June 13, 2012

A small sign of the times...

By Larry Miller

Another setback for journalism has occurred with news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune is cutting back to publishing a print version of the newspaper just three days a week.  That sad news was delivered by visiting southern friend Jimmie Ray Gordon, whose late husband Bob was a respected veteran wire service reporter and newspaper editor in the south.

I confess that one of my long-time pet peeves has been the abandonment of local community service obligations by radio stations in favor of becoming part of a larger corporate operation.  Typically, such stations rely on satellite programming and minimal overhead to meet the bottom line profit expectations of shareholders.  Serious local news coverage is often the first “belt-tightening” step.

Clearly, technology evolution and a bad economy have significantly and negatively impacted many newspapers and broadcasting stations – particularly those that were not well run in the first place.

It was no big surprise, for example, to learn that KZMX Radio in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was slapped with a big fine last month (May 2012) by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for its “failure to make the stations available for inspection” and for “failure to operate in accordance with station authorization.”   The forfeiture was set at $21,500.

For those of us who remember the early years of the station, then KOBH-AM in Hot Springs, it stirred memories of a station that was once well-operated and reached a pretty good audience across the Black Hills and beyond, including many listeners in Wyoming and Nebraska.

We don’t know about the other properties owned and operated by Mt. Rushmore Broadcasting – licensee of KZMX-AM-FM – but the notice from the FCC seemed to make a compelling case that KZMX fits the profile of a station that “willfully or repeatedly fails to comply with…the provisions of the (Communications) Act.  They wrote the following in their Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture:

On Tuesday, May 31, 2011, in response to a complaint, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau's Denver Office (Denver Office) attempted an inspection of the Station KZMX(AM) and Station KZMX-FM main studio, during regular business hours. The Stations’ main studio is located approximately one mile north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and is clearly marked in large letters “KZMX” and a sign on the front door reads “Mount Rushmore Broadcasting.” The door to the main studio was locked and there was no staff or management present at the building. There was no contact information posted at the main studio location, consequently, the agent was unable to gain entrance to the main studio. The agent stayed at the main studio site for several hours, monitoring Station KZMX(AM), which was operating on the frequency 580 kHz, and Station KZMX-FM, which was operating on frequency 96.7 MHz.2 The agent telephoned multiple phone numbers, including two published phone numbers associated with Mount Rushmore and the Stations several times, but none of his calls were answered.3 During the time the agent was at the main studio location, an individual identifying himself as a former employee stopped by the main studio location and informed the agent that no one had been present at the main studio for more than a year.

On June 1, 2011, during regular business hours, the Denver agent returned to the Station KZMX(AM) and Station KZMX-FM main studio and again attempted an inspection of the Stations’ main studio. The agent stopped by the main studio several times throughout the day, during regular business hours. Each time, no employees were present and the agent was unable to gain access to the main studio.  Both Stations were in operation and during each visit, the agent telephoned several phone numbers associated with the Stations but his calls were not answered. The agent then visited a non-affiliated business in the area owned by the president of Mount Rushmore. After being informed that the Mount Rushmore president was in the area, the agent left his business card with an employee who agreed to have the president contact the agent, however, the agent never heard from the president.

You can go to the FCC web site to read their Notice of May 17, 2012 in its entirety, but it’s not a happy story.  Not for Mt. Rushmore Broadcasting, nor especially for the public, which apparently has been shortchanged by KZMX for a long time.

I received a copy of the FCC Notice from a long-time friend on May 19 – just a few days after it was adopted – so I thought I’d share it with a news outlet that purportedly covers news in the Black Hills region.   I sent a copy of the notice to the Rapid City Journal, which also owns the Hot Spring Star newspaper.  I was operating on the assumption that Hot Springs area residents were not likely to hear about the event from KZMX-AM-FM, and it seemed logical to me that the Journal might have an interest in the FCC action.  I e-mailed the notice to Kevin Woster at the Journal.

His response came two days later with a terse question:  “So what’s the issue?

I replied that I thought the Notice of Forfeiture from the FCC was self-explanatory.  He responded that he gets a lot of mail, indicating that he hadn’t bothered to open or read the attachment.

Kevin is a good reporter.  I think he’s an even better writer.  But I was disappointed that nothing ever appeared in the Journal. Perhaps it was a pure editorial judgment call that this $21,500 forfeiture by a federally-licensed station in Hot Springs was too parochial – that the significance of the story was minimal.  And  maybe he’s right.

I never saw a story appear in the Rapid City Journal about the forfeiture.  Admittedly, I don’t read the Journal from front to back, so maybe I missed it.  Nor do I subscribe to the Hot Springs Star, where it may well have appeared. 

When I cranked up various online search engines to see just who might have reported the forfeiture, I found only the FCC website and…….Wikipedia?

The fact that Wikipedia somehow captured and shared information about the KZMX forfeiture order – and not the Rapid City Journal or Hot Springs Star – may well be a subtle clue as to why traditional media are struggling…….and online sources are thriving.  Even the likes of Wikipedia.

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