The Federal Communications Commission determined last week that radio company Saga Communications, which owns the radio station 95.9 FM in Ithaca, had “falsely certified” a permit for construction that was meant to free up the airwaves for locally-owned Finger Lakes Radio Group (95.5 FM). The FCC determined that a $10,000 “forfeiture” was the appropriate punishment for the misrepresentation.
When FLRG moved to corner the Ithaca radio market in 2007, Saga was required to dial down the operations of its translator — a secondary form of radio transmission that simply reflects or repeats the signal to a new audience. Because federal law mandates a station’s primary transmission be undisturbed by a translator, Saga was required to allow FLRG’s primary station to take precedence on the 95.5 airwave.
FLRG has criticized Saga for not properly removing the signal as an auditory impediment to 95.5 FM and for intentionally violating federal law. Saga, meanwhile, has held that they have done everything necessary to ensure their signal does not interfere with FLRG’s full power location.
Although finding that Saga wrongly claimed to have “constructed the [new] station’s modified facilities as authorized,” the FCC decided that Saga’s violation was not done “knowingly,” despite citing FLRG’s claim that Saga’s action was “intended to deceive.”
Gary Smithwick, Saga’s legal counsel, admitted that his company had not been in compliance with its construction permit, but maintained that Saga’s signal “doesn’t interfere with [FLRG’s] full power location” because the Saga translator “changed [its] frequency … to one watt.”
Smithwick insisted that the error was “just an honest mistake,” and accused FLRG of being motivated by “commercial jealously … I don’t see why else they would devote this much time and effort otherwise.”
FLRG President Alan Bishop disagreed, saying, “We’re trying to protect the integrity of our signal … Obviously, what they constructed had the potential to interfere.”
“Driving up the hill to that station … I could hear things other than our radio station [on our airwave],” Bishop said. “Smithwick is in Washington D.C., [so] it would be hard for him to tell [whether Saga’s translator was interfering with FLRG’s signal].”
As Smithwick did with FLRG, Bishop accused Saga of insidious motives: “Their goal was to keep that signal on the air no matter what it took [and] keep [their] monopoly in the market.”
“They have engineering people and management to know exactly what they applied for and what they were supposed to build … They should have their license removed,” Bishop said.
Bishop also denied that FLRG would be motivated by commercial jealousy, citing the independent rating agency Arbitron as saying that 95.5 “is the most listened to radio station in Ithaca.”
The FCC’s ruling does not require Saga to pay the $10,000 fine, but solely suggests “apparent liability.” Smithwick stressed that the FCC letter is “not an order,” and that “there’s a procedure route [Saga] can take [to] respond.”
Although admitting that Saga’s “application had incorrect information,” Smithwick does “not necessarily [admit] that Saga is liable for forfeiture, and at this point no decision has been made by how this case is going to be handled.”
Smithwick even said that the ruling had been a “net-plus” for Saga — perhaps the only thing he and Bishop agree on. Smithwick said the ruling allows Saga to “increase power of translator station from one watt to 250 watts” in a new translator across town.
“That ruling was solidly in their favor,” Bishop said. “Now they’re going to be moving anyway [and we] certainly expect them to … do it correctly this time.”
The $10,000 fine could have been higher — as much as $32,000, according to radio-info.com — had the FCC ruled Saga’s violation was done “knowingly.”
The false data Saga had reported was “about the locations of various transmission antennae,” according to CNYRadio.com.