The FCC requires each full-power broadcast station, commercial and noncommercial, to maintain a public inspection file. Even though this is a longstanding FCC requirement, there are always questions about what goes into the file, and how long those materials must be retained. The week before last, I conducted a webinar for about 20 state broadcast associations on the FCC’s public file requirements for broadcast stations. The slides from that presentation, outlining the requirements for the file, and the required retention period for many of the documents that make up that file, are available here.
While many broadcasters wonder if the public file is really worth the time that it takes to maintain given the nonexistent traffic to view that file at most stations, the FCC has continued to insist on its importance – fining or otherwise sanctioning stations for missing or late filed documents. See, for instance, this case admonishing a TV station for failing to get all of its documents into its online public file in a timely fashion (an admonishment is the equivalent of putting a demerit in the station’s permanent record that could be considered as a prior violation in assessing fines if the FCC finds the station in violation for some other offence). Particularly at license renewal time, a complete public file can be crucial, as missing documents lead to big fines (see, for instance, our articles here and here), and failure to disclose those missing documents can lead to even more harsh penalties (see our article here). So maintaining an accurate and complete public file is important. Quarterly issues programs lists are often the most overlooked requirement.
What are the requirements for the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists? Stations are required to maintain these lists for the entire 8 year license renewal period (meaning that, by the time their renewal is filed there will be 31 such reports in the public file (as the renewal is filed 4 months before the end of the license term, the 32nd report will be placed in the file soon after the submission of the renewal). Each quarter, a station is supposed to list the issues that are most important to the community that they serve. The issues are supposed to be identified by the station’s management employees through their interaction with the community and its leaders. In addition, the Issues Programs Lists should list the programming that the station has broadcast to address each of these issues that it has identified. The programming should address the issues in some substantial and meaningful way. While that issue-responsive programming can include PSAs and short announcements, no issue should be addressed solely by relying on those short announcements (see our article here about the FCC admonishing a station for doing so). Instead, news reports, public affairs programs and even entertainment-type programs that seriously address some important issue can be listed as addressing community needs.
Why does the FCC care about these lists? These are actually the only mandatory reports that show how a station has served the public interest in their community. Everyone knows that a station is supposed to operate in the public interest, and serve the needs and interests of its community. But many stations don’t realize that these Issues Programs Lists are the documentation that demonstrates such service. The requirement for these reports was adopted when the FCC abolished the requirement for ascertainment – a formal process that stations used to have to go through to regularly interview a specified number of community leaders and to survey the general public to determine what they thought were the issues important for the broadcaster to address through its on-air programming. The obligation to maintain the quarterly reports was also adopted at about the same time as the FCC abolished quantitative obligations for stations to broadcast specific amounts of news and informational programs – or their license renewal was subject to additional FCC scrutiny. So while the FCC abolished their formal process for assessing how the stations served the public interest, the requirement that they address these issues still exists – and it is the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists that documents that service.
With this obligation, and the obligation for stations to keep the many other documents that must be in the public file, stations need to exercise care in maintaining their file. With the online public file for most radio stations likely coming in the not too distant future (see our articles here and here), the requirements will gain more significance, as those who want to complain about what a station has done can inspect the file from the privacy of their own home (or from their own office at the FCC). And accuracy of the political file is even more important – see our articles here and here about complaints filed against TV stations based on alleged shortcomings discovered by reviewing a TV station’s online political file. So a little attention now can save significant headaches later.