Nailed 'Em: Station Flaunts FCC in Pursuit of Partisan Politics

A lightly-edited version of this article was re-published on the Isthmus Daily Page.
The ongoing protests in Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker’s plans to corporatize the state still resonate in Madison’s media environment. Unsurprisingly, the active involvement of unions in an issue that directly affects their future relevancy has been fodder galore for right-wing media pundits.
One of those pundits is Vicki McKenna, the host of some shrill demagoguery on Clear Channel-owned WIBA-AM, Madison’s bastion of reactionary talk radio. Last week, Vicki thought she had a sure thing in hand to punk organized labor – but it turns out she’s the one more likely to get stung.
The controversy began with a February phone call made shortly after Governor Walker unveiled his “budget repair bill.” One of McKenna’s fans has a phone number which is one digit off from a Madison public school teacher; a misdial resulted in him receiving a voicemail message from another teacher encouraging the taking of sick leave in protest of the bill.
Earlier this month, the fan forwarded the voicemail to McKenna. On April 11, she played it on her radio show. McKenna also sent the recording to Isthmus blogger David Blaska, who published an “exposé” on the incident in conjunction with her broadcast. The next day, McKenna had Blaska on the program to hype the implications of what she called the “collusion of an illegal strike.”
One small snag with this supposed “scoop”: it is clearly against the law for radio broadcasters to play telephone calls without the consent of all involved. Specifically, 47 C.F.R. §73.1206 states that “a licensee shall inform any party to the call of the licensee’s intention to broadcast the conversation.”
The Federal Communications Commission has construed this rule expansively to prohibit the rebroadcast of recorded messages, including voicemails, in the pursuit of upholding “the legitimate expectations of privacy and dignity of individuals.” Within the last three years, two radio stations have been fined $4,000 and $12,000 respectively for such violations.
In the context of media policy, although Vicki McKenna crossed the line, it’s WIBA – and its parent company, Clear Channel Communications – that’s liable for this abuse of the public airwaves. The audio evidence is undeniable. Furthermore, the station promotes the offending program in no uncertain terms (“Vicki plays the audio and takes your calls”).
Clear Channel, being the radio monolith that it is, could conceivably try to claim ignorance of McKenna’s actions, but the FCC won’t buy it.
To top it all off, the woman who left the voicemail has been detrimentally affected by McKenna’s and Blaska’s polemicism. She’s confirmed that she did not give WIBA consent to broadcast her misdirected message. Since the coordinated broadcast-bloggery was unleashed the woman has also received threats serious enough to contact the police about.
It’s unclear whether she plans to contact the FCC over the incident. However, now that actionable information is in the public domain, anyone can file a complaint.
It’s unfortunate that nobody but Clear Channel will likely be reprimanded for this, though it would be rich if the company docked McKenna’s paycheck for the fine they both deserve.