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Knock Knock. Who’s There? The FCC and an $89,200 Fine.

The FCC just gave broadcasters another reason to answer the door graciously. Earlier this week, the FCC whacked a Pennsylvania Class A Television broadcaster with an $89,200 Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for refusing to allow FCC inspectors to inspect the station’s facilities, not just once, but on three different occasions. It is rare to see the FCC show its irritation in an NAL, but the language used by the FCC in this particular NAL leaves no doubt that the Commission was not happy with the licensee, particularly with what the FCC believed was blatant disregard for its authority. As the FCC put it, “this is simply unacceptable.”

Regarding specific rule violations by the licensee, the FCC alleged violations of Section 73.1225(a), which requires a broadcaster to make its station available for inspection by the FCC during normal business hours or at any time of operation; Section 73.1125(a), which requires a broadcaster to maintain a main studio location staffed with at least two employees during regular business hours; and Section 73.1350(a), which requires a broadcaster to operate its station in compliance with the FCC’s technical rules and in accordance with its current station authorization.

The NAL indicated that local field agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s Philadelphia Office attempted a station inspection during regular business hours once on August 17, 2011, and twice on September 30, 2011, without success. Physical access to the main studio of record was blocked by a locked gate.

After calling the station, the field agents were met at the locked gate by the station manager, who indicated that he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment, that no one else was available at the station to facilitate an inspection, and that the field agents would have to return the next day in order to gain access to the station. After leaving the site of the main studio, one field agent attempted to call the sole principal of the licensee but was forced to leave a voicemail requesting that the owner return the call to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The field agent also called the main studio and left a voicemail. The call was later returned by the station manager, who indicated that he was still at his doctor’s appointment. According to the NAL, the agent identified the caller ID number on the returned call as being that of the main studio. When questioned about it, the station manager indicated “that the Station used his personal cellular number as the Station’s main studio number.”

On the second inspection attempt, the field agents again encountered the locked gate. The station manager, who met them at the gate, asked the field agents to wait outside the gate until he returned from the main studio building. The field agents left “after waiting more than ten minutes for the Station Manager to return….” The field agents returned later that day and once again encountered the locked gate. An agent called the main studio and spoke to the station manager, who indicated that, the “gate must remain locked for security reasons and that the public must contact the station to obtain access.” The field agents noted that there was no signage or other information posted at the locked gate to indicate such a requirement.

After their departure, one of the agents again attempted to contact the station owner in order to discuss the inaccessibility of the main studio. The agent was forced to leave a second voicemail, reiterating his request for a return call. Neither call was returned by the owner.

In March 2012, a local field agent determined that, after monitoring the station’s transmissions, the station was operating from a tower structure that was not specified in its current authorization. The agent, with the collaboration of the tower owner, determined that the station was operating from a tower approximately two-tenths of a mile away from its authorized transmitter site. Both towers were owned by the same tower company.

The NAL noted that the FCC has previously fined broadcasters for failure to provide access for inspection, but that “none of those cases involved repeated, direct, in-person refusals of access by the highest level of a broadcast station’s management, as well as multiple failures by the licensee’s sole principal to return FCC agent calls concerning the refusals.” The NAL also stated that, “continued refusal…is an egregious violation of the Commission’s rules warranting stringent enforcement action.” These events led to the maximum fine of $37,500 for each day the field agents were refused access. The $75,000 was then added to the fines for the main studio and unauthorized operation violations. The main studio base forfeiture is $7,000. The unauthorized operation base forfeiture is $4000, but the FCC elected to upwardly adjust that amount by another $3200. At the end of the day, the licensee was assessed a fine of $89,200.

In hindsight, it seems very unlikely that, even had the station been in a state of disarray or total chaos, any potential fine from the FCC could have exceeded the nearly $90,000 fine the licensee instead received for refusing access.

The obvious lesson learned here if is that if the FCC comes knocking at your door, let them in.