Articles Posted in Noncommercial Operation

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March 2015

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • Deceptive Practices Yield Multi-Million Dollar Fines for Telephone Interexchange Carriers
  • LPFM Ads Cost $16,000
  • Multiple TV Station Licensees Face $6,000 Fines for Failing to File Children’s TV Programming Reports

Interexchange Carriers’ “Slamming” and “Cramming” Violations Yield Over $16 Million in Fines

Earlier this month, the FCC imposed a $7.62 million fine against one interexchange carrier and proposed a $9 million fine against another for changing the carriers of consumers without their authorization, commonly known as “slamming,” and placing unauthorized charges for service on consumers’ telephone bills, a practice known as “cramming.” Both companies also fabricated audio recordings and submitted the recordings to the FCC, consumers, and state regulatory officials as “proof” that consumers had authorized the companies to switch their long distance carrier and charge them for service when in fact the consumers had never spoken to the companies or agreed to the service.

Section 258 of the Communications Act and Section 64.1120 of the FCC’s Rules make it unlawful for any telecommunications service carrier to submit or execute a change in a subscriber’s selection of telephone exchange service or telecommunications service provider except with prior authorization from the consumer and in accordance with the FCC’s verification procedures. Additionally, Section 201(b) of the Communications Act requires that “all charges, practices, classifications, and regulations for and in connection with [interstate or foreign] communications service [by wire or radio], shall be just and reasonable.” The FCC has found that any assessment of unauthorized charges on a telephone bill for a telecommunications service is an “unjust and unreasonable” practice under Section 201(b), regardless of whether the “crammed” charge is placed on consumers’ local telephone bills by a third party or by the customer’s carrier.

Further, the submission of false and misleading evidence to the FCC violates Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that no person shall “provide material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information . . . without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.” The FCC has also held that a company’s fabrication of audio recordings associated with its “customers” to make it appear as if the consumers had authorized the company to be their preferred carrier, and thus charge it for service, is a deceptive and fraudulent practice that violates Section 201(b)’s “just and reasonable” mandate.

In the cases at issue, the companies failed to obtain authorization from consumers to switch their carriers and subsequently placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ bills. The FCC found that instead of obtaining the appropriate authorization or even attempting to follow the required verification procedures, the companies created false audio recordings to mislead consumers and regulatory officials into believing that they had received the appropriate authorizations. One consumer who called to investigate suspect charges on her bill was told that her husband authorized them–but her husband had been dead for seven years. Another person was told that her father–who lives on another continent–requested the change in service provider. Other consumers’ “verifications” were given in Spanish even though they did not speak Spanish on the phone and therefore would not have completed any such verification in Spanish. With respect to one of the companies, the FCC remarked that “there was no evidence in the record to show that [the company] had completed a single authentic verification recording for any of the complainants.”

The FCC’s forfeiture guidelines permit the FCC to impose a base fine of $40,000 for “slamming” violations and FCC case law has established a base fine of $40,000 for “cramming” violations as well. Finding that each unlawful request to change service providers and each unauthorized charge constituted a separate and distinct violation, the FCC calculated a base fine of $3.24 million for one company and $4 million for the other. Taking into account the repeated and egregious nature of the violations, the FCC found that significant upward adjustments were warranted–resulting in a $7.62 million fine for the first company and a proposed $9 million fine for the second.

Investigation Into Commercials Aired on LPFM Station Ends With $16,000 Civil Penalty

Late last month, the FCC entered into a consent decree with the licensee of a West Virginia low power FM radio station to terminate an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s underwriting laws by broadcasting announcements promoting the products, services, or businesses of its financial contributors.

LPFM stations, as noncommercial broadcasters, are allowed to broadcast announcements that identify and thank their sponsors, but Section 399b(b)(2) of the Communications Act and Sections 73.801 and 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit such stations from broadcasting advertisements. The FCC has explained that the rules are intended to protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts in spectrum that is reserved for noncommercial broadcasters that benefit from reduced regulatory fees.

