Thursday, February 13, 2014

WLS Radio fined by FCC for allowing paid content from Workers Independent News to be perceived as news

2/10/14, "WLS-AM Fined $44,000 By FCC," chicagoradioandmedia.com
"Two years ago this month, the FCC proposed a fine against WLS-AM for $44,000 for broadcasting 11 paid advertisements that appeared to the listener to be news stories. The spots were not identified as sponsored programming. The fine was for $4,000 per infraction. That proposed fine has now been escalated to a forfeiture order, giving WLS-AM's parent company [Cumulus] only two weeks to pay.

The incident in question first took place on March 19, 2009 at 2:29pm, according to the FCC documents. WLS-AM ran a 90-second promotional spot for a company called Workers Independent News (WIN). This WIN segment sounded like a legitimate news piece, with what seemed to be a news anchor interviewing a local politician, and did not properly label itself as a paid promotional ad. This happened an additional ten times between March and May of 2009.

WIN had purchased airtime from WLS-AM in early 2009, airing one one-hour brokered program, two two-hour brokered programs, 45 90-second ads, and 27 15-second ads. It was 11 of the 90-second ads that sounded like legitimate news stories that the FCC felt broke federal regulations.

WLS-AM's stance is that the "news" announcer in those ads identified himself as being with WIN and that these spots ran inside commercial breaks, making it obvious to the listener that these were paid advertisements. The FCC disagrees with that stance and says the correct rules regarding these type of ads were not followed.

After receiving the proposed fine in February 2012, WLS-AM then asked that the fine be reduced to only $4,000, claiming the 11 times the spot aired should be treated as one single violation, not 11 separate violations. WLS-AM also blamed the mistakes on "inadvertent employee error."

The FCC rejected WLS-AM's request to have the fine lowered. In its ruling, the FCC report states: "The Commission has long held that a downward adjustment is not justified where violators claim their actions or omissions were due to inadvertent employee errors. We find no reason to depart from this precedent here. Consequently, there is no basis to conclude that Radio License has demonstrated that it is entitled to mitigation of the forfeiture amount based on a lack of culpability."

While $44,000 is a lot of money for a fine, it could have been far worse. $4,000 is the base penalty for incidents such as these. The FCC could have fined the station as much as $37,500 per violation, up to a maximum fine of $375,000. In comparison, the $44,000 fine seems extremely reasonable.

Cumulus Media's Radio License Holding XI, LLC, the legal name of the entity that owns WLS-AM, has until February 25th to pay this fine.

The full ruling of the FCC -- which was adopted on Friday, February 7th and released earlier today -- can be downloaded and read HERE. That official FCC Forfeiture Order also contains the full text of the offending 90-second ads and WLS-AM's responses to the violations." via NY Radio Message Board

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