FCC Inspection Issues for Broadcasters - Auxiliary Licenses, Chief Operator Designations, and Tower Issues
What should broadcasters worry about from an FCC inspection? A few weeks ago, I was speaking at the Kansas Association of Broadcasters' annual convention. At the convention, I attended a session conducted by an FCC field inspector and the engineer who conducts the "alternate broadcast inspection program" ("ABIP") for the KAB. We've written about the ABIP program before, and how beneficial participation in that program can be for stations that want to avoid an FCC inspection and possible fine. At the convention, these inspectors talked about the issues on which the FCC is focusing in recent inspections. These issues are not to the exclusion of other common issues that we have written about before – like the need to keep the public file updated, the completion of quarterly issues programs lists, the need to maintain operational an EAS encoder/decoder, and the requirements for manned main studios. But there are other issues, including some that have not been a focus in the past, that now require broadcasters to be on guard.
One issue deals with broadcast auxiliaries. These are the licenses that broadcasters use in connection with their main studio operation. This includes licenses like Studio-Transmitter Links (STLs) that relay programming from the studio to the transmitter site and Remote Pickups (RPUs) that convey remote information back to the studio. During the summer, the FCC fined several stations for using auxiliaries without a license in amounts up to $20,000 (here and here), and issued a fine for $8000 for a station using an STL at a location different than that set out on the STL's license. Have you moved a main studio in recent times? If so, did you amend your STL license to specify the new studio location – which is most likely the new transmit site for the STL? If you haven't, and the FCC catches you, you may be looking at a fine.
Since the KAB Convention, I've noted that many stations and their representatives have been receiving emails from an engineer in California identifying himself as a "frequency coordinator." These letters identify perceived issues with auxiliary stations at many stations around the country. Take these letters seriously. They are from a group of private-industry engineers who have come together to work on broadcast auxiliary and other engineering issues. The group has commented in a number of FCC proceedings dealing with auxiliary licenses. As "frequency coordinators," they are in charge in particular geographic regions of clearing new auxiliary stations through a program that the FCC designed many years ago to have volunteer private industry engineers coordinate broadcast auxiliary uses in their areas, to make sure that applications for new auxiliary licenses don't cause interference to existing users (we have previously written about their services here). These coordinators cannot protect auxiliary stations that don't have complete or accurate coordinates on file with the FCC. Thus, if your auxiliary is not in the FCC's database, or is listed at incorrect coordinates, these frequency coordinators may clear an application for a new user which will interfere with your operations. The emails being sent out by this group are identifying situations where stations don't have all the required information about the transmission or reception coordinates for their auxiliary licenses. Look at these letters, check your licenses, and if they need correction – do it – not only to avoid fines but also to protect your operations from potential interference from new auxiliary users.
At the Kansas meeting, many questions about "Chief Operators" of broadcast stations were also raised. A Chief Operator must be designated in writing by each broadcast station. The designation needs to be posted with the station's license at the station. The operator is basically the person who is in charge of insuring the technical operations of the station. While no particular technical training is necessary, the Chief Operator must review the station log each week to insure that it is accurate. The log includes all notes about technical operations at the station – logging EAS tests, tower light inspections, deviations in technical operations from licensed parameters and similar occurrences. At FM stations and low power nondirectional AM stations, the chief operator does not need to be a full-time station employee, but can be a contract engineer. At the high-power AM stations (above 10 kw), directional AMs or TV stations, the Chief Operator does need to be an employee. While the designation of a Chief Operator may not be the first thing for which an FCC inspector will fine a station, if any other technical violations are discovered, you can be sure that the failure to have designated a Chief Operator will be an additional violation for which the station will be cited.
Tower issues are also on the FCC hit list – as inspectors can look at tower issues that pose a safety issue even if the station has already passed an ABIP inspection. Having tower lights that are out without proper notification and timely remediation (see our article here), having secure fences that don't completely enclose the tower site (see the article here), not having a tower registration number posted in a location visible from outside the fence, and the failure to update a tower registration after a sale of a tower, all are issues that must be carefully observed to avoid fines.
Stations should look at these and other operational issues to make sure that they are in compliance. Reviewing the FCC's Self Inspection Checklists can be helpful – as is the ABIP program run by state broadcast associations. ABIP is like buying insurance against an FCC surprise inspection as, if you have an ABIP inspection done, the FCC cannot do a drop-by inspection on routine technical matters except where there is an actual complaint or a clear safety violation. Obviously, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – especially if that pound may come with an FCC fine attached.
Update 11/12/2012 - On the broadcast auxiliary issue, I should mention that there are also commercial organizations that provide frequency coordination services, especially helpful where there are many licenses to coordinate, or in areas where there are no volunteer coordinators. Information about local coordiantors can usually be obtained from the Society of Broadcast Engineers ("SBE") in an area.