Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission fined the Chicago-based for-profit radio station WLS-AM $44,000 for running eleven 90-second labor journalism news segments paid for by Workers Independent News (WIN). Based in Madison, Wis., WIN produces full-length radio shows about labor struggles around the country; some radio stations choose to broadcast them, while WIN pays others to air them.
The FCC claims that WLS did not make clear to listeners that the spots aired in April 2009 — which detailed how stimulus money was funding an infrastructure project in Illinois, and featured a state representative — were paid for by WIN. The fine inspired the Radio Television Digital News Association to publish an article titled “Using ‘Fake News’ Costs Chicago Radio Station $44,000,” which WIN Managing Editor Frank Emspak says could lead to a potential loss of funds for his station.
The incident underscores the precarious nature of labor journalism in a corporate-dominated industry. Under FCC law, any broadcast content that is paid for by an outside sponsor has to be clearly identified as such. The 90-second segments that aired during WLS commercial breaks began with “Workers Independent News, I’m Doug Cunningham,” and closed with, “Doug Cunningham, Workers’ Independent News.” But the segment did not say explicitly that they were paid for by WIN.
“Under FCC rules, when you buy time as we do, you are considered an advertisement. Of course we buy the time, because no significant radio station in the U.S. wants to cover labor news.” says Emspak. “If you look … at the way labor [news] is treated, it’s not treated with the same level of respect as business news. Every single day on every single station there is a stock market report, but not a workers’ new story. Fox News isn’t fined by the FCC for being liars, but here [WLS is] fined for carrying so called ‘fake news’ about workers.”
The FCC said on Tuesday that that the radio station can appeal the ruling.
Emspak says the fine and negative publicity related to the Radio Television Digital News Association article could lead to stations not wanting to air WIN content out of fear of legal liability.
“The lawyers from radio stations get antsy about broadcasting what they consider controversial material, so it’s even bigger than us. They say to news directors that this trade news [publication] called it ‘fake news,’ and it’s no good,” Emspak says. “Before the FCC fine was announced, we had two radio stations that were interested in airing our news. Now we can’t get those stations to call us back. It feels like we might be on some sort of blacklist, but we’re not sure.”
The source of the WLS complaint is also unclear; the FCC said it does not reveal the identity of complaints made by individuals. Empsak is hoping that the attack on the content of his news program leads to a deeper realization of the need for unions to fund their own media instead of relying on corporate media.
“This insults all working people because it characterizes our content as ‘fake.’ The single most important thing that could come out of this is several hundred local unions agreeing to underwrite broadcast news programs and stations on a large scale,” Empsak says.