Last week, the FCC issued a consent decree entered into with a broadcaster who is the licensee of multiple radio stations, many of which were silent for long periods during the last license renewal cycle. As part of the deal, in order to get renewals for 12 stations granted, the licensee agreed to either surrender the licenses for 9 other stations or to donate them to nonprofit groups. Even the licenses that were renewed were done so only for a short-term (one-year), so the FCC could monitor whether these stations were going to be operated in compliance with the FCC’s minimum operating rules. We have written about cases where the FCC has penalized stations who sought the renewal of the licenses of stations that had prolonged periods of silence during the prior license renewal term (see, for instance, our articles here and here). This case provides much more detail as to the FCC’s thinking in these cases, and provides a warning to broadcasters who might take their stations silent for extended periods that they may not be able to justify to the FCC that they have served the public interest sufficiently to merit the next renewal of their license.
The FCC decision in this case notes that there have been numerous decisions warning broadcasters that prolonged periods of silence on a broadcast station, even if authorized by the FCC through an STA, may still raise substantial questions as to whether a broadcaster has served the public interest sufficiently to receive a license renewal. A broadcaster, in order to receive a license renewal, must show that it has served the needs and interests of its community of license and service area. If the station is off the air for but a few days when it pops back on to save its license, there is little time to provide any substantial service to the community (as we wrote here and here, there is a statutory provision – Section 312(g) – that says that stations that have been off the air for more than a year without any operation will automatically lose their license unless the FCC finds that the license should be reinstated to promote “equity and fairness,” prompting some stations to operate for just a few days each year to avoid invoking the automatic forfeiture of their license). So, while the FCC entered into a settlement with the licensee in this case allowing the preservation of some licenses, the extensive discussion of the history and underlying reasoning of the decision to require that the licensee forfeit numerous other licenses was clearly meant as a warning to other broadcasters to not sit on their spectrum and expect a license renewal. The next license renewal cycle for radio starts in just two years, so broadcasters need to be thinking about these issues in anticipation of the filings that they will soon be making. Prolonged periods of silence risk a station’s license – so be sure that you are operating and serving the public interest.