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While I am not an expert, I believe that there are (or at least used to be) several types of specialized “radio operator” licenses that you can obtain without any examination, but simply by mailing in a registration form with a fee (like the $45 you mentioned) to the FCC.
Some examples include licenses for aviation, “business band,” marine, and other specialized two way radio services. I believe that these type of licenses may be required simply if you operate these specialized radio services. These operator licenses generally do not grant licences to the stations themselves. There may be separate licenses for the two way stations themselves.
The probably is more info on the fcc web site. Try a search on their web with the name or form number of the application form that you saw.
What you saw probably was not a license for commercial broadcast operations.