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FCC Has Harsh Words for Cumulus

“Repeated disregard of these rules by a broadcaster of Cumulus’ size and scope is contrary to the public interest”

Cumulus Media is getting a tongue-lashing from the Federal Communications Commission.

The company faces a $32,000 penalty in a case in Georgia that involves EEO rules. But to explain why it chose to raise what might have been a smaller fine, the FCC criticized Cumulus more broadly about its habits in following commission rules.

In the notice of apparent liability, it pointed to past EEO rules cases in 2008 and 2017. But the commission then went on to talk about the company’s “prior history of non-EEO rule violations” and it posted a footnote that listed a string of Cumulus FCC cases over the past 19 years involving political files, public inspection files, broadcasting phone conversations, tower fencing, antenna painting and false certification in a renewal application.

“Indeed, the commission recently sanctioned Cumulus for its repeated violations of the commission’s sponsorship identification rules,” the commission wrote in the notice of apparently liability. “In that forfeiture order, the commission emphasized that repeated violations of the commission’s rules warranted upward adjustment — even if the prior violations do not relate to the type of violations at issue in the current matter.”

The commission didn’t stop there:

“While Cumulus’ history of repeatedly violating the commission’s rules would be problematic under any circumstances, its apparent disregard of the commission’s EEO rules is particularly troubling. Cumulus, in its own words, is ‘an audio-first media company delivering premium content to over a quarter billion people every month…’ Cumulus owns and operates several hundred radio stations in dozens of markets across the nation. In short, it is a highly sophisticated broadcaster with extensive operations that employs thousands of people and routinely fills scores of job openings annually. The commission’s EEO rules ensure that broadcasters take concrete and thoughtful steps to seek and attract diverse employees.  Repeated disregard of these rules by a broadcaster of Cumulus’ size and scope is contrary to the public interest.”

Radio World invited comment from Cumulus and will report any response.

In the case at hand, the FCC found that Cumulus Licensing LLC apparently violated the equal employment opportunity rules in regards to five of its former stations in Georgia: WEGC(FM) Sasser: WJAD(FM) Leesburg; and WKAK(FM), WQVE(FM) and WALG(AM), all in Albany. (The stations subsequently were sold to First Media Services, according to news reports.)

The commission said the company failed to upload its annual EEO public file report in the online public inspection files, failed to upload its annual report to the stations’ websites and failed to analyze its EEO program.

This came to light in the stations’ license renewal applications. According to the FCC, Cumulus indicated that it had not uploaded the EEO files  when required. When the Enforcement Bureau wrote asking why, Cumulus told it that the 2018 annual report had not been added to the public inspection files and websites until more than nine months after the deadline, because its business manager had “simply overlooked this requirement.” It blamed a routine administrative change and the loss of a former employee who had helped with this task in the past.

The commission said those facts don’t mitigate the violation.

The rules set a base forfeiture of $10,000 for each public file violation but the FCC has discretion to change the penalty. Here, the commission cited “Cumulus’ prior history of rule violations, including violations of the EEO rules,” as well as the longer list of past incidents mentioned above.

Cumulus argued that the forfeiture penalty should be decreased because its parent emerged from bankruptcy in 2018 and because the pandemic had hurt its ad revenue; but the commission rejected those arguments, quoting statements on the Cumulus website that the company had reduced its debt and increased its cash since emerging from bankruptcy.

The company has 30 days to pay the fine in the specific case or to reply seeking a different outcome.