The final meeting of the Federal Communications Commission under Chair Ajit Pai and the Republican majority on Wednesday was something akin to a sports radio highlights show. Each of the agencies ran through their accomplishments during the past four years. From fighting pirate radio to issuing FM translators to AMs, radio has often been a beneficiary of the attention.
No part of the FCC touched radio more than the Media Bureau. Chief Michelle Carey said the Bureau authorized more than 2,800 AM stations to build cross-service FM translators during the past four years.
“More than 1,750 stations have been constructed and are currently on the air,” Carey reported. She said the FCC also simplified and update the AM technical rules to simplify compliance and reduce the burden on stations as part of the ongoing AM revitalization effort.
For FM stations, Carey said the FCC updated rules that determine which applicant comes out the winner when new noncommercial FMs are awarded. There are also new guidelines for determining how the FCC deals with interference complaints between full-power FMs and translators.
But the little things may mean the most. Under Pai’s direction, the Bureau dug into its rules as part of the media modernization effort. In the end, Carey said they launched 22 proceedings resulting in 26 orders that either eliminated or updated obsolete or outdated rules. That included a variety of recordkeeping requirements that she said will save broadcasters time and money.
The Commission also adopted several changes to the media ownership rules in 2017. And while they were blocked by a federal appeals court, next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case that could put the revisions back on the books.
There was also tough love from the Media Bureau. Carey noted that it signed the largest-ever consent decree with a broadcaster when Sinclair agreed to pay what amounted to a $48 million fine over its lack of candor with the agency. The FCC also signed consent decrees with six radio groups covering 1,884 stations after the Bureau concluded the companies repeatedly failed to comply with political file obligations.
More routinely, the Media Bureau processed more than 15,00 station sales during the past four years, including some involving the biggest radio groups, such as the bankruptcy reorganizations of Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia.
Tougher Stance On Pirate Radio
The Enforcement Bureau’s focus on radio is always a two-way street. Bureau Chief Rosemary Harold said during the past four years the FCC has taken nearly 1,300 enforcement actions issuing more than $1.5 billion in proposed or actual penalties or collections by settlements across all the industries regulated by the FCC. The biggest fines were issued to telecom companies and robocall outfits, not radio. Still, five broadcast companies were fined a combined $900,000 for misusing EAS alerts for what she described as “entertainment and reality programming.”
But Harold and her team earned high marks from radio for its tougher enforcement of pirate radio than previous administrations. She credited field agents for being “aggressive and creative” in confronting the long running pirate problem. That included working with local police and U.S. Attorney’s offices.
“They have taken more than 450 enforcement actions against radio pirates since early 2017,” said Harold. She thinks the new law that will allow the FCC to impose fines of up to $2 million against pirates will help. “Most exciting to me, is the Commission has new authority to directly pursue landlords,” said Harold. The FCC has already targeted several apartment building owners in Queens, NY and she said the initial responses from those landlords “has been encouraging.”
Team Telecom Retool, C-Band Repack
While the Media and Enforcement Bureaus had the biggest interaction with radio broadcasters, other parts of the FCC have also touched the business. International Bureau chief Thomas Sullivan pointed to reforms his team worked on that involve the processing of foreign ownership requests. The so-called Team Telecom review looks at deals for national security, law enforcement, trade and foreign policy implications and Sullivan said the “retooled” procedures “will provide more effective review” for radio and other industries.
The International Bureau has also overseen the C-band repack process. Sullivan said they have reviewed 1,500 lump sum requests from more than 12,500 earth station operators, including many radio stations.
Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Lisa Fowlkes said that “significant improvements” have been made to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) during the past several years. The FCC also teamed up with FEMA to conduct the first-ever national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system in 2018. The Bureau also put into place a new Blue Alert adopted by the Commission in 2017 so state and local agencies can notify the public of threats to law enforcement with the goal of capturing dangerous suspects.
But unlike any of its predecessors, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau was forced to cope with a wider variety of natural disasters including wildfires in California, earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and a succession of at least ten hurricanes that struck U.S. territories and the mainland.