How FCC Deals With Hoaxes : Radio: The federal agency is mulling the KROQ case. It can admonish or levy a fine, but hasn’t used its power to suspend a license in more than a decade.
Following the panic generated by Orson Wells’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, the government took steps intended to eliminate radio braodcasts that misled and deceived the public. But five decades later, the Federal Communications Commission continues to receive about a dozen reports yearly of radio hoaxes around the country.
Only last month, the regulatory agency issued a $25,000 fine against a St. Louis station that interrupted its regular morning broadcast to air a nuclear-attack warning. The 50-second fake emergency alert occurred on Jan. 29, just after the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf.
The FCC’s latest investigation involves KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles, which broadcast a phony murder confession last June in which a deejay pretended to be an anonymous caller who confessed to beating his girlfriend to death. That bogus confession, dreamed up by deejays Kevin Ryder, Gene (Bean) Baxter and Doug Roberts, led to a 10-month search for the murderer by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, until the hoax was uncovered.
The regulatory agency has not given any indication of how or when it will rule in the KROQ case. First, the 200-page response to FCC questions that KROQ submitted last week must make its way through an elaborate bureaucracy of staff analysts and lawyers before any action can be taken. If staff members recommend imposing a fine of more than $10,000 or recommend revocation of the station’s operating license, then the matter will go before the five-member commission for a final decision.
The FCC has chosen to revoke licenses only on rare occasions. More than 10 years ago, it revoked the licenses of three radio stations that pulled elaborate hoaxes that fooled listeners, misused police resources and sometimes even endangered the public.
But since then, no radio station has lost its license for broadcasting a hoax.
Other more recent incidents--which the commission lumps into the category of “hoax broadcasting"--have elicited either harshly worded admonitions or fines, depending on the severity of the violation.
“We just make an assessment of all the facts,” said Roger Holberg, an attorney for the FCC. “Obviously, license revocation is our equivalent of the death penalty and is used sparingly.”
A look at some of the cases that have sparked FCC investigations and at how the commission acted may provide some clues as to what action it will take in the KROQ matter.
The $25,000 fine that the FCC levied last month was against St. Louis station KSHE-FM, which interrupted programming last Jan. 29 with this announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties,” intoned the deep voice of veteran announcer Don Pardo. “Please stand b. . . .”
Pardo was interrupted by a civil defense air raid siren, which continued to be audible in the background as a different voice announced: “Attention, attention. This is an official civil defense warning. This is not a test. The United States is under nuclear attack.”
Then came the sounds of muffled screams and explosions, followed by a dull tone.
According to the FCC, it was not until nearly two hours later that an announcer explained on the air that the alert was phony. Following that, KSHE repeatedly broadcast an official apology, stating that the mock alert was aired without the consent or permission of station management. The next day, the deejay responsible for the fake warning explained that he had meant only to make a political statement about the horrors of nuclear war.
The deejay was suspended without pay for a week and KSHE implemented a policy intended to avoid similar hoaxes in the future.
The FCC’s Holberg said that the warning sounded real enough to panic listeners, especially given that the United States was in the midst of war. The wording of the fake warning was taken directly from an actual civil defense warning message, he noted.
The commission concluded that the incident violated Section 325 (a) of the Communications Act, which prohibits the broadcast of false signals of distress. The fine of $25,000 was the maximum allowable for a single violation, Holberg said. (Fines can reach up to $250,000 for multiple or continued violations.)
“We felt that was the appropriate fine for the type of activity,” said Roy Stewart, chief of the FCC’s mass media bureau. “The concern was that management did wait for a while before they got back on to tell the public it was a hoax.”
The commission does consider mitigating factors, such as on-air apologies and disciplinary action, when it decides what sanctions it will impose, Holberg said. (In the KROQ case, station officials suspended the three deejays for six days without pay and have ordered them to perform 149 hours of community service each and to pay $12,170 to reimburse the Sheriff’s Department for time wasted investigating the purported murder.)