The FCC had received multiple complaints alleging that from August 2010 to October 2010, the licensee’s station broadcast advertisements in violation of the FCC’s noncommercial underwriting rules. Accordingly, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to the licensee. In its response, the licensee admitted that the broadcasts violated the FCC’s underwriting rules. The licensee subsequently agreed to pay a civil penalty of $16,000, an amount the FCC indicated reflected the licensee’s successful showing of financial hardship. In addition, the licensee agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan, including annual reporting requirements, to ensure no future violations of the FCC’s underwriting rules by the station will occur.

Failure to “Think of the Children” Leads to $6,000 Fines

Three TV licensees are facing $6,000 fines for failing to timely file with the FCC their Form 398 Children’s Television Programming Reports. Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) requires a commercial licensee to prepare and place in its public inspection file a Children’s Television Programming Report on FCC Form 398 for each calendar quarter. The report sets forth the efforts the station made during that quarter and has planned for the next quarter to serve the educational and informational needs of children. Licensees are required to file the reports with the FCC and place them in their public files by the tenth day of the month following the quarter, and to publicize the existence and location of those reports.

This month, the FCC took enforcement action against two TV licensees in California and one TV licensee in Ohio for Form 398 filing violations. The first California licensee failed to timely file its reports for two quarters, the second California licensee failed to file its reports for five quarters, and the Ohio licensee failed to file its reports for eight quarters. Each licensee also failed to report these violations in its license renewal application, as required under Section 73.3514(a) of the Rules. Additionally, the Ohio licensee failed to timely file its license renewal application (in violation of Section 73.3539(a) of the Rules), engaged in unauthorized operation of its station after its authorization expired (in violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act), and failed to timely file its biennial ownership reports (in violation of Section 73.3615(a) of the Rules).

Despite the variation in the scope of the violations, each licensee now faces an identical $6,000 fine. The FCC originally contemplated a $16,000 fine against the Ohio licensee, as its guidelines specify a base forfeiture of $10,000 for unauthorized operation alone. However, after assessing the licensee’s gross revenue over the past three years, the FCC determined that a reduction of $10,000 was appropriate, resulting in the third $6,000 fine.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.

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By Lauren Lynch Flick and Scott R. Flick

March 2015
The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Texas and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 1, 2015. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their stations’ public inspection files. Television stations must assure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://stations.fcc.gov.

In 2009, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on whether the Commission should adopt a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC has established for all commercial radio and television stations. In January 2013, the FCC renewed that inquiry. Until a decision is reached, noncommercial radio and television stations continue to be required to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF version of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by April 1, 2015 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Texas and Noncommercial Television Stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

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March 2015
The next Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2015, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February and March 2015.

Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (“Act”) and the FCC rules adopted under the Act, full power and Class A television stations are required, among other things, to: (1) limit the amount of commercial matter aired during programs originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 12 years of age and under, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements. Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their online public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television, and (2) submit FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under. Form 398 must be filed electronically with the FCC. The FCC automatically places the electronically filed Form 398 filings into the respective station’s online public inspection file. However, each station should confirm that has occurred to ensure that its online public inspection file is complete. The base fine for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC’s Children’s Television Programming Rule is $10,000.
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March 2013

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • Delay in Providing Access to Public Inspection File Leads to Fine
  • FCC Fines Broadcaster for Antenna Tower Fencing, EAS and Public Inspection File Violations

Radio Station Fined $10,000 for Not Providing Immediate Access to Public File

This month, the Enforcement Bureau of the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order (“NAL”) in the amount of $10,000 against a Texas noncommercial broadcaster for failing to promptly make its public inspection file available. For the delay of a few hours, the Commission proposed a fine of $10,000 and reminded the licensee that stations must make their public inspection file available for inspection at any time during regular business hours and that a simple request to review the public file is all it takes to mandate access.

According to the NAL, an individual from a competitor arrived at the station at approximately 10:45 a.m. and asked to review the station public inspection file. Station personnel informed the individual that the General Manager could give him access to the public files, but that the General Manager would not arrive at the station until “after noon.” The individual returned to the studio at 12:30 p.m.; however, the General Manager had still not arrived at the studio. According to the visiting individual, the receptionist repeatedly asked him if he “was with the FCC.” Ultimately, the receptionist was able to reach the General Manager by phone, and the parties do not dispute that at that time, the individual asked to see the public file. During that call, the General Manager told the receptionist to give the visitor access to the file. According to the visitor, when the General Manager finally arrived, he too asked if the individual was from the FCC, and then proceeded to monitor the individual’s review of the public file.

