitoring the originating station. This creates a highly efficient daisy chain that can distribute emergency information rapidly without the need for human intervention.
Unfortunately, that creates certain problems, one of which is that there is no human to intercede when an EAS warning of a zombie apocalypse occurs and there are no actual brain-eating creatures in the area (don’t laugh, this has actually happened already). It is the electronic equivalent of Winston Churchill’s statement that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Compounding the harm is that while the originating station knows that the alert is false, and can so inform public safety personnel and the public itself when contacted about it, stations further down the automated distribution chain know only that they received and redistributed an EAS alert. They have no knowledge of the facts surrounding the alert itself, potentially leading to a longer period of public panic before the EAS system locates its pants.
For reasons that are hard to discern, other than perhaps that the public has become more aware of EAS (resulting in more attention from advertisers and programmers seeking to leverage that familiarity), there has been a significant uptick in false EAS alerts in the past five years. The result has been a growing number of FCC fines in amounts that previously only appeared in indecency cases. Today’s Public Notice indicates that the FCC has “taken five enforcement actions totaling nearly $2.5 million for misuse of EAS tones by broadcasters and cable networks” in the past six months.
In today’s case (the Order for which has now been released), the FCC stated that “WSIX-FM, in Nashville, Tennessee, aired a false emergency alert during the broadcast of the nationally-syndicated The Bobby Bones Show.” Delving into the details, the FCC noted that:
While commenting on an EAS test that aired during the 2014 World Series, Bobby Bones, the show’s host, broadcast an EAS tone from a recording of an earlier nationwide EAS test. This false emergency alert was sent to more than 70 affiliated stations airing “The Bobby Bones Show” and resulted in some of these stations retransmitting the tones, setting off a multi-state cascade of false EAS alerts on radios and televisions in multiple states.
The FCC indicated that the station has formally admitted to a violation of the FCC’s EAS rules, and has agreed to (1) pay a $1,000,000 civil penalty, (2) implement a three-year compliance plan, and (3) “remove or delete all simulated or actual EAS tones from the company’s audio production libraries.”
While the size of the financial penalty is certainly noteworthy, the real first in this particular proceeding is the FCC’s effort to eradicate copies of EAS tones before they can be used by future production staffs. Given the easy access to numerous recordings of EAS tones on the Internet, the FCC might be a bit optimistic that deleting the tone from a station’s production library will prevent a recurrence. However, it is perhaps an acknowledgement that most false EAS tone violations are the result of employees unaware of the FCC’s prohibition rather than a producer bent on violating the rule. It is also an acknowledgement that even a multi-year compliance program may not solve the problem if an EAS tone is lurking in the station library, seductively tempting and teasing that ambitious new staffer who just got a great idea for a funny radio bit….