Protests over Governor Scott Walker's anti-union budget proposals continue to resonate in Madison's media environment. Right-wing radio host Vicki McKenna has made a point of attacking public employees on WIBA-AM, Madison's bastion of reactionary talk radio. Earlier this month, McKenna 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 Gov. Walker unveiled his "budget repair bill." One of McKenna's fans has a phone number that is one digit off from that of a Madison public school teacher; a misdial resulted in his receiving a voicemail message from another teacher encouraging sick leave to protest the bill.
The fan forwarded the voicemail to McKenna. On April 11, she played it on her radio show (listen to the first audio clip at right). McKenna also sent the recording to Isthmus blogger David Blaska, who published an "exposé" on the incident in conjunction with her broadcast. The following day, McKenna had Blaska on the program (listen to the second clip) 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.
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 promoted 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 polemics. She's confirmed that she did not give WIBA consent to broadcast her misdirected message. Since the coordinated broadcast-and-blogging was unleashed, the woman has also received threats serious enough to notify 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. I have already done so, but that does not preclude others from adding to the FCC's enforcement case -- and the more complaints the agency receives, the more likely it'll hold WIBA's feet to the fire.
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.
John Anderson, a native Beloiter, has studied the FCC and broadcasting for more than a decade. He just completed a Ph.D. in media policy at the University of Illinois Institute of Communications Research and holds a Master's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to entering the academy, he was a commercial radio journalist for ten years, concluding his tenure at the Wisconsin Radio Network. He publishes diymedia.net, and a previous version of this story was published here.