The FCC proposed that a noncommercial broadcaster be fined $10,000 for its failure to allow a visitor unquestioned and immediate access to the public inspection files for 6 noncommercial radio stations operated from the same main studio. Though the delay in allowing access was only a few hours long, that delay, together with questions asked of the person who requested access as to his reasons for the inspections, led to the Notice of Apparent Liability issued by the FCC. In the decision, the Commission reminded all broadcasters that their obligation is to make the file available immediately upon a request made during normal business hours. The person inspecting the file cannot be asked why they want to see the file, or for their business or professional affiliation.
In this case, an individual apparently representing a competing broadcaster showed up at the station at about 10:30 in the morning. While it was disputed as to whether the individual immediately asked the receptionist to see the public file, or whether he simply asked to talk to the general manager of the station, the Commission found that both parties agreed that, when the general manager was reached by phone, the individual did ask to see the file. The general manager did not immediately tell his staff to allow inspection of the file, instead telling the visitor that the manager would return to the office at about noon, and the file could be seen then. It was that delay – putting the visitor off for a few hours- that the Commission found was sufficient to trigger the violation. In the decision, the FCC went further to make this case instructive for broadcasters by laying out some of the specifics of the obligations of a broadcaster to allow access to its public file.
When the visitor returned to the station at 12:30 to view the file, the Manager still had not returned, but he did instruct his staff to provide access to the file. But, apparently, both the manager and the receptionist asked the visitor whether he was from the FCC. In the decision, the Commission notes that, while a station may ask for identification from a visitor for security reasons, it cannot ask the visitor coming to view the file why they want to see the file, or whether they are affiliated with any organization or group. During normal business hours, access must be provided, with no questioning of the motives of the visitor. See this article about a similar FCC case several years ago.
While the FCC did not fault the broadcaster for any other issues about completeness of the file or other access issues, the decision did generally note several of the other requirements. It noted that, where a studio serves as the main studio for several stations, each station must have a separate public file. The Commission also noted that some or all of the file may be maintained on a computer, but that access to the computer must be provided to the visitor (in this case, the quarterly issues programs lists were on a computer). The licensee must also provide copies of the file to the visitor upon request – at cost (here no charge at all was imposed).
This case illustrates the continuing importance of the public file to the FCC. It also serves as a great reminder to radio broadcasters of the need to educate their staff, especially those greeting the public, about the obligations to provide immediate unquestioned access to the public file to members of the public who ask to see it during normal business hours. Even a delay of only a few hours can be costly, as illustrated by this case. For more information about the public inspection file, see this article about a presentation that I did for several state braodcast associations about the public file rules.
TV broadcasters, because most of their files are online, will have less concern about these obligations, though the rules still apply to the remaining paper portion of the public file – the letters from the public about station operations, and the political file for those stations in smaller markets where the online political file is not yet an obligation. Be careful to observe these obligations, as the FCC may well be ready with a fine.