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Consent Decree (Plus Good Behavior) Results in Reduced Forfeiture

Alabama translator admits to unauthorized operation and long periods of silence

FCC, Federal Communications CommissionThe Federal Communications Commission agreed to renew the license of an Alabama FM translator station — but only on the contingency that it enter into a consent decree and agree to make a $13,000 penalty payment.

After getting the green light to begin operating FM translator W299BX at the same site as its primary station WARB(AM) in Dothan, Ala., back in 2015, Alabama Media LLC had both stations go quiet for nearly 10 months in 2015 and 2016. Then in September 2016, the translator began operation from a recently constructed tower located nearby, with WARB following suit a few days later. Two months after that, Alabama Media moved three of its four full-power stations to this new so-called Dothan Tower.

[Read: Florida Licensee Faces $3,000 Forfeiture After Late Filing Penalty]

And while the broadcaster filed modification applications to relocate its full-power stations, it inadvertently failed to file a modification application for the translator.

A complaint was filed by broadcaster WOOF Inc. soon after, saying that Alabama Media did not have approval to operate the translator at that site. WOOF operates 99.7 WOOF(FM) and 560 WOOF(AM), both in Dothan, Ala. Two days later, Alabama Media filed a modification application and requested special temporary authority (STA) to operate at the new site.

The Media Bureau responded (note that the decision took nearly 2.5 years, into March 2017) and granted both the modification application and STA. The bureau also found that Alabama Media was liable for a monetary forfeiture of $18,000 for several violations: unauthorized operation, originating programming without authorization, failing to notify the FCC of its intent to discontinue operations for 10 or more days, failing to obtain approval to discontinue operations for more than 30 days and failing to file proper forms needed when relocating a translator. The bureau gave Alabama Media 30 days to pay the full amount or submit a written statement seeking reduction.

In April 2019 Alabama Media responded and asked the bureau to reduce the forfeiture, saying it could not afford to pay that amount since the company has operated at a net loss for the past four years. As a smaller broadcaster, Alabama Media said, it does not have access to lines of credit or other readily available funds. And besides, the broadcaster said, a reduced forfeiture is all the admonishment it needs to deter any future misconduct.

But the Media Bureau was not persuaded. “[T]he mere fact that a business is operating at a loss does not by itself mean that it cannot afford to pay a forfeiture,” the bureau said in its order. The bureau ruled that financial hardship in this case is not enough to approve a reduction of the $18,000.

But something did sway the bureau to decrease the forfeiture: Alabama Media’s track record as a rule-following licensee. “[W]e find that a reduction from the forfeiture amount proposed in the [notice] is appropriate given that Alabama Media does not have a history of prior offenses.”

As a result, the bureau entered into a consent decree with Alabama Media in which the broadcaster admitted to the charges laid out by the bureau and agreed to make a $13,000 civil penalty payment. The bureau also denied the earlier objection raised by WOOF since the licensee did not show how Alabama Media’s continued operation of the translator would be against public interest.