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Felon Airs Pleas to Keep Ownership of Stations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Rice is a convicted child molester. He is also the owner of five radio stations. He doesn’t see any conflict there. But the federal government does.

Invoking a rarely used policy that requires broadcast license holders to be of sound moral character, the Federal Communications Commission has announced plans to auction Rice’s broadcast licenses.

The decision draws on FCC regulations that date to the 1930s, when radio licenses were viewed as tremendously powerful tools to be granted only to the most upstanding citizens. Rice’s attorney contends that such standards are inappropriate today: The government should not be in the business, he argues, of making moral judgments about who is worthy to run an easy-listening station in rural Missouri. He has lost every appeal he has filed.

The case has sparked a buzz within the broadcast industry because it is so unusual.

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Missouri Licenses Worth $2.5 Million

The FCC has revoked only a handful of licenses for bad character in the last few decades. It stripped a pedophile in Sag Harbor, N.Y., of his radio station several years back and forced a TV broadcaster in Albany, N.Y., to sell his station for next to nothing after he confessed to laundering drug money. On the other hand, the commission has not penalized license applicants who have been convicted of second-degree murder, antitrust violations and forging prescriptions, among other crimes.

“It’s very hard to find something these days, short of playing [obscenity-laced songs by] Eminem, that the FCC doesn’t like,” said Sean Ross, an editor of the trade journal Airplay Monitor. License revocations on character grounds, he added, are “rare and getting rarer.”

But the FCC last week solicited applications from broadcasters who want to take over Rice’s stations in Indiana and Missouri while the auctions are arranged.

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Rice will retain control of the physical property: the studios, transmitters and the like. But he can’t use them without a license. The FCC permit is what makes a radio station valuable; Rice’s two Missouri licenses, for instance, have been appraised at about $2.5 million. He will receive no money for them or for his three licenses in Terre Haute, Ind.

That leaves the 60-year-old Rice both furious and bewildered.

From 1985 to 1990, he molested five boys whom he had befriended near his home in this small city on the Mississippi River. But Rice cannot understand why those crimes, however wrong and however heinous, should prevent him from hiring disc jockeys, fixing transmitters or balancing budgets for the radio stations he has spent a lifetime building.

The crimes were not connected to Rice’s broadcasting. They took place in his home, 130 miles from his nearest radio studio. In addition, Rice’s psychiatrist and other mental health professionals have concluded that his behavior was not a willful sex offense but rather an outgrowth of undiagnosed mental disorders, including multiple personalities.

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“Mike Rice is no more at fault for having these diseases than . . . former President Ronald Reagan is at fault for having Alzheimer’s,” his psychiatrist wrote in a sworn declaration to the FCC. “Mike Rice had no control over his conduct . . . and no perception that his conduct . . . was in any way wrong or harmful.”

Rice, who served five years in prison, has been on medication and in therapy since his arrest in 1991. He says his mental illness is “in remission,” and his psychiatrist concurs.

“I was convicted. I paid the price. I have been rehabilitated,” Rice said. “I just think I need another chance.”

But the FCC has stood firm. Under a “character policy” set forth in 1934 and reaffirmed in 1990, the commission may consider any felony conviction a black mark against a license holder, even if the crime is not broadcast-related.

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The rationale runs like this: Broadcasters are required to follow hundreds of rules regulating everything from political endorsements to listener contests to the way an antenna is illuminated at night. If the owner of a broadcast company is a felon, his scruples are instantly suspect--and the government may have reason to doubt his commitment to following FCC regulations.

In Rice’s case, the commission ruled that his crimes were so “egregious . . . extremely serious [and] willful” that they gave rise to legitimate concern about his “propensity to conform to our rules and policies.” The FCC’s original decision came in 1995, the year after Rice was convicted of 12 felony counts of sexual assault and sodomy. Rice’s lawyers at the time did not raise his mental illness as a defense. And through six years of appeals, the FCC has refused to reopen the case to consider that issue.

The FCC also contends that Rice filed false reports to minimize his role in the stations’ management after his arrest. According to the commission, that charge by itself would be grounds for revoking his broadcast license, as would the felony convictions. Rice maintains that the reports, written by his lawyers, were not intended to mislead the FCC.

FCC Needs to ‘Not Forget, but Forgive’

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In his defense, Rice also points to his exemplary record through 35 years in broadcasting, to the thousands of dollars his stations have raised for charity, to the numerous public service spots his staff has written and aired. “This is a lifetime of work for me,” he said. “I think [the FCC] needs to forgive. Not forget, but forgive.”

Yet others in the industry back the character policy, saying it’s valid even in this age when anyone can broadcast, unregulated, on the Internet. Radio stations may not be as influential as they were in the 1930s, but they still carry clout. What’s more, the airwaves are still a public asset. Using them should be considered a privilege.

“Radio and television are special, and I don’t have any problem with limiting station ownership to people with at least minimal good character,” said Gary Smithwick, a communications lawyer in Washington.

“Given that it’s a limited resource, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to continue to view a license as a public trust,” Ross added.

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In the end, even Rice agrees. He says there’s nothing wrong with making sure broadcasters are decent people. He just believes he meets that description, given his strenuous efforts to overcome the mental illness that contributed to his crimes.

He has appealed his case, unsuccessfully, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the matter. This week, he filed one last-ditch plea with the FCC--and applied for permission to continue running his stations for the next several months.

“The time has come . . . to give Michael Rice the chance to put his past behind him,” the appeal reads, “and to resume both his profession as a radio broadcaster and his place as a contributing member of this society.”


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