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Clear Channel Is Fined in Voice Mail Audio Case

A voice mail message left for a station employee is a protected conversation; Enforcement Bureau also notes company’s ‘history of violations’ of the telephone broadcast rule.

The FCC has issued a $12,000 fine to Clear Channel for an incident on KFGO(AM) in Fargo, N.D., in 2006.

It said the station broadcast a phone conversation without first informing the caller of its intention to do so.

The complaint came from Sandy Blunt. The audio was from a voicemail he’d left on the private cell phone of one of the station’s hosts. Blunt provided a recording of one of the broadcasts to the commission.

Clear Channel, which no longer owns the station, told the FCC it knew nothing about the incident.

An Associated Press account in the Houston Chronicle fills in the blanks of this story, in which host Joel Heitkamp, a state senator, says Blunt, a former state agency official, threatened his job.

“Heitkamp said he believed the message to be an open record because Blunt was a public figure, he knew he was being recorded, and the call came to Heitkamp’s work phone, not a private cell phone as the FCC reported,” the Chronicle wrote.

The commission said its Enforcement Bureau has previously ruled that an outgoing personal answering machine message is a “conversation” for purposes of the rules and that nonconsensual broadcast of a conversation from an answering machine recording isn’t allowed.

“We find that a voicemail message left for a station employee is a protected ‘conversation’ that may not be broadcast without prior consent of the caller,” it now states. Repeated broadcast was considered an aggravating circumstance in this case.

In issuing the fine, the commission wrote, “We also note that Clear Channel has a history of violations relating to the telephone broadcast rule. Finally, to ensure that the forfeiture is not simply an affordable cost of doing business, we must also consider Clear Channel’s exceptional size and ability to pay.”

The fine was issued by Hillary S. DeNigro, chief of the Investigations and Hearings Division of the Enforcement Bureau. Clear Channel has 30 days to pay or appeal.