After the station visit, the competitor filed a Complaint with the FCC alleging that the station public files were incomplete and that the station improperly denied access to the public inspection files. The FCC then issued a Letter of Inquiry to the station, requesting that the station respond to the allegations and to provide additional information. The station denied that any items were missing from the public file and also denied that it failed to provide access to the files.

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May 2012
Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Fines Noncommercial Educational Station $12,500 for Ads
  • Public Inspection File Violations Lead to Three Short Term License Renewals
  • Main Studio Violations and Unauthorized Operations Garner $21,500 Fine

Noncommercial Educational Station Airs Expensive Ads
A recent fine against a noncommercial educational station serves as a warning to noncommercial licensees to be mindful of on-air acknowledgements and advertisements. In concluding a preceding that began in 2006, the FCC issued a $12,500 fine against a California noncommercial FM licensee for airing commercial advertisements in violation of the FCC’s rules and underwriting laws.

In August 2006, agents from the Enforcement Bureau inspected the station and recorded a segment of the station’s programming. During the inspection, the agent determined that the recorded programming included commercial advertisements on behalf of for-profit entities. In January 2007, the Bureau issued an initial Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) regarding the station’s commercial advertisements and additional technical violations. At the same time, the Bureau referred the matter to the Investigations and Hearings Division for additional investigation. The Division issued additional LOIs in 2008 and 2009, to which the licensee responded three times. In its responses, the licensee admitted to airing four commercial announcements over 2,000 times in total throughout an eight-month period in 2006. It also acknowledged that it had executed contracts with for-profit entities to broadcast the announcements in exchange for monetary payment.

According to Section 399(b) of the Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules, noncommercial educational stations are not permitted to broadcast advertisements, which are defined as program material that is intended to promote a service, facility, or product of a for-profit entity in exchange for remuneration. Noncommercial stations may air acknowledgments for entities that contribute funds to the station, but the acknowledgments must be made for identification purposes only. Specifically, such acknowledgments should not promote a contributor’s products or services and may not contain comparative or qualitative statements, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy or sell. In addition to these rules, the FCC requires that licensees exercise “good faith” judgment in airing material that serves only to identify a station contributor, rather than to promote that contributor.

In this case, the FCC determined that the materials aired were prohibited advertisements because they favorably distinguished the contributors from their competitors, described the contributors with comparative or qualitative references, and included statements intended to entice customers to visit the contributors’ businesses. As a result, the FCC proposed a $12,500 fine in June 2010.

In response, the licensee argued that the FCC should reduce or cancel the fine because (1) the announcements complied with the FCC’s Rules and “good faith” precedent, (2) the announcements did not contain a “call to action,” and (3) the FCC had not previously prohibited the language used in the announcements. The licensee also claimed that the investigation of the station was improper because the FCC had previously indicated it would not monitor stations for underwriting violations, but would respond solely to complaints.

The FCC refused to cancel or reduce the fine, finding that both the fine and the investigation were warranted given the licensee’s violations. In its Order, the FCC defended its determination that the materials aired by the station were promotional advertisements because they contained comparative phrasing, qualitative statements, and aimed to encourage the audience to purchase the goods or services of the for-profit entities. In addition, the FCC rejected the notion that the investigation was in any way improper, noting that the FCC has broad authority to investigate the entities it regulates, including through field inspections.

Here, as in other underwriting cases, the FCC’s decision to issue a fine came down to a necessarily subjective interpretation of language–is a given statement promotional in nature or does it merely identify a source of funding? The FCC has acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, hence the requirement that licensees exercise “good faith” judgment in airing underwriting announcements. Noncommercial educational stations must therefore carefully review the content of their on-air announcements to ensure the language is not unduly promotional in order to avoid a fate similar to the licensee in this case.

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A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco today ruled, in a 2 – 1 decision, that the long-standing prohibition on the carriage of paid political and issue advertising by noncommercial television and radio stations is unconstitutional and may no longer be enforced by the FCC.

