In these challenging economic times, it seems like almost every day we see a notice that a broadcast station has gone silent while the owner evaluates what to do with the facility. This seems particularly common among AM stations – many of which have significant operating costs and, in recent times, often minimal revenues. The DTV transition deadline (whenever that may be) may also result in a number of TV stations that don’t finish their DTV buildout in time being forced to go dark. While these times may call for these economic measures to cut costs to preserve the operations of other stations that are bringing in revenue, broadcasters must remember that there are specific steps that must be taken at the FCC to avoid fines or other problems down the road.
One of the first issues to be addressed is the requirement that the FCC be informed of the fact that a station has gone silent. Once a station has ceased operations for 10 days, a notice must be filed with the the FCC providing notification that the station is not operational. If the station remains silent for 30 days, specific permission, in the form of a request for Special Temporary Authority to remain silent, must be sought from the FCC. The rules refer to reasons beyond the control of the licensee as providing justification for the station being off the air. Traditionally, the FCC has wanted a licensee to demonstrate that there has been a technical issue that has kept the station off the air. The Commission was reluctant to accept financial concerns as providing justification for the station being silent – especially if there was no clear plan to sell the station or to promptly return it to the air. Perhaps the current economic climate may cause the FCC to be more understanding – at least for some period of time.
However, several years ago Congress added a new consideration to the Commission’s evaluation of silent stations. That was the adoption of Section 312(g) of the Communications Act, that says that if a station is of the air for 12 consecutive months, then the station’s license will automatically expire. While that statute has since been amended to give the Commission the authority to reinstate such an expired license "to promote equity and fairness," it still provides a powerful deterrent against stations staying silent, as the Commission is reluctant to find that this exception is met. Even if there are technical reasons for the station being silent, if the conditions persist for a full year and no operation (even at a limited power) is restored, the license may well be forfeited. So, if you want to preserve the license, don’t allow a station to remain silent for a full year.
Another important consideration is the station’s tower lighting and marking. Just because a station is off the air does not mean that the owner can ignore the station’s tower. If there are requirements that the tower have obstruction lights, those lights must be kept operational even if the station is not. Any required tower painting must be kept visible as well. Station owners who have ignored these requirements have been fined by the FCC.
Desperate times call for desperate measures – just follow the proper procedures to avoid problems.