Monday, February 20, 2012

Joe Harris: Bad DJ

I was reading Radio-Info and caught the second half of a story I wish I'd had been paying better attention to.  It turns out that Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris put the Benton Harbor city LPFM radio station, 96.5 WBHC on eBay. It turns out that it's not legal to do that, not even a smidgen. The FCC actually calls it a scam in their own documentation here. The auction was listed with a starting price of $5,000. It ended on February 9th with zero bids. Even today, the FCC still has not received notification for an STA for the station to remain silent. The FCC has taken no action, probably trying to stay out of the very ugly politics. More here and here and here. The expired eBay listing is here.

The city was operating with huge budget deficits so there is certainly a valid argument for cost-cutting. Harris was of the opinion that closing down the radio station could save the city $10,000-20,000 a year. The station hasn't been in the city hall basement all that long either. Benton Harbor had applied for a license in August of 2000, and the FCC granted a CP on June 17, 2003 for the 100 watt station.  They signed on in November of 2005 shortly after Thanksgiving. Harris shut down the radio station on January 1, 2012, just about 50 days ago. Let's review: How did this happen?  There's a lot of back story.

It's hard not to get a bit political when something like this goes down.You may or may not be aware, but in 2011, the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder [R] signed a law allowing him to appoint an Emergency Financial Managers (EFM) to take over any city in his state with the power to overrule all local governance.That's a situation with all kinds of implications. Essentially America practices democracy coast to coast... just not in Benton harbor. Snyder has used this new power in about a dozen cities. In Benton Harbor he used it to appointed Michigan's worst DJ: Joe Harris. Now I will admit that Benton Harbor clearly has some serious money problems, but is this legal? There's some debate as to Mr. Harris' power within Michigan state law. But there is no debate as to his sway over federal law—bupkis.  The law is clear. Allow me to quote the Broadcast Law Blog:
"Once a station has ceased operations for 10 days, a notice must be filed with the the FCC providing notification that the station is not operational.  If the station remains silent for 30 days, specific permission, in the form of a request for Special Temporary Authority to remain silent, must be sought from the FCC."
So the question remains.. who will file the complaint that earns Benton harbor a big 5-digit fine? Nassau Broadcasting Partners was served a $17,000 fine for a similar incident regarding 960 WPLY-AM in Stroudsburg, PA just this January. That sort of makes the imagined 5k payday seem a bit short-sighted.