The majority opinion in Minority Television Project Inc v. FCC was authored by Judge Carlos Bea, a George W. Bush appointee, and joined in by Judge John Noonen, a Reagan appointee; Judge Richard Paez, a Clinton appointee, wrote a dissenting opinion. The case arose when Minority Television Project, licensee of noncommercial television station KMTP-TV was fined $10,000 by the FCC for violating the prohibition in Section 399B of the Communications Act against noncommercial stations carrying paid advertising for commercial entities. According to the FCC, KMTP-TV had carried over 1,900 advertisements for entities such as State Farm, Chevrolet and Asiana Airlines in the period from 1999-2002. Minority Television Project paid the fine, but filed suit in District Court for reimbursement of the fine and declaratory relief. After its arguments were rejected by the District Court, Minority Television Project brought this appeal.

The Court of Appeals focused on whether the statutory prohibitions on paid advertising in Section 399B are consistent with the U.S. Constitution. It concluded that the statute contains content-related restrictions that must be reviewed under the standard of “intermediate scrutiny,” which provides that the government must show that the statute “promotes a substantial governmental interest” and “does not burden substantially more speech than necessary to further that interest.”

The Court found that the prohibition on broadcasting paid commercial advertising on behalf of for-profit entities, the primary focus of Minority Television Project’s appeal, was narrowly tailored and promotes the substantial governmental goal of preventing the commercialization of educational television. As a result, the fine imposed on Minority Television Project was upheld. However, the Court went on to address the prohibition on carriage of paid candidate and paid issue advertising by noncommercial stations. It found no legitimate governmental goal underlying that prohibition. The Court reviewed the Congressional record developed when the prohibition on political and issue advertising was adopted, and failed to find any evidence to support the provision. It therefore held that aspect of the law to be unconstitutional.

The decision leaves open many important questions as to how to implement it. For example, the questions of whether or how the lowest unit charge provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act will apply to noncommercial stations are not addressed. Similarly, the Decision does not consider whether federal candidates will be entitled to
“reasonable access” rights on noncommercial stations, permitting federal candidates to buy advertising on noncommercial stations that do not want to accept political advertising. While the reasonable access provision of the Communications Act appears to exempt noncommercial educational stations from that requirement, it is a content-related law, and therefore raises questions as to whether the disparate treatment of commercial and noncommercial stations for this purpose is constitutional. Other practical questions, such as the application of equal opportunities rights, political file obligations, and the like will also have to be resolved if this decision is implemented. More broadly, if the decision stands, it could have a fundamental impact on the nature and funding of noncommercial broadcasting.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision only applies to states located within the jurisdiction of that Court (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington). The FCC and the Justice Department may seek review by the entire Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, or seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. As that drama plays out during an active political season, a lot of noncommercial stations will be scratching their heads trying to figure out what they can, can’t, and must do in light of the decision. Conversely, a lot of commercial stations aren’t going to be happy if they find that their political advertising revenues are being diverted to noncommercial stations. One thing is certain–if upheld, the implications of this decision for both noncommercial and commercial stations will be far reaching.

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March 2012

TV, Class A TV, LPTV, and TV translator stations licensed to communities in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington DC must begin airing pre-filing license renewal announcements on April 1, 2012. License renewal applications for these stations are due by June 1, 2012.

Pre-Filing License Renewal Announcements

Stations in the video services that are licensed to communities in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington DC must file their license renewal applications by June 1, 2012.

Beginning two months prior that filing, full power TV, Class A TV, and LPTV stations capable of local origi¬nation must air four pre-filing renewal announcements alerting the public to the upcoming license renewal application filing. These stations must air the first pre-filing announcement on April 1, 2012. The remaining announcements must air on April 16, May 1, and May 16, for a total of four announcements. A sign board or slide showing the licensee’s address and the FCC’s Washington DC address must be displayed while the pre-filing announcements are broadcast.

