The FCC released an order today, fining a broadcaster $20,000 for misrepresentations made in its license renewal application about the completeness of its public inspection file. The fine issued in this case was not a fine for the fact that the file was incomplete (two stations in the cluster had each already been fined $4000 for the actual public file violations), but instead the fine was issued because the licensee had certified in its renewal application that the public file had been complete and accurate at all points during the course of the license term. This case highlights both the need to keep an accurate public inspection file, and the need to carefully consider all certifications made in FCC applications. Incorrect certifications can lead to fines and potentially even more severe sanctions if the FCC finds an intentional misrepresentation or lack of candor – the potential loss of a license. Admitting a minor paperwork transgression like an incomplete public file will result in a fine – an inaccurate certification which appears to try to hide a problem can lead to far more severe consequences.
In this case, the FCC found that the licensee had not maintained Quarterly Issues Programs lists. The licensee claimed that its obligations had been met through a listing of public service announcements that the stations had put in their files. The FCC rejected that argument, citing the requirement in its rules requiring that Quarterly Issues Programs lists contain "a narrative description of what issues were given substantial treatment" by the licensee as well as the programs that treated each issue. In addition, the time and date of broadcast of each program, as well as its title and duration, is to be provided. A simple list of PSAs does not meet these requirements – as it does not list the issues addressed, much less provide the detailed program information required by the rule. For a summary of the Quarterly Issues Programs list obligations, and a model form to be used to meet the obligations, see our most recent memo on the subject, here. Remember, the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists are a broadcast station’s only official record of how they have served the public interest needs of its community, so be sure that adequate attention is paid to the completion of these forms.
Perhaps more troubling in this case was the fact that the licensee, despite having twice been fined for public file violations during the course of the license term (and having paid the fines, essentially admitting the violations), nevertheless went ahead and certified that the public file had been complete at all times during the course of the renewal term. While the licensee tried to justify its answer based on the belief that the PSAs covered the requirement, the fact that it had already paid fines on this issue seems to point to the fact that the licensee was simply sloppy in filing out the license renewal, not paying attention to the certifications in the renewal and their actual meaning.
Similar inaccurate public inspection file certifications have previously caused broadcasters to be fined and, in the case of one California noncommercial station, the designation for hearing of a license renewal application to determine if the station’s license should be revoked. Once again, it is important to emphasize that the underlying misconduct, if admitted by the licensee, would have at most cost the licensee a fine of a few thousand dollars (and, in this case, as fines were already paid, quite possibly nothing more). But the inaccurate certification, in and of itself, is one of the most serious offenses in the FCC’s jurisdiction. On any FCC application, it is much better to admit a violation and take whatever penalty may follow than to try to hide or obscure the violation.
This case serves as a warning to all broadcasters – honestly is the best policy, and care in completing FCC forms to avoid any appearance of dishonestly is essential.