"(Those factors) can’t obviate a violation, but we have taken them into account,” Holberg said. “If we’re imposing a monetary forfeiture, the Communications Act requires we take into account a whole host of variables, such as ‘the nature, circumstances, extent and gravity of the prohibited acts committed and the violator’s degree of culpability, any history of prior offenses and ability to pay.’ ”
The FCC can only impose fines if provisions of the Communications Act are violated. More often in hoax cases it issues an admonition--a written reprimand that becomes part of the station’s record and would be taken into account if it ran into other trouble with the commission.
“The hoax policy is just that: a policy,” Holberg said. “It’s not a rule. It’s not a provision of the Communications Act. We cannot impose a monetary forfeiture or any financial penalty for the hoax broadcast itself. If we can find another rule (broken), such as in the case of KSHE, where we found a section (of the Communications Act) violated, then we’ve got something we can fine for.”
Last year, the commission investigated WCCC-AM/FM, a Hartford, Conn., station that had announced on April 1, 1990, that a volcano had erupted nearby. The announcement turned out to be an April Fools Day prank and did not break any FCC rule per se, but it did violate commission policy that prohibits broadcasting material “which will deceive or mislead the public,” Holberg said.
For that, the station was issued an admonition.
Although the station maintained that it had aired “cautionary phrases” throughout the broadcast and a complete explanation by the program director afterward, the commission rebuked the station for using “an apparent news function to produce a level of anxiety resulting in police department involvement.”
“Police reports indicate the broadcast caused traffic hazards, jammed phone lines at the police communications center and necessitated the addition of extra personnel to deal with the situation,” wrote Edythe Wise, FCC complaints and investigations chief.
Prior to that case, the commission similarly admonished Scottsdale, Ariz., station KSLX-FM for what the station labeled “an early April Fools joke” aired on March 31, 1989. The station broadcast false announcements that it had been taken hostage by members of the Pima Indian tribe. The announcements resulted in a number of calls to the police, including some over the emergency 911 system. The station apologized several times over the next few days.
The incidents that resulted in license revocations were considered severe violations of communications law.
In each of these cases, the stations misused law enforcement resources and “distorted and falsified newscasts.” Also, management was found to have been either involved in the schemes themselves or negligent in supervising station operations.
The most recent case of license revocation because of a hoax broadcast occurred in 1980 and involved Tucson, Ariz., station KIKX-FM, which was found to have broadcast false news reports that a deejay had been kidnaped. Actually, the deejay was merely assisting his family in their move from Florida to Tucson. The station’s general manager, program director and sales manager were found to have concocted the hoax, according to the FCC.
An earlier case in which Denver station KTLK-FM had its license revoked in 1975 had to do with prearranged station contests and false news reports connected with those contests.
Another case involved Miami-based station WMJX-FM, which in 1981 broadcast a series of false reports that one of its deejays was lost in the Bermuda Triangle.
The deejay was supposed to have telephoned periodically during a chartered boat trip into the Bermuda Triangle to relate over the air his experiences. Once at sea, the deejay called the station twice, then cut short his trip because of rough seas and a communication failure, according to FCC reports. Even after knowing the deejay was safely ashore, station officials made continual on-air references to the loss of communications and to a police helicopter which would insure the deejay’s safe return. The station’s newscasts also contained two stories about the incident, one of which said the deejay, “made it back in one piece but . . . wandered off, apparently mind-boggled by the rough seas.”
The commission determined that the hoax endangered the safety of the public by misusing law enforcement resources. “The Coast Guard might have been off looking for him when there was a real boat sinking somewhere else,” Holberg explained.
Although the KROQ stunt resulted in the misuse of law enforcement resources, officials at Infinity Broadcasting Corp., the station’s owner, have steadfastly maintained that the hoax was an isolated event that station management did not know about.
“The fabricated, on-air confession was a spontaneous, isolated act implemented solely by certain on-air personnel, who subsequently engaged in a cover-up for some nine months,” Infinity Broadcasting Corp. President Mel Karmazin told the FCC. “The management and ownership of Infinity . . . was as duped and victimized by the hoax as the public.”