For commercial stations, at least two of these four announcements must air between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm. Locally-originating LPTV stations must broadcast these announcements as close to the above schedule as their operating schedule permits. Noncommercial stations must air the announcements at the same times as commercial stations; however, noncommercial stations need not air any announcements in a month in which the station does not operate. A noncommercial station that will not air some announcements because it is off the air must air the remaining announcements in the order listed above, i.e. the first two must air between 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm.

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March 2012

Full power commercial and noncommercial radio stations and LPFM stations licensed to communities in Michigan and Ohio must begin airing pre-filing license renewal announcements on April 1, 2012. License renewal applications for these stations, and for in-state FM translator stations, are due by June 1, 2012.

Pre-Filing License Renewal Announcements

Full power commercial and noncommercial radio, LPFM, and FM Translator stations whose communities of license are located in Michigan and Ohio must file their license renewal applications with the FCC by June 1, 2012.

Beginning two months prior to that filing, however, full power commercial and noncommercial radio and LPFM stations must air four pre-filing announcements alerting the public to the upcoming renewal application filing. As a result, these radio stations must air the first pre-filing renewal announcement on April 1. The remaining pre-filing announcements must air once a day on April 16, May 1, and May 16, for a total of four announcements. At least two of these four announcements must air between 7:00 am and 9:00 am and/or 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm.

The text of the pre-filing announcement is as follows:

On [date of last renewal grant], [call letters] was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until October 1, 2012. [Stations that have not received a renewal grant since the filing of their previous renewal application should modify the foregoing to read: “(Call letters) is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee.”]
Our license will expire on October 1, 2012. We must file an application for renewal with the FCC by June 1, 2012. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection during our regular business hours. It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last eight years [or other period of time covered by the application, if the station’s license term was not a standard eight-year license term].

Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the Commission by September 1, 2012.

Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is available at [address of location of station’s public inspection file] or may be obtained from the FCC, Washington, DC 20554.

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March 2012

The next Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations’ local public inspection files by April 10, 2012, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2012.

On Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 and the FCC Rules adopted under the Act, full power and Class A television stations are required, among other things, to: (1) limit the amount of commercial matter aired during programs originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 12 years of age and younger, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and younger.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television, and (2) complete FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under. Form 398 must be filed electronically with the FCC and placed in the public inspection file. The base forfeiture for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC’s Children’s Television Programming Rule is $10,000.

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By Lauren Lynch Flick and Lauren A. Birzon

Certain stations must also file proxy paperwork and additional fee to avoid usage reporting for the year.

As January comes to a close, don’t forget that annual minimum copyright royalty fees for webcasting and internet simulcasting of radio programming, along with the corresponding forms, are due to SoundExchange by January 31, 2012.

With the exception of certain eligible noncommercial broadcasters (those that are affiliated with NPR, APM, PRI or certain other organizations and have timely elected the rates and terms negotiated with SoundExchange by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), commercial and noncommercial webcasters and broadcasters streaming content on the Internet must submit the appropriate Annual Minimum Fee Statement of Account, along with a minimum fee payment of $500.00 per stream. For webcasters with multiple streams, the total fee is capped at $50,000.00.

January 31st is also the deadline for certain filers to elect “proxy” reporting, which allows the streamer to pay an additional $100 fee and avoid having to submit regular reports of use to SoundExchange during 2012. This option is only available to certain categories of streamers. “Small Broadcasters” (broadcasters with fewer than 27,777 aggregate tuning hours in 2011), “Noncommercial Educational Webcasters” (noncommercial educational webcasters with fewer than 55,000 monthly aggregate tuning hours in 2011) and “Noncommercial Microcasters” (noncommercial webcasters other than educational webcasters with fewer than 44,000 aggregate tuning hours in 2011) may choose this exemption by filing the appropriate Notice of Election and a $100.00 fee by January 31st, 2012. Certain other filers that are not eligible for a reporting waiver must still file the Notice of Election to elect an alternative to the standard Copyright Royalty Board rates.

Annual Minimum Fee Statements of Account, Notices of Election, and payments should be sent to SoundExchange, Inc., 1121 Fourteenth Street, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005, Attn: Royalty Administration.

A PDF version of this article can be found at Reminder: Annual Minimum Fee Statements for Streaming Due to SoundExchange by January 31, 2012.