FCC Ready To Move Public Files Online

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(by John Garziglia) This Thursday, the FCC is voting on extending online local public file requirements to radio. As you may recall, several years ago, television stations were required to convert over to an FCC web-based local public file for most local public file materials. So, what does all of this mean for you?

The FCC is proposing to do the same for radio. Like TV, the FCC’s radio proposal is to require an upload only of documents that are not already in the Commission’s own database. Existing political file materials would be exempted from the online file requirement, retained in the station-based local political file for the remainder of the two-year retention period.

The FCC is proposing to begin the transition to radio online public files with commercial stations in markets 1 through 50, as defined by Nielsen Audio, that have five or more full-time employees. The online file requirement for other radio stations would be postponed until later.

The question that most radio stations are likely asking in advance of the FCC’s release of its new rules is how much time will be given for affected stations to abide by the new rules? For TV, the Commission required that the online public file be utilized 30 days after the FCC’s decision was published in the Federal Register and OMB review was completed. If a similar time schedule is followed for radio, there will be at least a couple of months prior to a required implementation.

The FCC has proposed to require stations to include in the online public file the station’s main studio address and telephone number, and the email address of the station’s designated contact for questions about the public file. In addition, the FCC proposed that a radio station with a main studio located outside of its community of license be required to list the location of the correspondence file and existing political file, as well as the required local or toll free number, on the online public file website.

We should see more specifics on all of this, and possibly a few variations on the FCC’s proposals above, when the Commission presumably adopts the online public file requirement for radio this Thursday.

While the visceral reaction of many radio broadcasters is to be wary of an online public file requirement, this change may lead to other FCC web-based rule changes that could advantage radio broadcasters.

Much of the FCC’s rationale for the radio local public file rule changes rest upon making it easier for the public to access information concerning its broadcasts. The FCC specifically notes the burden of having to visit a station’s main studio in order to review local public files.

If the FCC is going to change its local public file rules to require Internet posting, maybe it is also time for the FCC to review other mid-20th century regulatory anachronisms which place burdens upon both the public and broadcasters. Two such anachronisms immediately come to mind.

For instance, if the availability of the Internet is widespread enough for local public files, perhaps it is also time for the FCC to recognize that the Internet has become – in the 21st century – the primary source for seeking employment vacancy information, and recognize that broadcast stations using the Internet to distribute job vacancy information is sufficient for compliance with the FCC’s EEO wide outreach requirements.

Indeed, the FCC looks foolish in saying out of one side of its mouth that posting job vacancy information on the Internet fails to achieve wide dissemination, while proclaiming out of the other side that all local public file information must be posted on the Internet for easier access. Broadcast station job seekers would be far better served by having every radio station job opening posted on the Internet rather than having to rely on job vacancy information published in a “shopper” or in a thinly-read newspaper.

Additionally, it may be time for the FCC to recognize that requiring broadcast stations to have a main studio with two warm bodies during business hours serves no public interest purpose and is a regulatory dead weight on smaller broadcast station operations. In our 21st century, station personnel may be reached by telephone, cell phone, text and email. Most radio station websites are visited far more frequently by the public than any physical main studio location. From the public’s perspective, a radio station’s main studio with live bodies present during normal business hours has little benefit to the quality of programming presented.

As a legal matter, if our government is to require broadcast stations and other FCC-regulated media to post on the Internet the actual rates at which political time is sold, then possibly newspapers, magazines, billboards and websites should be likewise required to report political spending in the same way as broadcast stations. Or, if it would be a First Amendment violation to require this of newspapers and magazines, maybe it is time to consider whether our broadcast political rules are constitutional. If it would be contrary to the First Amendment to make newspapers sell political space at a lowest unit charge, or to require newspapers to report advertising purchases by politicians and issue advocates, then maybe it is equally contrary to the First Amendment to require broadcast stations to do so.

Finally, online public files may diminish the dangers for random or planned violence enabled by Commission-mandated access to local public files at a station’s main studio. The FCC dictates that a local public file must be available to any person who visits a radio station, without an appointment, and without identifying oneself other than to give a name.

This FCC-created danger may be the best reason yet for the FCC to consider doing away completely with both the expectation that in today’s age of internet and wireless telephones that a radio station maintain a physically-accessible local public file at its main studio location, as well as the wide-open access that the FCC expects of a radio station to any member of the public who shows up. For anyone who has visited the FCC’s offices in the past decade, such unfettered access is disingenuous for a government agency that requires a picture ID and mag scan just to go through the 1st floor FCC entrance.

Hopefully, part of the online local public file rule change will be that the FCC starts to re-think its mandated casual public access to broadcast station facilities.   It is possible that future tragic violence against a radio broadcaster might be forestalled if the FCC changes its required free-access to local public files as a logical outgrowth of requiring online local public John Garziglia - Radiofiles.

John F. Garziglia is a Communications Law Attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Washington, DC and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 by email at [email protected], on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/johngarziglia on Twitter: @JohnGarziglia.
And you can check out John’s Local Public File Checklists for 2016: www.garziglia.com/checklists

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Jackson McCarthur? When ‘the public” starts paying John instead of his clients, then John can write with “the public” in mind. It’s the “We The People” types like you who cause the hesitation among good broadcasters in posting some data on-line.
    I had a stoner walk into our station lobby at 6 am one day demanding to see a copy of the FCC Rules. I told him to contact the FCC and showed him the door.

  2. The “public file” is a joke. The “Public” don’t give a ….. My first station came on the air in 1983–since then only one person ever asked to see the public file: a fellow broadcaster who was curious about a frequency change we were doing.

    The only folks who will use an online public file are your colleagues in D.C.–for purposes of harassment and extortion. And the enforcement bureau (i.e.–the bag man for Congress) –looking for trivial matters to levy gargantuan fines.

  3. One last item that remains as an exception, John, is the requirement for commercial stations to retain for three years, letters and emails from the public, which must be available for in-person review. Those files (for other reasons) did not go on-line for commercial TV stations. Thus the public still has the need, or indeed a right, to come to a station and request a review of what is left of the paper file. Non-commercial broadcasters do not have this mandate. Isn’t it time to revisit this requirement for commercial broadcasters? -Bob

  4. Disappointing, John. The AM & FM airwaves are public airwaves. That means your clients who “own” radio stations may broadcast over the public airwaves as a privilege, not a right. So, go back and read what you wrote, This time remember who owns the airwaves; the PUBLIC. How many of your recommendations are more in the interest of your clients than the public? *We The People* -JM

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