There are some readers who have noticed
the change regarding the FCC’s public file requirements. Television stations in
the top 50 Designated Market Areas, and stations affiliated with the top four
national television broadcast networks, must begin to upload their public files
to an FCC maintained website. All other television stations must comply within
This change will produce unprecedented
public access to information about television operations. TV stations have been
readying compliance to this new requirement since details were published in
April, following a long legal battle.
But don’t turn the page and walk away
just because you’re radio. While the new rules only affect television
immediately, a close reading of the commission’s reasoning would suggest that
the rest of us broadcasters be prepared to follow along in our turn.
The history behind this dramatic change
came to public light as part of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in October of
In what must have been a fairly radical
proposal at the time, the requirement that TV stations place their public files
online was adopted in 2007 in a Report and Order. This proposal was challenged
by many, including the NAB and Walt Disney Corp. After the issue was stuck in
court challenges for several years, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed
Rulemaking that vacated the 2007 Report and Order entirely and set up the
requirements for online public files being implemented today.
While some may find these public
announcements from the FCC to be a bit dull, I have to admit that often I’m
intrigued; they afford an internal look at the philosophy of governing and
industry regulation straight from the most important players in our industry.
As a public process, all affected parties are
invited to comment either for or against proposed rule changes. In making a
final order, the FCC must address all public comments and explain why it may
accept or reject a particular reasoning. It is this process of proposing, accepting
comments and finally deciding on a set of rules that is at the heart of how the
FCC regulates our industry.
The commission goes to great pains to
explain why it feels public file materials should be public in ways that make
television station operations more transparent than any time in previous
history. Its reasoning is that by putting the public file online, the
information can be accessed by virtually anyone over the public Internet at no
expense. This is, in the end, the only way to truly make public files an
instrument of full and transparent disclosure. For those of us who are used to
having complete control over access to the public file, and may indeed have
used public file requests in the past as an early warning system of possible
license challenge, this is indeed a new world order.
Reasons given to justify an online
public file form the heart of the Second Report and Order. For example in
paragraph 12 there is this quote: “…making public file information available
through the Internet should facilitate public access and foster increased
public participation in the licensing process.” Or in paragraph 13: “We also
agree with commenters that access to the public files has been inconveniently
(and unnecessarily) limited by current procedures.”
But in particular it is interesting to
note the discussion about a station’s political file, which includes a record
of all political advertising sold and who was the purchaser. The commission
specifically points out the legal precedent of the Citizens United vs.
Federal Election Commission case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that
political advertising was a form of free speech and thus could not be
The FCC responded that at the very
least, information about political advertising would become as transparent and
publicly available as possible to provide an essential support to the
Given the strength of the FCC’s
commitment to transparency, it seems only a question of time before all
broadcasters, including radio stations that also benefit from political
advertising, will be brought into this ruling. That said, the FCC has only
hinted at the possibility so far and has no timetable for requiring radio
stations to move their public files online.
For a more detailed view of this discussion you
can read the Report and Order yourself. I’ve posted the link at radioworld.com/links.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
For many in the radio industry I’m sure
the first reaction to such a requirement will be anger and denial, similar to
what occurred amongst television broadcasters.
The commission has tried to address some
of the more practical objections and minimize the burden on broadcasters. Most
importantly, the FCC will take on the burden and expense of maintaining the
file server system that is used to make these materials available online. It
has taken pains to accept just about any standard format possible for uploading
information without the requirement of reformatting them to the commission’s
requirements; for example, the most common document formats such as Microsoft
Word or Excel are acceptable. Additionally, any materials that are available
online from the FCC itself are not required to be included in the online public
file, such as coverage maps, applications for license, ownership reports or
copies of the Public and Broadcasting manual. Letters and correspondence to the
station are exempt for privacy reasons, but must still be kept as they are
today in a correspondence file at the station.
Given the reality that an online public
file is in the first stages of implementation it would seem a wise choice to
review that aspect of your station operations with an eye to preparing for the
But don’t be in too much of a hurry.
Indeed, the FCC ruled that some NCE FM stations associated with public TV
stations that had voluntarily requested a chance to participate in the online
public file would not be permitted to do so. Their reasoning: If too many
stations try to join in at once it may overwhelm the process. That decision
doesn’t seem to offer much hope that radio stations will remain forever exempt
— only that when they get the process figured out and operating smoothly it
will be extended to everyone.
As always, your comments on this and any
other radio engineering topic are welcome. Does this sound like the end of the
world to you or a long delayed step forward?Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.