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FCC Fines SBS Station and Lays Down a Marker

Phone call gag bit could be costly

The FCC Enforcement Bureau has announced a $25,000 fine against an arm of the Spanish Broadcasting System and issued stern language saying that the company could face even harsher penalties if it doesn’t get its act in order when it comes to the matter of airing phone calls without permission.

The case involved prank calls made in 2006 on the comedy segment “You Fell for It,” which originated at WSKQ(FM) in New York and was heard on WZNT(FM) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The premise was that listeners requested phone calls be made to family members or friends. Someone complained. In one bit, air personality Moonshadow pretended to be a loan shark. In another, the FCC said, “the caller pretended to be an intruder hiding under the bed, and the call recipient, upon learning that the call was meant to be a joke, became upset.” The FCC ruled that the station apparently violated the telephone broadcast rule by airing phone conversations without giving prior notice to the people involved.

It continued: “We also note that the telephone conversations and program segment at issue here are similar to those identified in previous violations by other stations owned by the licensee’s parent company. … Further, it appears that the intent of the ‘You Fell for It’ segment was to trick or deceive the called party as to the true identity of the caller, so it was designed to conceal the caller’s identity and the fact that the conversation was being, or would be, broadcast.”

The base fine in such cases is $4,000 for airing a phone conversation. But in its notice of apparent liability, the Enforcement Bureau went on to say that “Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. … has a history of violating the commission’s rules, including the telephone broadcast rule at issue here.” It listed previous actions involving several other SBS stations; and it said that in this case, the conversations aired on at least two additional stations beyond WZNT.

Further, the FCC wrote, “We must also consider the licensee’s ability to pay so that forfeitures against ‘large or highly profitable entities are not considered merely an affordable cost of doing business.’” (It observed in a footnote that the parent company reported $139 million in net revenue for 2009.) “We again caution the licensee that additional violations of these rules may result in the imposition of higher forfeitures and even harsher enforcement action, including license revocation proceedings.”

The company — which told the FCC it did not have recordings or transcripts so it could not “confirm or deny” that the segments had aired — has 30 days to explain why the fine should be reduced or eliminated.