White House, FEMA investigated iHeartMedia over errant EAS broadcast

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A false Emergency Alert System (EAS) message broadcast last year to dozens of radio stations operated by iHeartMedia, the radio giant formerly known as Clear Channel, prompted an investigation by FEMA, the FCC and the White House according to documents reviewed by The Desk.

In May, the FCC announced it would levy a $1 million fine against iHeartMedia over an October 2014 broadcast of the syndicated “Bobby Bones Show” in which radio host Bobby Estell aired an audio recording of EAS tones as part of a segment.

The segment focused on an emergency broadcast test conducted by Comcast in the Washington, D.C. area that interrupted Game 2 of the World Series that year, angering baseball fans and causing a wave of criticism across social media.

The audio clip triggered actual EAS broadcasts for 59 stations that receive the “Bobby Bones Show” in syndication, according to previously-unreleased documents obtained by The Desk. In 21 of those markets, the stations that received the EAS broadcasts distributed them to other stations within the radio market. Nearly three dozen other stations not owned by iHeartMedia also relayed the EAS message.

Because of the way some radio stations receive EAS messages, the errant broadcast forced some stations that are not affiliated with iHeartMedia or the “Bobby Bones Show” to lock on to the distributing station’s signal for a lengthy period of time. A marketing manager in Columbus, Ohio reported being swamped with phone calls from nearby stations after iHeartMedia-owned WKKJ transmitted the EAS message from the show.

“WKKJ triggered other stations in the EAS chain and there wasn’t any (end of message) tone so their boxes locked in to WKKJ,” wrote the marketing manager according to a letter reviewed by The Desk.

The message, sent to a senior programmer at iHeart about 30 minutes after the broadcast, was one of the first communications sent between executives at the company about the errant transmission. At the same time, engineers at local stations throughout the company began alerting each other to the EAS message.

In an affidavit signed by Estell, the radio host confirmed he broadcast the EAS tones, saying he downloaded the audio clip from “Dr. Dave’s Ultimate Prep,” a service that provides entertainment programs with aggregated news reports and other media. The service is owned by Premiere Networks, the same company that syndicates the “Bobby Bones Show.” Premiere is a subsidiary of iHeartMedia.

Estell said he initially believed the recording to have come from the Comcast broadcast, only learning an hour later that it was an actual EAS message intended for future use. After learning the EAS message was real, Estell said he dismissed it, thinking it would not cause reasonable listeners to believe there was an actual emergency.

“I did not know until after the show had concluded that the audio was embedded with an actual EAS message or that it was relayed by any EAS equipment,” Estell said.

But the transmission did cause problems for many of the stations carrying the show in syndication. Now-alerted iHeartMedia staffers scrambled to figure out how to prevent the same incident from replaying in dozens of other markets, mostly on the west coast, that carried the show on a delay.

In a letter reviewed by The Desk, iHeartMedia’s Executive Vice President Robert Walls said the company was able to prevent ten stations in six radio markets from rebroadcasting the tones, with only one other station re-transmitting the errant message.

As iHeartMedia staffers were working to minimize the damage of the broadcast, government officials in Washington were trying to figure out how broadcast stations in dozens of markets triggered an false emergency message.

According to Walls, the company communicated directly with FEMA and FCC officials the day of the broadcast, eventually committing to produce a report on the company’s internal investigation into the mishap within 30 days.

That investigation revealed some emergency transmission equipment used by iHeartMedia radio stations had bypassed a time setting that would have ignored the false EAS message, but that some stations had elected to turn the time setting off in order to receive all potential emergency messages.

“As a result, many stations appear to have relayed the message as though it was an actual EAN message,” Walls said.

The investigation also revealed the source of the audio had come from an independent contractor used by “Dr. Dave’s Ultimate Prep” for obtaining and redistributing material to stations.

“The day of the broadcast, Premiere directed Dr. Dave pre service to terminate its relationship with the independent contractor that was responsible for distributing the EAN audio, and the prep service immediately complied,” Walls said.

In addition, Premiere worked with the prep service to “re-evaluate its editorial standards and controls,” and imposed mandatory training for all iHeartMedia production employees on emergency broadcasts. The training includes “a section about the EAS rules,” which iHeartMedia had not provided to production staff prior to the incident.

The broadcast was particularly egregious for the federal government which relies upon iHeartMedia to use its network of over 800 radio stations to transmit emergency alert messages across the country.

Three years ago, iHeartMedia approached FEMA about creating a single channel on the company’s satellite distribution system that would carry EAS messages to its 800 radio stations in the event of a civil emergency. Those messages, iHeartMedia said, had the potential to reach 190 million listeners across the country. The deal with FEMA was announced in May 2013.

Earlier this year, the FCC said iHeartMedia had agreed to pay the $1 million fine in connection with the errant EAS transmission heard on the “Bobby Bones Show.” Walls wrote that iHeart remained “committed to serving as a leader in the private-sector implementation of the Emergency Alert System” and that the company “deeply regrets this incident ever occurred.”