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LPFM Handed $15,000 Penalty After Allegedly Promoting 14 Businesses On Air

Rules state that NCE stations cannot openly promote an advertiser’s products

A Colorado low-power FM radio station faces a $15,000 fine in a case involving the FCC’s underwriting rules.

The rules regarding underwriting must be closely followed by low-power FMs, as the Federal Communications Commission pointed out in a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture released on July 2. Noncommercial educational (NCE) stations provide a unique service by allowing the public to enjoy a radio service that is both commercial-free and oriented to the local community, it said. NCE and LPFM stations are given special regulatory considerations such as reserved spectrum, fewer regulatory requirements and exemption from annual regulatory fees.

[Read: “Arizona LPFM Can Continue Broadcasting”]

And although these stations can identify contributors who provide financial support, they cannot go further and promote a contributor’s products, services or businesses. According to the commission, strong enforcement of these restrictions “preserves the unique nature of low-power FM stations by keeping them commercial-free.” But it also provides a level playing field for noncommercial broadcasters who obey the rules, and for commercial broadcasters that assume higher levels of regulatory and financial burdens in exchange for being permitted to sell commercial advertising on their stations.

The rules were allegedly not followed by Plymouth Gathering Inc., licensee of LPFM station KELS in Greeley, Colo. The Enforcement Bureau finds that KELS violated the rule for noncommercial educational stations on multiple occasions. Specifically, it said that over a three-month period in 2018, Plymouth aired more than 1,600 advertisements on KELS promoting the products, services or businesses of at least 14 financial contributors.

The commission received multiple complaints about KELS — going back to 2015 — alleging that the station was airing ads and operating the station as a commercial entity. Following a review of the complaints, the Colorado field office investigated and monitored the station, going so far as to record a segment of station programming that appeared to include commercial announcements for 14 underwriters.

The FCC says that after the Enforcement Bureau reached out to Plymouth about these matters in December 2018, the station acknowledged that it did broadcast 13 announcements more than 1,600 times over a three-month period in late 2018, but asserted that it did not maintain records concerning the broadcast dates, times or text of the announcements. The station also acknowledged that it set up contracts with the 13 for-profit entities to air announcements for monetary gain. After review, the Colorado field office found one additional commercial announcement, pushing the illegal commercial announcements to 14 advertisers in total.

As part of its notice, the FCC described the ways that the broadcasts violated FCC law, including announcements that compare products or services, announcements that use pricing language to do business and announcements that were greater than 30 seconds in length — all of which violate FCC rules as well as the Communications Act.

When it comes to penalties and forfeitures, FCC rules set a base forfeiture of $2,000 for each violation of its enhanced underwriting requirements but the amount can go as high as $51,222 per violation.

Weighing the period of time over which the announcements were aired, the number of announcements and its actions in other underwriting cases, the commission found that the station is apparently liable for a forfeiture of $15,000.

Plymouth has 30 days to pay or to file a written statement seeking reduction or cancellation.