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Ohio LPFM Heading to Hearing Over Alleged Violations

Alleged misrepresentations include listing a deceased person on the board of directors

This story has been updated to include a response from WWGH.

The process of renewing a station’s license depends on several factors, including honesty in communications and proof the station is serving the public interest. In cases where these requirements are not met — and before outright denying to renew a station’s license — the commission must start proceedings for a hearing to evaluate the factors in question.

That’s where an Ohio low-power FM licensee now finds itself — on the cusp of hearing proceedings regarding alleged rules violations related to its license renewal.

A hearing designation order has been put in effect for the Marion Education Exchange (MEE) regarding WWGH(LP) in Marion, Ohio. The hearing will determine if MEE violated the Communications Act and FCC rules, determine if the commission should renew the station’s license and decide if a forfeiture should be imposed.

Scott Spears, program manager of station WWGH, told Radio World he has “confidence the FCC is not in the business of taking good stations that are helpful to the community off the air for what must be miscommunication. They have said so much in the past.”

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A key issue in question: whether MEE misrepresented the composition of its board of directors, including whether it listed a dead woman as one of those members.

“We hope and feel confident that the station’s license will be renewed as we do our best in a community — with no TV station and a newspaper that will stop home delivery on Saturday — to bring the community news, obits and weather every hour at no cost,” said Spears. [Marion actually has one licensed TV station, WOCB(CD), Ch. 22. –Ed.]

“I do not believe the FCC was misinformed about the board composition, I think there is just a miscommunication somewhere,” he said. “It would not do WWGH any good to misrepresent the board.”

The hearing will also determine if MEE made misrepresentations to the commission and whether or not it failed to properly notify the FCC that a transfer of control occurred.

According to the Media Bureau, MEE was registered with the state of Ohio as a non-profit corporation in May 2, 2019, with Shawn Craft as the registered agent. Seven days later, MEE and the station’s former licensee, Marion Midget Football (MMF), filed an application requesting the station’s license be transferred from MMF to MEE. At the time, MEE indicated no changes to the makeup of its board members, only the name of the licensee. The commission granted the reassignment application.

But during the license renewal process, the commission learned that one of the board members of MEE — Betty Compton of Marion — passed away on Nov. 7, 2016, more than two years before MEE filed the application listing her as one of five continuing members of MEE’s board.

In June 2020, an objection was filed by Spencer Phelps, the station manager of another LPFM station in Marion, alleging that MEE had misrepresented its board composition in its application because board members were “completely different people” than those listed on MEE’s application.

Phelps submitted copies of corporate materials filed by MEE with the state of Ohio, and the bureau saw that the five individuals listed on MEE’s initial application were removed. Instead, four different individuals were listed as board members.

After no response from MEE to Phelps’ objection, the bureau sent the first of three letters of inquiry requesting information regarding MEE’s board. The bureau gave MEE until Jan. 7, 2021, to submit copies of corporate materials listing its board composition. MEE did not meet this deadline, the bureau said.

As a result, on Feb. 12, 2021, the bureau dismissed the licensee’s renewal application, cancelled WWGH’s license and informed MEE that its authority to operate the station had been terminated.

Four days later MEE responded and asked the bureau to reconsider. The Media Bureau agreed to reinstate the license and the renewal application while it awaited additional information.

In MEE’s response, the Media Bureau said, the licensee appeared to explain away any inconsistencies between the board members listed in its assignment application and the ones identified in its response to the commission. MEE said that several of the board members that left MMF in 2019 became ill and had since passed away and that these board positions were filled with “members who knew the radio station and have had its best interests … at heart.” MEE also maintained that the station is fulfilling an important role as an LPFM in the community and is currently serving as the last station in Marion to provide hourly local news and weather.

Phelps responded again to say that MEE was untruthful in saying its station is the last hourly news and weather station in Marion and that MEE was in violation of FCC rules because it continued to operate the station for several days in February after the commission rescinded the station’s license.

When the bureau followed up with a second letter of inquiry to MEE directing it to provide information and documentation about its board composition, MEE revealed that the organization was incorporated in 2019 by the second group of board members — not those individuals listed as board members when the assignment application was filed in May 2019. (MEE did not allude to the death of Compton, who was listed on that original assignment application in May, the bureau said.)

In a third letter of inquiry sent by the Media Bureau (“because the second letter … raised more questions than it answered,” the bureau said) the bureau directed MEE to clarify statements it made in its last response.

MEE responded with a list of all current and former MEE board members and their dates of services and said that board changes happened when some members could not attend meetings on a regular basis. MEE stated that did not file a transfer of control application “because we had hoped that some of the original board members might have been able to return.”

As far as the questions surrounding why the late Betty Compton was listed as a board member, MEE said that “her successor had not been chosen.”

Phelps weighed in again, accusing MEE of lying to the commission about Compton and being untruthful about the existence of certain corporate documents like bylaws and meeting minutes.

In its current hearing designation order, the bureau reminded MEE of several key factors the commission must consider before a station’s license can be renewed, including that the licensee has not committed any serious violations of the Communications Act and FCC rules and that there is nothing to indicate a pattern of abuse by the licensee.

When a licensee does not meet these requirements, the commission can deny the licensee’s application to renew its station’s license but not before giving the licensee the opportunity to have a hearing with an FCC administrative law judge.

The bureau said that misrepresentation and lack of candor “raise serious concerns as to the likelihood that the commission can rely on an applicant … to be truthful” and the sort of serious violation that could be grounds for denying a license renewal.

In this case, the bureau said MEE repeatedly failed to fully respond to commission questions, failed to notify the commission of a transfer of control, misrepresented its board composition and was less than candid in its responses to the bureau’s letters of inquiry.

Among the bureau’s specific complaints: that a deceased person was listed as a board member, that other individuals were listed as board members when it appears that they were not, that MEE showed a lack of transparency in listing its board members past and present, that MEE failed to notify the commission of a transfer of control from MMF to MEE, and that MEE may have tried to convince the bureau to renew its license by claiming that WWGH was the last station providing local news and weather every hour in Marion. (Phelps stated that three other full-power FM stations and two low-power FM in Marion do the same.)

“[Different and inconsistent explanations] reinforced our initial concern that MEE knowingly submitted false information in the assignment application and engendered additional concerns that, in an attempt to cover up its original misrepresentation, MEE made additional misrepresentations to … the commission.”

When it comes to the issue of unauthorized operation, however, MEE is not in violation of the rules as a station retains its authority to operate while an administrative or judicial hearing is pending, the bureau said.

The decision on the renewal of WWGH’s license is now set to be reviewed by the FCC administrative law judge. The hearing will also determine whether a forfeiture should be issued against MEE of up to $55,052 for each violation of each commission rule.

Radio World requested comment from MEE and will report any reply.

MEE has 20 days to file a written document stating its intention to appear and present evidence. If MEE fails to file that document, the pending application will be dismissed.

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology and a long-time contributor to Radio World. She has served as editor-in-chief of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as broadcasting, education, chess, music, sports and the connected home environment.