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FCC Fines Stations for Airing Calls Without Notice

Report of husband’s death is involved in one; WSKQ, WAAW argue against penalty

The Federal Communications Commission issued two fines to stations recently for not telling callers they were on the air before broadcasting calls.

The first, to WSKQ(FM), New York, is for $16,000. The Enforcement Bureau received a complaint in 2007 alleging that a station employee made a call to a woman, claimed to be an employee of a local hospital and told her that her husband had been injured in a motorcycle accident and had died. The complaint also alleged that the woman became distraught when she received this information and that the station then told her the call was a “joke.”

In response to the FCC’s query, WSKQ said its owner, Spanish Broadcasting System, contracted with a vendor, “Rubin Ithier,” who recorded the call for a prank call feature show. The licensee admits that Ithier initiated the call broadcast by WSKQ, that the recipient’s husband had requested the call and that Ithier performed the prank. SBS acknowledged that Ithier did not inform the woman the call was being recorded for broadcast until after it had been aired.

The transcript given to the FCC indicates that the woman hung up when she learned that the call was a prank, and that Ithier telephoned her again to obtain her permission to broadcast the call.

In issuing its fine, the FCC said prior notification is essential to protect individuals’ expectation of privacy and to preserve their dignity by avoiding calls they don’t want broadcast to reach the air. Even though it was a contractor that violated the rule, SBS is responsible for his action, the commission ruled. The base fine for such cases is $4,000 but the FCC can take a licensee’s history into account; citing a past SBS case, it proposed a $16,000 forfeiture here. The FCC also warned SBS that future similar violations may result in harsher enforcement action, including possibly license revocation.

The second case concerns Rejoynetwork, licensee of WAAW(FM) in Williston, S.C. The commission received multiple complaints that the station aired several calls without giving recipients prior notice. The complaints allege that on March 23, 2006, between DJ “Ryan B.” called three airport officials and broadcast each call on-air without first informing the individuals the conversations would be used on the air.

The station argued that the fine is invalid because the DJ identified himself by name and said that he was calling from the radio station when he called the airport officials and argued that those officials could have immediately terminated the call. That’s not proper notice, said the FCC in its decision last week. It fined the station $4,000 and wants payment within 30 days.