Spanish Broadcasting System has agreed to pay what amounts to a $10,000 fine to settle a long-running dispute over whether tropical “Mega 97.9” WSKQ-FM New York aired indecent material and whether it violated the broadcast hoax rule when it claimed the Lincoln Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey was flooding.
SBS reps didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in the company’s filings with the FCC it contended none of the broadcasts were actually indecent. At issue were a pair of 2005 Spanish-language broadcasts for which the petitioners submitted a translation to the FCC. The words and phrases in question were never released but in public filings SBS said it didn’t agree with the translations and submitted versions with less explicit interpretations of certain words and phrases. “While there may have been a racy song broadcast, I do not believe that it was in any way indecent,” the former general manager told the Commission.
The FCC says too few specifics of the allegations were presented in the complaints, and based on its review of the record the material may not be enough to keep WSKQ from having its license renewed regardless. But it decided a monetary fine was within bounds and the FCC subsequently negotiated with the company and settled on a $10,000 penalty.
As far as the alleged hoax, SBS didn’t deny the bit had aired on WSKQ but said it didn’t present a “public harm” as defined in Commission rules. The FCC left that debate unanswered but concludes the petitioners failed to substantiate their claim, relying only on a 2001 New York Times article as their source. Even if it had been accurate, the Media Bureau says it didn’t show a pattern of violations that would be required to deny a license renewal application.
As part of the agreement the Media Bureau concludes there are no questions as to whether SBS has the basic qualifications to hold a license and whether WSKQ served the public interest in both its 1998-2006 and 2006-14 license terms. “After reviewing the terms of the Consent Decree, we find that the public interest will be served by its approval and by terminating all pending proceedings relating to the Bureau’s investigation of potential violations of the FCC’s rules,” Media Bureau acting chief Michelle Carey writes in the decision. “Based on the record before us, we conclude that nothing in that record creates a substantial and material question of fact as to whether [SBS] possesses the basic qualifications to be a Commission licensee.”
While the alleged indecent broadcast may not have been enough to see SBS lose a license for one of its two New York FMs, the financial penalty has drawn praise from the anti-indecency watchdog Parents Television Council. “This announcement today should serve as a serious shot across the bow for all broadcast stations, whether they be radio or television, reminding them that the airwaves are public property,” PTC president Tim Winter says.
SBS’s settlement agreement contains what essentially is the first indecency fine issued since Ajit Pai became Commission chair more than two months ago. Winter says he’s heartened that under its new leader, the FCC has established its commitment to enforcing broadcast indecency rules. “While we would have preferred to have the FCC adjudicate this case on its merits, clearly the Enforcement Bureau deemed the complaint worthy of action,” Winter says. “This ‘plea bargain’ deal puts all broadcasters on notice that the law will be enforced. That law applies both to radio and TV broadcasters, regardless of the language used to communicate the indecent content.”